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Monday, May 11, 2015

The Joy of Campus Sustainability 2.0.1: From Humor to Humanity

It’s one thing to be in the moment.
It’s another to do something with that moment.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

Just up the road in Loveland, Colorado, Carla Wilson and her daughter launched Operation: Choose JoyCarla has terminal cancer. No problem. Laugh at it. Dress up in funny outfits. Bring joy to others—and yourself.

Laugh at death.

And last month for the first time in millions of years the planet exceeded 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. It will keep increasing, we know that. The result for people, critters, and the economy: very, very bad news. We know that too.

Cracked me up. I’m giggling.

Before you get all uppity with me, know that I’m not happy about this.  But the opposite of laughter is crying, I suppose. And if I let sadness sap me, there is a lot to be sad about.

So I try to enjoy that my work will get easier; people who once resisted sustainability initiatives will get swept aside or converted by the increasingly bad news for the planet.

And I chuckle that the nabobs are less relevant and artful if more vocal. Indeed, while the attacks on sustainability are getting worse, their arguments against action are getting worse too.

Last month conservative pundit George Will unleashed a diatribe lambasting campus sustainability in the Washington Post so ridiculous I just started cackling. He closed with an astonishingly preposterous proposal:

“So here is a proposal: Hundreds of millions could be saved, with no cost to any institution’s core educational mission, by eliminating every position whose title contains the word “sustainability” — and, while we are at it, “diversity,” “multicultural” or “inclusivity.””

So funny!  Can you see the fun John Stewart would have with that? Giggling just at the thought.

Giggling in the face of farce, and fate…

There's no place to hide when it comes from inside...

If we are going to successfully advance Sustainability 2.0 on our campuses, we can’t get it done if we’re dour and depressed. Perhaps step one is to redefine our goals; it’s not about saving the planet. We can only do the best we can; we can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. Make something better today, help somebody today.  Tomorrow: repeat.  

This is not surrender, this is reality.

Likewise, we are not hot Hollywood models of a better future if we’re bringing a poopy present. Get outta grumpy and get into glad. How?

As we did in Part One of Campus Sustainability 2.0, we asked our Sustainability Medical Team to diagnose and prescribe treatments for the business, and for us. The result?

“Burnout is a big problem among sustainability professionals in higher education. Part of that may arise from a sense of a lack of control and a field that is unlimited in scope. But we can learn to control our response to challenges through mindfulness training. Major corporations are using mindfulness for stress reduction and leadership enhancement.”

Indeed, mindfulness trains us to be in the present.  Joanna Macy, Ram Dass et al offer techniques aimed at keeping us in the present so we don’t spin our wheels worrying about a future that’s beyond our control or regretting a past where bad things happened.  In the Book 2 blog we boasted Boulder’s best bumper sticker: “I’d rather be here, now.”

How to get here, now? My sense is that getting yourself into the present is not the hard part. Will come back to that. But one thing at a time.

Macy and others offer tangible and effective techniques and philosophies. And business is booming. Indeed, even among Google’s most popular courses is a mindfulness approach dubbed “Search Inside Yourself.” It’s so named because then people “won’t think it’s hippie bullshit,” says the course creator, Chade Meng-Tan, Google’s 107th employee. Waiting lists to get into this class typically run 6 months. Lot’s of others offer mindfulness, emotional intelligence, or similar trainings are out there.

There are many paths, grasshopper.

"And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days
Cause I don't need boxes wrapped in strings
And designer love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days"

Even without formal classes, pathways to greater happiness may be literally standing right in front of you, says one of the SMT team:

“I look forward to hearing the ideas of others on how to make campus sustainability more fun, happier, and inspiring, although I suspect that many of our students have already figured that out and we just need to look to them for inspiration.”

Indeed for many Millennials in our student body, happiness itself is the new success. By choice or default, they are jettisoning car ownership in favor of bus, bike, and walking. They are living in mixed town centers instead of propagating impersonal sprawl and the costs that come with. They are eschewing marriage in favor of “other relationship forms.” They are rejecting consumerism, materialism, the 1%, big banks, and the list goes on. An interesting millennial piece in Forbes puts it this way:

“Success for my generation will be a shift from business as usual to something Umair Haque calls “Betterness.” A transition from climbing the ladder of unfulfilling societal expectations and consumerism to blazing a trail with a life guided by a holistic focus on well-being, community and sustainability. Following a better path won’t be easy but as we lie dreaming under the glow-in-the-dark stars of our childhood room we know that it’s at least one dream worth fighting for.”

What I get from students today is a keener need for self-determination. They don’t want to be owned, manipulated, indentured, exploited, or lied to—and they see all of the above all around so they are cutting it off, living with minimum ties that create dependencies. Just enjoying the freedom of being in the moment. Sort of a minimalist carpe diem approach.


"It takes a thought to make a word
And it takes some words to make an action
It takes some work to make it work
It takes some good to make it hurt
It takes some bad for satisfaction
La la la la la la la life is wonderful"

OK, back to work. Assuming the rest of us can refocus on being present, then what? How to use your new chill to be more effective on campus?

Well, we need to raise our game. We need better professional development. We need broader skills. Passion and a joyful countenance is a good start, but we need to speak more languages, the SMT opines:

“This year, I interviewed a number of graduates from the relatively new masters-level sustainability programs at ASU, Michigan and elsewhere.  I was impressed with their passion, but I was concerned by the lack of business-related acumen.  I have to look to executive MBA and legal continuing ed programs to get the sophistication I want in my own continuing ed.” 

Topics like corporate risk management; quality assessment and assurance, strategic planning, and executive leadership training will help fill us out as more effective and happier change agents.

“Sustainability directors need the special sauce – whatever its ingredients – to bring people together and commit resources (intellectual, financial, etc) to new ideas.   Some accomplish this with important titles and degrees that convey power and potential.  Some have track records to point to. Others have forceful personalities and know how to make people feel needed.   Whatever the skill set: Effective sustainability directors are entrepreneurs who can get people to try something new by making the risks appear manageable.

Ah, the special sauce. We all have some. It’s made by mixing equal parts of passion, values, personal niche, drive, and engineered serendipity into a broth that nourishes others and us.

It’s one thing to be in the moment. It’s another to do something with that moment.

Some of us must move into new jobs. One well-centered friend recently left a campus sustainability gig where he was incredibly successful to work on innovative ways to supply campuses with renewable energy. That’s his sweet spot. Another friend moved between a couple successful campus-related gigs but just returned to a campus NGO he knows and loves—and has worried about. He will make a huge difference in an important organization.

Others cook the special sauce inside existing posts. I have worked to expand our sports sustainability practice into a global leadership position that has global impacts—and it has stimulated expanded sustainability initiatives in many new places on and off campus. And it energizes me.

Wherever you go, there you are.


While I am unrepentant about writing yet another blathering blog (you’re still reading it so shudup), I hope you have forgiven me for laughing at 400ppm CO2. After all, laughter emboldens action, the shrinks say:

“We can use humor to put our fears into perspective. Humor addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them and then laugh them away from the door. 

Humor is, of course, the one thing that fear cannot abide: Laughter banishes anxiety, and can help replace fear. Laughter is a testament to courage, or at least a manifestation of the wish for it, and courage is stronger than fear. We need a strong and healthy dose of focused humor in our lives every day.”

In my Book 2 world, I feel like I’m in extra innings—and if you are lucky you feel that way too. Then fun and humanity are laughing matters every day. Sustainability 2.0 focuses me on aligning my work with campus mission. And getting it all done requires raising my game. That’s the plan, for now.

So, did you hear the one about the climate scientist, the sustainabilista, and the recycler who walked into a bar? The bartender said, “what, is this some kind of joke?”

Thank you Carla Wilson for Operation: Choose Joy.


Coda: As always, thanks to the fine men and women of the SMT for helping me fake substance in yet another inscrutable blog post. I will never reveal your names lest you become sullied too. And apologies to the Goo Goo Dolls, Jason Mraz, and James Taylor for ripping off their better works to prop up my not so much. No apologies to George Will, he's just a hack like me...

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