There appears to be a hidden dynamic operating among sustainability professionals that they are somehow superior to those they accuse of being stuck in the destructive paradigm of consumerism and profits maximisation.
They believe they have seen beyond the limitations of classical economics and are therefore more visionary and enlightened than most. They recognise the dangers society faces and know the way out of the mess.
I am concerned that this attitude is making social, environmental and economic change more difficult to embed in corporations because rather than operating from a place of compassion to others, which can have the effect of developing a common understanding and bond, we often blame and attack individuals or companies who “just don’t get it”. The danger is that executives might then withdraw into their shell, and from this defensive position come to the belief that whatever sustainability initiatives they create will be criticised and therefore it’s better not to bother in the first place.
I experienced this first-hand the other week when running a workshop for a multinational company. The executives present were feeling hard done by and lacking in motivation because there had been no external acknowledgment from NGOs and others of what they considered to be pioneering sustainability practices in their sector.
Worse still, I have recently seen a leading-edge sustainability strategy at one major company start to break down because the chief sustainability officer (CSO) just expected employees to support the process of change. What instead greeted him was a campaign to sabotage the initiative. After deep soul-searching, the CSO recognised where he had gone wrong: he had over-compensated for his own need to achieve, rather than going at the speed of change that others could live with.
What brought this to mind was my decision to re-read a wonderful book by Pema Chödrön ahead of delivering a speech at this week’s Sustainable Brands conference on the role of spiritual narratives in creating deep change.
In the book, Start Where You Are: a guide to compassionate living, Chödrön tells the story of her upset about a drug and alcohol addict, with whom she had been working, going on a bender and how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, criticised her for her angry response: “You should never have expectations for other people,” he said. “Just be kind to them.”
She writes about her realisation that setting goals for others can be aggressive and are often based on “really wanting a success story for ourselves. When we do this to others, we are asking them to live up to our ideals.” So while sustainability professionals might feel driven by a deep sense of purpose to make the world a better place, they would do well to remember to master their own psychological vulnerabilities, rather than project them on to those they judge harshly.
It is only by transcending our own inner insecurities that we can form a sense of authority to help to encourage companies and individuals to turn away from the safety of what they see as tried and tested ways to success. As someone once told me: “If you feel you are enlightened enough to go and change the world, just go and spend a week with your family at Christmas.”
I speak about this challenge from personal experience. In recent months I have been struggling to respond in a responsible manner to a situation where I have felt under threat. Rather than respond in a creative way, what got activated was the child within me that feels powerless and unrecognised. From this place of emotional overwhelm, I withdrew my energy, blamed those I felt were responsible and generally felt hard done by. But having worked on myself over the years, I also recognised the much quieter voice within me that feels softened by painful experiences and recognised that I could use the feelings of vulnerability to open my heart further, rather than close it down.
I spoke of this dualistic response in a recent speech I made at the Climate Group annual conference in London. I felt that it represented a broader challenge we all face as issues such as climate change and resource scarcity start to bite. Whether as individuals, families, communities, tribes, religious groups or countries, we are entering a period where we are likely to face to a profound choice. Either we will choose to withdraw into our defensive identities and seek to protect ourselves at the expense of the common good, which will inevitably lead to conflict and war, or we deal with our judgments, reach out and discover our common humanity.
What helped to clarify my thinking around this was meeting Google’s head of mindfulness training, Chade-Meng Tan, who reminded me of how quickly we move to judging others. He said that “If you don’t have the foundation of peace, joy and kindness it is very hard, day to day, to always do the right thing. If somebody says something negative, your first thought is, ‘That guy is an asshole’ and you want to defeat that guy. So it takes a certain amount of practice to say, ‘Wait a minute, that guy’s just doing his job. He’s a good person and so I have to work with him by understanding why he’s doing that, and then help him succeed.'”
I was handed a postcard the other day by a friend, which carried a simple message: “Peace in myself, peace in the world.” As those in the sustainability field go into battle to save the world, they might want to remember that the best defence in life is to be undefended.
Jo Confino will be speaking this week at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego on “Spiritual narratives: The missing dynamic in sustainable transformation”.
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