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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/


  1. Dave, I don't see sustainability on its death bed on college campuses. What I am seeing is many schools who are absorbing sustainability into the overall culture and practice. I think this is exactly the right thing to have happen.

    Sustainability is not the new kid on the block anymore but it is strongly present. There are something like 3200 more colleges and universities who are not AASHE or STARS members. Sustainability is still nascent for them and they still need to be supported in their quest.

    This may be a quieter phase than the last several years, but on its death bed? Not hardly.

  2. Hi Mary

    For the full context of that observation, please see the blog "Death of Campus Sustainability" at

    We don't disagree.


  3. Another great post Dave -

    One thought on Davidz' observation that “some people will never be systems thinkers. Systems thinkers are born not taught.” Peter Senge often says (and I agree) - we're all born systems thinkers, and it's our mechanistic, silo/stovepipe/drill-hole educational system that reduces our inherent systems thinking capacity.

    As Tony Cortese often says "sustainability folks are usually systems thinkers in spite of our education, not because of it." To me, this is why higher ed is such a critical leverage point for creating a sustainable society.

    And I agree with the sentiment that the path to sustainability is lined with millions of small, meaningful conversations; so thanks for continuing to spark more of them.


    1. Hey Georges

      Thanks for your thoughts and kind words.

      I guess the research is split on systems thinking being Nature or nurture. I wish Senge would win that argument. But I have met more than a few folks that simply see everything as crystal clear black and white, no ambiguity, and no recognition of overarching forces. I wish they would become systems-thinkers, but my sense is that's a long shot.

      Either way, we do what we can, as you say, in small meaningful conversations with those that can do the math.

      Best to you and all yours,


  4. Waking up in a roadside ditch is better than NOT waking up in a roadside ditch I suppose...

  5. Wow--thanks for eloquently presenting what's been swirling around in my head for the last few weeks!