By Jaimie P. Cloud
For the past three years, I’ve taught a required graduate course on the Ethics of Sustainability in the Design for Social Innovation Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. During this time, I’ve witnessed the unintended results of educating about unsustainability. Although my students come from all over the world, they have at least a few things in common at the beginning of the year. These young people report feeling depressed, hopeless and guilty. Many of these students, believing they hold degrees in sustainability, have become experts in its opposite--unsustainability. They are nervous at first at the thought of discussing the ethics of sustainability. They tell me that their professors were very effective at pointing out that it’s too late, that we’ve already exceeded too many critical thresholds and that there is no way back. Game over?
My response to them is always the same, “I think what your professors have actually been saying is that they cannot imagine and they don’t know how we are going to pull off the mid-course correction that is required if we want human and other life to flourish on Earth indefinitely. I think this has more to do with their imaginations, mental maps and knowledge base than it does our fate.” Game on.
Of course we need a mid-course correction. Of course the situation in which we find ourselves is unsustainable. That is why we educate for sustainability. That is why we need to do the math, create social contracts, and get creative. Game on.
This is usually the moment I evoke the wise words of Buckminster Fuller or Albert Einstein. Fuller encouraged us all to reframe the challenge: “We have to envision a future that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” He goes on to say, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, we need to build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Einstein reminded us that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same thinking we used to create them”. He challenged us to think about our thinking and to think differently if we want to get different results. Game on.
Here, the students inevitably ask, “Do you mean there is hope?” Watching them shift in their chairs and brighten a bit, I nod affirmatively: “We all have a role to play, whether we know it or not. Everything we do and everything we don’t do makes a difference. All we have to do is take responsibility for the difference we make. We must be intentional about it and read the feedback over time to see how close or far we are from where we intended to be. And if we’re doing it right, we keep doing this, successively approximating our next move on the way to the future we want”. Now they ask the question that as an educator, I love the most: “But what can we do?” Game on.
Emphasizing that we each have our own unique contributions to make, I explain, “It depends on who you are. I am an educator, so I educate for the future we want. You are designers so I assume you will design for the future we want. If you are a farmer you will farm for the future we want, and so on.” I let them know that it’s not just the big moves that matter, but also the small decisions we make every day about how to spend our time and our money, what to eat, and how to engage in dialogue, learning and democracy: “Everything makes a difference.” Game on.
Around this time, I like to tell a story my friends Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe wrote about in their book, Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. In the book, the authors document their travels around the world, discovering practical visionaries who are making a difference in world hunger, sometimes one place at a time. In one chapter, they describe a remarkable interview with the government official who lead the mid- course correction to eliminate hunger in the city of Curitiba in Brazil. Frankie and Anna recount a moment when, as they spoke effusively about the amazing work this woman had done, she began to cry. Thinking something had gone wrong with their Portuguese translation, they began to apologize. She then exclaimed, “No, no, it’s not you—it’s just that, well, it wasn’t that hard.” Game on.
We can learn a lot from planet Earth. It runs on sunlight, wind and sugar. Creating value with each materials cycle, it produces no waste. The .1% of the species that have survived here over time are adaptable and contribute to the health and regenerative capacity of the systems upon which they depend. This planet is beautiful, strong, resilient and a fun place to be if you like living. It’s an exquisite place to live. Actually, it’s the place to live. This is not a drill. There is no planet B. In the words of Sister Joan Chittister, “We must go on when we least think we can. We do not have the luxury of despair or fatigue. Those who risk nothing, risk more.” Game on.
How can we make a mid-course correction? Watch Jaimie talk about using design thinking to create a sustainable future in the video below:
Here are a few things to read and click on to get or keep you going:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Edited by Paul Hawken / Drawdown.org
The American Dream and the Economic Myth by Betty Sue Flowers
Biomimicry, by Janine Benyus