Sustainability's caste system can go to hell.
You couldn’t walk past a TV during November 2013 without being reminded that President John F Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago this month. Countless documentaries and reviews were aired.
I was nine years old when JFK fell. I remember where I was when the news broke. Two days later we watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. There were many dark days and months after that. The nation was despondent.
I had a few flashbacks this November.
But being reminded of JFK and all the news of 1963 has helped me better understand where we are today—and what we must do to move forward.
Indeed, it took all the upheaval of 1963 to advance the civil rights movement to new rules: Congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act that guaranteed, at least in law, full equality for all our nation’s citizens.
Fifty years later, the sustainability movement is in similar upheaval; one that is no less pivotal. People are dying from unsustainable practices, business integration of sustainability is waning, enviros are losing steam, some say sustainability itself risks becoming extinct.
So, just as the civil rights movement won breakthrough legal equality through its struggle, the time has come for sustainability to craft new rules to hopefully father breakthrough accomplishment. Given the likelihood of Congress or the UN passing new sustainability legislation is nil, we will have to write new rules ourselves.
Keep reading at your own risk.
Parallels and contrasts with 1963 that inform sustainability’s new rules
“If people feel respected, they will assume the responsibility to help others.”
-Curitiba, Brazil Mayor Jaime Lerner
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other African American leaders were on the march in every way. James Farmer led “Freedom Rides” in busses—resulting in violence that Attorney General Robert Kennedy stopped by calling in US Marshals. Then the riots in Birmingham, Alabama landed King in jail where he penned the most poignant meditation for equality he would write: the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” A few months later, the March on Washington was led by key civil rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and Whitney Young. King’s “I have a dream speech” blasted tremors in our souls felt to this day.
Reluctant in his early years, President Kennedy finally stepped up on civil rights like no president before him—or since. Calling out the National Guard to force the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama to admit black students, JFK pushed aside those state’s governors and a century of segregation. He then addressed a nation tired of watching blacks die in riots on live TV. In his remarks, Kennedy defined the civil rights crisis as a moral, constitutional and legal crisis that undermined our nation’s legitimacy. He pledged to submit major civil rights legislation to Congress that would guarantee equal access to public facilities, end segregation in education, and provide federal protection of the right to vote. Kennedy would not live to see his legislation passed—but his vice president Lyndon Johnson, a veteran Texas legislator, succeeded JFK and won approval of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
The point of all that history is to strike some parallels and contrasts with 2013.
For instance, these days we have demonstrations and violence related to climate change, environmental injustice, and sustainability going on all over the planet. The difference is that while the demonstrations like Power Shift and others are largely peaceful, the violence is seen in climate change-boosted typhoons in the Philippines, climate-induced drought in Africa that is killing millions, sea level rise-enhanced flooding in Bangladesh that may erase that nation and its people, and in neighborhoods next to pollution facilities across this nation where under-resourced people of color are daily sickened by the toxins of our times.
A central point of 1963 is to note that it took leaders from both the white majority community, Kennedy et al, and leaders from the African American community, King et al, to get it done. They effectively worked together as allies fighting the same enemy, discrimination, because it became morally abhorrent. Ultimately, they both gave their lives up to that mission because it was that important.
However, in 2013 we have not yet forged that alliance, that partnership, between majority and minority sustainability leaders to the level needed to combat the most overarching issue we all now all face, survival.
Think for another minute in big historical terms: recall that the 18th century’s chief moral challenge was religious freedom. Likewise, the 19th century’s major moral challenge was the abolition of slavery. The 20th century’s moral dilemma was equality. Now, looking at the figure at left (from Limits to Growth, a 30-Year Update, by Donella Meadows et al, 2004) it is clear that the 21st century’s major challenge is survival, period.
We’re in tough shape and our prospects are difficult, at best. We know these things.
We’re in tough shape and our prospects are difficult, at best. We know these things.
So, like in 1963, building partnerships based on the mutual self interest of survival should be as compelling as, say, loading critters on Noah’s Arc. Right?
Under present sustainability rules: not.
Today’s sustainability caste system is vacated under new rules
“We must live together as brothers -- or perish together as fools.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his keynote at this year’s AASHE Student Summit Markese Bryant implored the students to forge new partnerships with under-represented communities or risk the continued viability of the sustainability movement. Bryant made the case that 2013 is to sustainability what 1963 was to the civil rights movement. Make or break time. He’s right. Thank you Markese for pointing out this symmetry.
And just as 1963 was ultimately won because leaders from both spheres put it all on the line, the sustainability movement must learn to sincerely and respectfully partner with the many established and emerging leaders of color, because we’re all putting it on the line now.
Indeed, the white majority mainstream environmental groups have had their chance to go it alone, and here we are. We haven’t gotten it done. We are prisoners of our own white privilege. Consider:
• The 26 mainstream US environmental groups’ staff averages 95% white. (Washington Post)
• Campus sustainability staff is 92% white. (AASHE)
• US EPA staff is 69 percent non-Hispanic white. (NYT)
• Number of major US environmental groups whose leader is a person of color: One. Jerome Ringo (NWF, Apollo Alliance)
• Number of leaders of color of US environmental regulatory agencies: One. Lisa Jackson (EPA)
On the other hand, people of color lead the 45 major US environmental justice groups almost exclusively. Yet even when they are able to partner with mainstream environmental groups, they are kept in the shadows, tokens in a policy of appeasement.
This is outrageous.
“As the first and only female Hispanic appointed by a [California] Governor to serve on the South Coast AQMD Governing Board, I observed this far too often,” noted Cynthia Verdugo-Peralta, who is also President and CEO of SEETA, (Strategic Energy, Environmental and Transportation Alternatives, Inc), an NGO in Los Angeles. “When the large established enviro group "partners" with a minority enviro group, they have them in the background, not out front where they need to be.”
Not surprisingly, the EJ groups are out of the money too. The Washington Post reported that the environmental justice movement gets only 5 percent of the conservation funding from foundations, while mainstream environmental groups receive the rest.
So we have developed a sustainability caste system. That’s what Dr. King was trying to tear down.
Well, sustainability’s caste system can go to hell.
Sustainability’s new rules
"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 maybe we can work together."
Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, Australia, ca. 1970
from Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist and educator.
If sustainability has a shot at becoming an effective tool for creating change-- if sustainability is even to survive as a tenable doctrine—we’ve got to do things differently going forward.
So by the powers invested in me by absolutely no one, I decree these four new rules developed from my work or others:
- New Rule Number One
• Part A) The sustainability movement will fail under white-only leadership.
• White majority staff and membership of sustainability groups is not sustainable. Without diversity we will be ineffective and become irrelevant.
• However, white sustainability leaders don’t need to step down. On the contrary, we need our leaders to keep bringing it shoulder to shoulder with under-resourced communities and leaders of color as brothers in a fight for our lives.
• Part B) The best way to advance the sustainability movement is through respectful partnerships with under-resourced people and their leaders.
• Relevant new leadership and new creativity can only come from those most at risk, who understand the problems personally because they are being visited upon them and so are the most motivated to address them. We can’t make white privilege go away, but we can add diversity to our collective knowledge base and thus become smarter and more effective through full partnerships with folks on the front lines of the unsustainable world.
• [I’m calling Rule One the Markese Bryant rule. I have been flirting with these conclusions for several blogs, but Markese said it straight out.]
- New Rule Number Two
• Part A) The traditional definitions of sustainability are wrong—and are hereby repealed.
• We wrote earlier this year of Professor Al Bartlett’s legitimate criticism of the Brundtland definition. We hereby accept that criticism:
“Unfortunately, the Brundtland definition contains a flaw. It focuses first on the needs of the present, which have nothing to do with sustainability, and secondarily it mentions the needs of future generations that are vital for sustainability. This sets the stage for intergenerational conflict in which the present generation wins and future generations lose.”
• Likewise, the notion of the Triple Bottom Line and its oft-cited three-legged stool is ineffective and thus flawed. While both schemes include “social ___” (fill in the blank with equity, progress, concerns, etc) as part of their trinity, in reality we design our work primarily around environmental or fiscal factors and then may try to backfill social-whatever later. Besides engendering incessant intellectual arguments about how to characterize/visualize the three legs, these models don’t add any value to the work, do anything, or really define anything. They are hereby repealed.
• Part B) New sustainability definitions must prioritize people first.
• Thus we offer Bartlett’s substitution in place of Brundtland:
1. “Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
• Likewise, per Rule 1B above, we offer a definition of sustainability that embraces the three spheres of impact, yet clearly identifies where to start, and a focus from which sustainability will necessarily back out:
1. “Sustainability results from full partnerships with culturally and racially diverse groups and people that first advance social justice and also deliver fiscally and environmentally beneficial outcomes.”
2. It follows then that we hereby also outlaw all existing visual representations of sustainability’s traditional three-legged stool and offer in their place a visual consistent with the above definition:
- New Rule Number Three
• Sustainability programs’ goals and central message must focus on justice first.
• Consistent with the definition in New Rule Two B1 above and the admonitions of Tufts professor Julian Agyeman, sustainability groups and programs must clearly mission and label their activities as primarily justice-focused if they are to properly design them to attract partnerships from under-resourced communities and leaders of color.
• Therefore we offer some framing questions we might ask of our programs and projects that will help focus on social justice outcomes. These include:
1. Does the group or program clearly identify a social justice mission in its name or positioning statement? (e.g. an “energy conservation” program morphs into an “energy justice” program)
2. Are social justice outcomes planned for and designed in to the program from the beginning? (e.g. what is the purpose of a recycling program? To protect trees and/or protect people? Which come first?)
3. Are new partners and/or social justice constituencies involved in program/project design, planning and execution?
4. Does the program/project’s rationale include a social return on investment? How is that framed, tracked?
5. Does the project develop any “assets” as a result of conservation efforts that can be channeled into social benefits for under-served people or communities? (e.g. saved dollars from energy conservation invested in social justice activities)
- New Rule Number Four
• Sustainable happiness flows from people partnerships that improve the human condition.
• Challenges to our survival notwithstanding, we are no good to anybody dead, depressed or dependent. As I blogged previously, the benefits of work-life balance are happier and more productive sustainability professionals—and a greater ability to focus on meaningful partnerships with under-resourced groups and leaders. That gives us a shot—and a smile. The survival challenge can be daunting; however, a side effect of the new rules is that partnerships with under-resourced people yield a happiness return on investment. Consider:
• “If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand [or refuse to believe] 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.”
Author Paul Hawken in “Blessed Unrest”
The above New Rules offer a paradigm switch from eco-centric to people-centric. Nothing wrong with eco-anything, but it’s time to try something else. Maybe these will work, or not. I reserve the right to be wrong. But these new rules will vacate the sustainability caste system we have in place now. They have to.
That was then and this is now
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking
we used when we created them.”
Sustainabilistas use the above hackneyed quote frequently in presentations and arguments for more sustainable organizations, communities, policies, economies and societies. Perhaps we need to take that slide from our own PowerPoints and focus those projectors on our own work. Are we doing the same thing day after day and expecting different results? Might be time for a check in on that.
Indeed, we hear daily how our definitions are muddy and meaningless. We are starkly aware of the lack of diversity in our own ranks—yet we aspire to advance social justice. We are frustrated by the lack of influence we have on our own campuses. There’s a reason. We watch as other doctrines like resilience and permaculture carve out some of sustainability’s space. And we watch the dashboard needles of most major social, environmental, and economic systems trend poorly.
As a young boy of nine years, I remember the tumultuous time of 1963. I wasn’t in riots but I watched with millions of my countrymen as people died on live TV. Living in a diverse neighborhood I felt the vibe on the streets, in school, and in everyone’s talk that was unsettling, at best. I remember thinking I’ll never see 30 years old. It’s all going bad.
Fifty years later I acknowledge that the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 have certainly not cured the nation of discrimination, but they modeled a path to victory we must now seek. Dr. King departed from his usually eloquent speech to make that very pithy point, worth repeating:
“We must live together as brothers -- or perish together as fools.”