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Monday, May 28, 2012

Don’t wake up in a roadside ditch: Resuscitate campus sustainability by connecting the dots

By Dave Newport

It’s easier to connect the dots in peoples’ brains if each step along the way has a personal impact.

If you watch television at all in the United States, you will see a series of ads for a satellite TV service that comically connects problems with cable television to some sort of personal mayhem. The ads promote an in your face brand of systems thinking. One ad, the “Don’t wake up in a roadside ditch” segment goes like this:

“When your cable company keeps you on hold, you get angry
When you get angry, you go blow off steam
When you go blow off steam, accidents happen
When accidents happen, you get an eye patch
When you get an eye patch, people think you’re tough
When people think you are tough, they want to see how tough
And when people want to see how tough, you wake up in a road side ditch
Don’t wake up in a roadside ditch. Get rid of cable and use Direct TV.”

The company, Direct TV, has six of these type ads running and I chuckle at most of them. I want to rip off this same comedic formula for campus sustainability (if only I were funny…):

When you throw cans and bottles into the trash instead of recycling them, your kids do the same thing
When your kids do the same thing, they grow up wasteful and edgy
When your kids grow up wasteful and edgy, they elope with somebody wearing a dog collar
When they elope with somebody wearing a dog collar, you get depressed
When you get depressed, you stop caring at work and get fired
When you get fired, you can’t pay your bills
When you can’t pay your bills, you borrow money from the Mob
And when you can’t pay your bills to the Mob, your house blows up
Don’t have your house blow up: recycle!

Besides learning that I am not a great comedy copywriter, one lesson from these ads may be that it’s easier to connect the dots in peoples’ brains if each step along the way has a personal impact. Simply depending on altruism to stimulate systems thinking about the interconnectedness of our world--and sustainability’s role in it—may be a bit of an over reach. After all, even Muir, Darwin, and Thoreau all immersed and surrounded themselves for years with the systems they were contemplating—and it still took these bright guys decades to connect the dots.


Although there is not agreement on how to define it, or validate it, or measure it, the construct of  “systems thinking” is nevertheless a priority in academia, industry and government….

Starting a few months back, AASHE began promoting systems thinking among us “sustainabilistas” by “Connecting the Dots” in its weekly email news capsule “The AASHE Bulletin.” The goal of this series is to help readers understand “how sustainability encompasses and connects multiple dimensions,” AASHE hopes. And we certainly need that.

But after I listened again to environmental psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr talk about Community Based Social Marketing’s barriers and incentives approach to creating behavioral change for a few days in late May, I began to wonder anew about the typical boosts and hurdles that get people to connect those dots.

McKenzie-Mohr teaches to seek answers first in the literature—and indeed this is not a new question. The research includes noted heavyweights like Peter Senge, Peter Drucker, and even Erich Fromm.  And within the research is a finding by MIT’s HL Davidz that should make all sustainabilistas feel right at home:

“Although there is not agreement on how to define it, or validate it, or measure it, the construct of  “systems thinking” is nevertheless a priority in academia, industry and government."

Wow, sounds just like the definition of the term "sustainability." Nothing like a muddy definition to give us aid and comfort that we can somehow achieve a goal we can’t describe. We are used to that.

However, more comforting is the notion that an individual’s ability to perceive interconnectedness can be enabled and even enhanced. In “Enablers and Barriers to Systems Thinking Development: Results of a Qualitative and Quantitative Study,” Heidi Davidz writes:

The “three categories of key enablers of systems thinking development are experiential learning, individual characteristics, and organizational design.”

While top ranking is given to one of sustainability’s educational pillars, experiential/service learning, Davidz defines experiential learning far more broadly than what could be achieved in even the most ambitious service learning program.

“When asked about how “systems thinking” develops, respondents emphasize past experiences…. These include: on-the-job training, working on cross-functional teams, training and education coupled with application, key lessons learned, active mentoring, childhood experiences, and hobbies.”

Note that each of these systems-thinking enablers is based on some sort of personal experience. Lectures on conceptual systems or theoretical sustainability interconnections don’t get it done. Direct TV ads are spot on: it’s about personal mayhem—or personal achievement.

In terms of personal attributes required of systems thinkers, these include: tolerance for ambiguity, curiosity, openness, strong interpersonal skills, strong communication skills, ability to ask the right questions, ability to navigate complexity, and analytical ability.

These personality characteristics look familiar among sustainabilistas, but are they common amongst the general public? Don’t know that, but I have my doubts. Indeed, Davidz’ research finds that, “some people will never be systems thinkers. Systems thinkers are born not taught.” However, among those who have the capacity for systems thinking their natural predisposition can be triggered. That’s our job.

To put that challenge in a broader context though, Davidz finds the biggest barrier to systems thinking is an organizational structure that is highly stove-piped, silo-based, and reductionist. Can you say “higher education?”


Ever try to talk with your CFO about non-monetized soft costs, life cycle analysis, or license to operate? Ever try to talk to your diversity office about inclusive engagement? Ever try to talk to a curriculum committee about crediting experiential learning?

So, how do we move campus sustainability off its deathbed by connecting it to people, not just bunnies and trees? I suspect the answer is grounded more in our one-on-one, small scale conversations than in our broad hopes and efforts to change an academe organized in the very monolithic and cloistered structure seen as anathema to systems thinking. But those myriad small efforts add up.

In our individual work, we can test for someone’s propensity for systems thinking such as those traits identified above. We can evaluate personal barriers and incentives to sustainability such as McKenzie-Mohr teaches. We can use the vetting criteria identified by Bob Doppelt and his recommendations for overcoming personal and organizational structural barriers to sustainability.

We can work as mentors, advisors, and colleagues with small groups of likely students, faculty and staff—and urge them to do the same. It’s a pyramid scheme. We have a shot at creating real change when working with individuals. 

That's tougher when working campus wide because higher education's stodgy organizational inertia chokes off interconnectedness of disciplines, concepts, and even many administrative units. Ever try to talk with your CFO about non-monetized soft costs, life cycle analysis, or license to operate? Ever try to talk to your diversity office about inclusive engagement? Ever try to talk to a curriculum committee about crediting experiential learning? These can be difficult conversations.

Campus sustainabilistas are in a tough spot. Higher education blunts systems thinking, it's the nature of the beast. The highest achievement in the academe is a terminal degree in some reductionist academic pursuit. Interdisciplinary efforts swim upstream on most campuses. Yet we must work within that system to promote personal awareness of interconnectedness. We must articulate those interconnections in the programs and efforts we run every day. In a recent AASHE Connect the Dots essay, Cynthia Klein-Banai offered sound advice as to how to make that happen:

“There are examples of ways that we, as sustainability practitioners, can reach out to our communities and engage individuals in our work. How do we communicate that sustainability is not just a campus-greening effort? How do we communicate that to as broad a group as possible? We must strive to make sustainability the lens through which we talk about intergenerational equity, equal access and distribution to global resources. We must evaluate and connect our work in areas such as diversity to curriculum innovations….”

I think Direct TV nailed it: people think about systems when personal benefit or risk take them there. We have the opportunity to promote systems thinking and so sustainability every day with the students working with us, the staff we partner with, the faculty we reach out to, and the community members we engage with. It’s all about those personal, individual conversations; making them touch peoples’ lives--and that works even better when it's fun too:

When you only talk about solar power’s impact on the planet, you leave out its impact on people
When you leave out solar power’s impact on people, many people don’t have a reason to care about solar power
When many people don’t care about solar power, the planet suffers
When the planet suffers, those impacts are felt by lots of people
When lots of people feel negative impacts, they get upset
When lots of people get upset, they start riots and wars
When they start riots and wars, your taxes support armies instead of solar power
When you pay taxes for armies instead of solar power, you join the Occupy protestors and get thrown out of parks by the police
And when you get thrown out of parks by the police, you get clubbed in the head and end up in a roadside ditch
Don’t end up in a roadside ditch. Connect solar power to people.

Indeed, don’t wake up in a roadside ditch.


- Graphics courtesy of or borrowed from the Department of Systems Engineering and Engineering Management, Stevens Institute of Technology, MIT, and/or BartCo/

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Resuscitating campus sustainability. Part Two: Restoring respiration

 By Dave Newport

We can easily be seen as the white people from a white-privileged campus assuaging our guilt by giving away hand me downs to the needy, using them to feel better about ourselves.

Following The Death of Campus Sustainability published here in February, a couple months ago I covered a hierarchy of sustainability evolution on campus in order to better understand how and with whom to work on sustainability activities. Reaction was generally positive and encouraged more dialogue amongst us all.

Both previous blogs highlighted how the lack of social justice outcomes as principal elements in campus sustainability are threatening the viability of this movement.

This short blog is about a technique to revitalize sustainability efforts by adding social benefits to conservation programs. The technique goes like this:

By definition, conservation programs (recycling, energy efficiency, etc) conserve something, thereby creating an asset. That asset can be money, material, human resources, information, etc.

An approach we have tried—and sometimes works-- is to look for ways to channel those conserved assets into social benefits for worthy under-resourced populations.


Once upon a time, we just recycled computers. We collected them and shipped them to a recycler who dismantled them into their recyclable components and sold those materials to market. We made sure they weren’t shipped to nefarious vendors in developing nations where they were dismantled inappropriately. We envisioned the materials safely coming back to life as new computers. Life was simple.

Then one day our recycling guru Jack DeBell had another idea. Let’s go through this vast pile of stuff, mix and match the good parts, fix them up to working computers again, and put them into the hands of worthy under-resourced people. Classic reuse.

Now we have a sophisticated program where numerous computers are restored to state of the art, put into the hands of worthy under-resourced middle and high school students who have earned them, and together with college student mentors, they can use them to enhance their knowledge and academic achievement.

We conserved materials, created an asset, then redistributed those assets in a socially beneficial way. All three legs of the sustainability stool are well represented. The Computers to Youth Program is a screaming success.

This is probably not a new idea or particularly innovative--but it highlights a connection we needed to make with people that had gone under developed. Wish I had fifty examples like CTY.

We have added benefits to a vehicle offset program that funded bus passes for the needy, a compost program that helps grow food for the hungry, a weatherization program that tried to bundle social services together with CFLs.  Results for all: mixed.


We struggled at first until we confronted a reality:
unearned benefits are under-appreciated.

So that this blog doesn’t sound like a brag sheet (my resume) here’s where this approach has failed:

Some fraternities were helped with energy conservation upgrades and outreach on condition that they would donate a portion of the saved dollars to the community philanthropy of their choice. They chose rape awareness and alcohol abuse programs. So far so good. Likewise, the philanthropic motivation worked; they turned off lights and saved money. I bragged how we had put a face on sustainability. However, the frats donated a little bit of the money once, then forgot about it…and energy consumption went back up. Not sustainable.

Likewise, even with Computer to Youth, we struggled at first until we confronted a reality: unearned benefits are under-appreciated. When CTY first started, there was an air of Christmas about it. Freebies. We noted that some students receiving the computers were happy but, dare I say it, perhaps a little resentful.

Indeed, with all these "adding benefits" efforts we can easily be seen as the white people from white-privileged Boulder assuaging our guilt by giving away hand me downs to the needy. Some of those students may have felt like we are using them to feel better about ourselves. It can be seen as a condescending noblesse oblige feel-good instead of an opportunity for all to benefit.

And maybe they are right.

We have to fix that.

What we have come to appreciate is that adding benefits can work so long as both parties receive value in a dignified way. It has to be a social transaction in which the dignity of all parties is preserved, even enhanced. We have to value their role in helping us, say, meet our recycling goals, diversity goals, student engagement goals—and our goals of growing the movement into diverse stakeholder groups. We learn valuable intel from these encounters. We have to earn the right to be told, candidly, things we don’t know or we overlook.  

For instance, I will not soon forget the ass-chewing I got from a young African-American student that told me point blank: “Don’t come round to my neighborhood talking about your hippie vegetarian diet and expect us to quit eating hot dogs. We haven’t been working to pull ourselves out of poverty so we can afford a steak just to be told by rich white people that’s a bad idea.”



Human beings seem to default to the “every man for himself”
mode when stressed. And we are stressed.

Attitude and human dignity are key to effectively integrating social benefits in sustainability programs. They are more important than the tactical elements of the program itself.

I am reminded of the famous statement attributed to Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Note: Watson has said of this quote that she was “not comfortable being credited for something that had been born of a collective process” and prefers that it be credited to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.”

Talk about selfless…. But that’s what socializing sustainability requires: selflessness—and if you are reading this you probably are way selfless.

Now we try to focus programs on people first, conservation second. This is difficult. We are not programmed to think this way. Environmental professionals are trained to think about preserving the environment. Human beings seem to default to the “every man for himself” mode when stressed. And we are stressed.

In the formidable recent book, “Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability,” the authors posit that the single greatest conclusion of their research into this issue “is the central role of people as social, economic, political actors to demand and create environments and institutions that support human well-being.”

And few people are in more influential social, economic and political stations to be creating these systems than sustainability leaders. Campus and community sustainability forces can converge and create profound impetus for socially just, environmentally beneficial and economically equitable systems.

Bottom line: we can restore respiration to an ailing campus sustainability movement by joining forces with the community; focus outcomes on people and justice—and sustainability will back out from that. Want to build the health of campus sustainability? Work in the community, create partnerships, show up on the front lines of people-facing issues, bring assets conserved from the campus--and an attitude informed by the fact that we are all in this together. These campus-community partnerships can enhance dignity and create positive attitudes and outcomes—and, most importantly, hope.

If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

I am trying to learn to be optimistic, while I still have a pulse.


* Graphic courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education.