The Genius of Human Appeal

by | Oct 18, 2011

Like many these days I’ve been thinking about the passing of Steve Jobs. I’ve been wondering why he had such an impact on society far beyond his work in technology. Among the many tributes and obituaries written recently I came across this quote. It struck me as directly relevant to our need to move forward together to create a more sustainable world. In describing the process that created the Macintosh computer, Jobs remarked,

“Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

It is that blending of the technical and the aesthetic, and the human desire to create meaning in our lives that has in many ways been missing from our discussions about sustainability. In much of our language and imagery we talk about what’s going wrong as opposed to talking about our aspirations and hopes for the future.

I’ve said often that we must understand the dialectic nature of the term sustainability. It is often understood as a technical issue with political and economic barriers. The antithesis, however, suggests that sustainability is in fact a political issue with technical and economic barriers.

I am not talking about partisan politics here, but instead the give and take that occurs in most groups, and all societies, as people are trying to figure out what they need, what they value, and how they rank their priorities. It’s a struggle for hearts and minds so that each individual can see how becoming more sustainable increases the quality of his or her life and the lives of those they love.

Mr. Jobs described his philosophy as trying to make products that were at “the intersection of art and technology.” His genius lay in his ability to understand and appeal to our human emotions in order to encourage different behaviors. People are passionate about Apple products to the extent that they describe them as “life-changing.” Imagine the impact if we were to find the way to engender that kind of passion around the notion of sustainability.

But here is the first problem. For most of the world, the concept “sustainable development” is an abstraction. The word “sustainability” means very little to anyone who’s outside of the sustainability field.

If our purpose is to make the ideas of sustainable development the context through which individuals will freely choose a path that ensures a longer, better stay on earth for more people, then the vision has to be about our lives and the lives of the people we love.  If the goal is for us to hold our institutions—public, private, religious, professional and social—accountable for behaviors that improve the future for all rather than degrade the future for all but a few, the goal cannot be an abstraction.  Instead, it has to be intuitively understandable and emotionally compelling, as well as based in good science and rational thought. We need a new language.

So, I propose that we frame the issue as something that is real to more people.  Maybe “Improving Life on Earth” or “Improving Humanity for Humans” or “A Better Life on Earth” could work. It has to be something that would work in a political campaign. The exact wording I will leave to the experts. The point is, as Steve Jobs understood so well, to be successful we must “Think Different.”

Gary Lawrence is Chief Sustainability Officer & Vice President of AECOM Technology Corp. 

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