Behaviors, Not Words, Will Determine a Sustainable Future

by | Mar 12, 2012

I have spent a lot of time explaining myself this week. Explaining what I mean by sustainability, explaining what I mean by diversity, explaining what I mean by the difference between mitigation and adaptation. The operational words in the preceding sentence being “what I mean by.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We have a beautiful, rich and fantastically nuanced language. A language that permits us to communicate with each other using exactly the same words yet often those same words can mean vastly different things depending on the person hearing them. It has struck me again recently, as it has intermittently at significant points throughout my career, that words can be a great enemy of progress.

For example, I once worked with a number of national business organizations in the United States in an attempt to get them involved in a “National Town Meeting” on sustainable development.  This meeting provided an opportunity to articulate business interests and concerns and engage in a conversation with environmental groups and social justice groups outside of the “policy dispute as theater” environment in Washington, D.C.  This project was another of the many I’ve been involved with that went nowhere but from which I grew wiser.

I had great difficulty getting many of the business associations to show up. They were certain that if they showed up they would be “ambushed” by environmental groups and the media would not be fair to their point of view.  Another concern was that their participation might be inappropriately interpreted as support for the Presidential candidacy of then Vice President Gore.  These two concerns probably had some legitimacy, though most of the effect could have been mitigated.

A third, and probably the most important obstacle to their participation, was that their memberships were quite divided on some of the key questions to be addressed at the Town Meeting, like climate change.  They perceived that they would lose political influence with the Congress if the disagreements among their members became too public.

How split were they?  Some of their larger members were sponsoring the Town Meeting.  Some had even announced support for international actions necessary to reduce the undesirable effects of human behavior on climate.  After doing interviews with their members across the US, large business and small, I am convinced that the business community embraces most of the core ideas of sustainability. They just use different words and images.

They favor not wasting things, creating healthy communities, expanding justice in the world, creating a legacy for the future through current decisions. Their concerns are mostly how it is to be done and who should pay, not what needs to be done.

However, within the ranks of some the national business organizations that represented their interests in Washington, D.C., the world looked very different.  The most amazing example of this came when a senior official in one of the organizations informed me that human effects on climate were insignificant and the Kyoto Accords were a conspiracy by the Europeans and powers in the developing world to destroy US competitiveness.  What can one possibly say in response to a revealed “truth” such as this?

On the environmental and social justice side of the equation similar attitudes prevailed. Many of the representatives of national environmental organizations did not want business to participate in the National Town Meeting beyond providing sponsorship money and having booths in the exhibits section. Why? Because “business can’t be trusted.”  The environmental organizations already “knew” that whatever business said, their motives are to profit at the expense of the environment. Why provide them a showcase to tell their tales?

There are many trenches—intellectual, linguistic, ideological, mythological, informational, political and practical—between the words that we use to articulate the desire for a preferred, more sustainable future and the deeds that are necessary to make progress toward that future.  I think it is important that we understand the attributes of these particular trenches so that we can create some solutions that work.

First, the overarching reality is that, when given a choice, we are more likely to pick the information that reinforces what we think ought to be true.  Points of view and information that are contrary what we expect have a very hard time penetrating through our defense mechanisms.  I have worked with communities where progress was mired in the community’s desire to return to a sanitized version of the past that was much more real to them than the actual past. They were unwilling to consider that the future could ever be better than the past.

Second, in the process of planning a lot of words get used.  Many of the words have precise meanings for one profession or another and rather amorphous meanings for anyone who isn’t in the profession. I have discussed before the surprisingly controversial term “affordable housing.” To planners this term means housing units that can be afforded by those with household incomes less than the median household income for the area. It turns out that for most people in the community in question “affordable housing” means “housing for people who aren’t like us, who don’t share our values and are threats to our property and lives.”

It is not my goal to get anyone to embrace the words and jargon of sustainability. Experience suggests that most people are unwilling to change the way they conceptualize the world in order to fit within someone else’s framework. Many get quite hostile about it. In fact I would put myself in that category.  It is not my intent that you come to view the world as I do, but rather to find ways to reach agreement on the fundamental purpose of everything we do under the banner of “sustainability.”

You may by now be familiar with my penchant for using the words of those wiser and more eloquent than I to express my opinions. In this case, Einstein summarizes the issue in one brief, pithy sentence.

All these primary impulses, not easily described in words, are the springs of man’s actions.

These primary impulses drive all of us: fear, nostalgia, aspiration, self-interest, self-preservation. They are also powerful motivators to action if we focus them in the right way. If we can agree that what we all desire is a happier, more secure future for people, all people, then it does not matter if our actions are taken in the name of sustainability, diversity, mitigation, adaptation, affordable housing, insert-your-word-here.

If we are to understand the complex nature of our world in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, we must recognize that it is our behaviors, not our words, which will determine the possibilities for those in the future.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

Share This