As a professional working on climate change, you may find yourself faced with an uncomfortable challenge - people are looking at you, probably paying you, to present them with your expertise and to 'deal with' or 'address' the problem - yet, we are operating in a field where easy answers are hard to come by.
If they were - well, we probably wouldn't be in this situation.
There are various possible responses to this.
One of them is elaborating on the problem. If we can firm up the data around the problem, if we can create a BASELINE before we move on to actions, if we can make a solid assessment of where we're at so we at least know what we're dealing with - all those things can't be a bad idea. And they make perfect sense.
The second possible response is RESEARCH. We can commission reports and investigations in what other people, elsewhere, have so far firmed up and found out and create a solid overview for ourselves as to what our possible options for responses are. As complex as the topic matter may be, there have been plenty of good people working on this for quite some time. Getting an overview of best practice is - of course - also a good idea.
A third potential pathway is to start with the obvious. We know what some of the elephants in the room are that we have to tackle: our in-house carbon emissions. Our transport fleet. The energy efficiency of our buildings. Maybe even our own ISO certifications. What falls under BEST PRACTICE or into the 'it would be rude and hypocritical not to' category is also an pretty straight forward approach. And we need to look at that.
And then, there's the unfortunately still so important task of creating AWARENESS around the problem. The lobbying, the endless meetings and conversations with internal and external stakeholders to ensure everyone really understands the complexity, depth and breadth of the problem and in some way shape or form makes it their own. In fact, a very recent survey by Oxygen Consulting has found that sustainability professionals spent 60% of their time influencing and only 40% of time implementing.
All of that together is enough to keep you more than busy, particularly considering that your team - and your budget - were probably already too small before COVID - let alone now.
It is also a very solid recipe for frustration and despair.
Because here is the thing: While we're doing all this important work around getting a better understanding of the problem, of figuring out where we're at and creating a baseline and keeping an eye on the rapid developments around the world in this area and working on our next annual report or strategy - all the while running around championing and cheering (and sometimes, let's be honest: pleading) - the clock doesn't stop. We're still burning fossil fuels at the highest rate in human history and despite all of our hard work, we're barely managing to make a dent. Meanwhile, the feedback loops are accelerating and every passing day the permafrost may be melting a little bit more, releasing that little bit more methane that - at scale - may well outweigh our hard earned CO2 reductions if only we were able to accurately measure all of that.
It can drive you crazy (and yes, I've got an article about that coming as well).
But what can you do?
Here's an idea (and it may be a bit uncomfortable).
Ask (the right) questions.
The reason why this may be uncomfortable is because as the hired expert, you have skin in the game. People are paying you for answers and solutions, right - not to have a hypothetical conversation?
It's critical to provide solutions - as far as possible, see above.
But what if we're missing something major, something essential? What if we are actually a bit too much like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights? What if we were able to stop running if we could just easily skip sideways to get away from that beam?
The big question that is missing from all of this is: WHAT DO WE WANT?
As in: What do we REALLY want?
Aside from all the climate data, the uncertainty, the resistance, the budget constraints... we have to ask beyond the surface.
Yes, we want to reduce our carbon emissions (do we? Or is it a SHOULD?)
But what for? What do we really want? And why?
Truth is: reducing carbon is B-O-R-I-N-G (at least for most people). It's uninspiring. And it's inconvenient and, likely, expensive. So no wonder we're dragging our feet.
Yet, there's another truth - and that is, that, when given the opportunity, NONE of us wants to knowingly and willingly f*ck up our collective planetary future. None of us want to take away our grand children's chance to THRIVE. We just by way of cognitive dissonance accept that as a collective outcome of our combined activity which we feel powerless about. The tragedy of the commons.
Yet, what we really WANT are all good things, at the end of the day: make sure everyone is doing well, is looked after. At least those around us. We just happen to have chosen an unfortunate strategy and now we're caught in it's trajectory.
The uncomfortable thing is this: if we as sustainability leaders can hold off the solutions for long enough and dig deep enough to uncover the REAL answers to those questions, we may well find that we can enroll everyone else really EASILY into coming up with entirely new strategies to achieve those goals.
While we were focusing on the 'REDUCTION TARGET' we forgot that that's not ACTUALLY the target.
The target is wellbeing. The target is LIFE. The target is taking our kids for a walk in the mountains on the weekend and still seeing wildlife abound. The target is to MATTER. To be surrounded by people we love, to experience community and belonging. The target is to contribute something of meaning, to be remembered. The target is to feel SAFE and SECURE. The target is to ENJOY and appreciate life.
And for your organisation as a collective - isn't there a similar target? Yes, it may look like it's all about shareholder return - but how much deeper can we dig? What does that actually mean? How many ways are there to achieve that? And how do those returns EMBED into the rest of the world? When was the last time we have had that conversation with the individuals - the PEOPLE - concerned - and really heard WHY we need those returns? What are the dreams that fuel this requirement? What do they REALLY WANT?? What do WE really want?
In amongst all the busy work (which, yes, is important too) - don't neglect asking the right questions.
As humans we are wired to focus on the problem. It's what has kept us alive. It was the ancestors that walked through the jungle and looked out for tigers instead of smelling the flowers that lived long enough to reproduce.
But our human progress was always fueled by the dreamers. The visionaries. The people who created the invisible and made it visible. The people who asked "What else is there?" "How could this be made better?" "What do we want instead?" "What is the right thing to do?" - and kept asking until the answers came.
And the most powerful answers come from our collective genius, from our shared creativity and ingenuity - if we can manage to draw our minds away from the problem for long enough to engage that other side of our brain.
We can't create a great future if we can't imagine it first.
As leaders today, we have to lead with, love and embrace the questions.
What the result of this will be? - I don't know. That's my point.
Natalie works with sustainability leaders and change makers on maximizing their impact, increasing their influence and maintaining their sanity as leaders of the most important transition in human history. You can connect with her via firstname.lastname@example.org or www.imaginal.co.nz
Disclaimer: I do not know Jacinda Ardern personally - nor have I ever had the opportunity to speak with her (as much as I'd love to). This piece reflects my own observations, projections (there, I said it!) and opinions (that's different from facts!), not those of Jacinda Ardern or the Labour party. - I just hope she'd agree.
So I'm told never discuss taxes, politics or religion - well - here goes....
Last night the New Zealand Labour party, led by Jacinda Ardern, received a landslide result and a largely unprecedented mandate to continue governing this small country of New Zealand, way down at the bottom of the earth. To those who have followed the polling and public discourse over the last few months, the election results were not necessarily surprising, but possibly unexpected in their magnitude.
Once the results firmed up around the 49% mark - resulting in an absolute majority of parliamentary seats - it was time for Jacinda Ardern to address her party - and her country.
Jacinda Ardern's victory speech - well crafted as always - may, however, have communicated more non-verbally than what was actually said.
Unlike what we may have expected, who entered the stage was not a fist pumping, victory-sign-flashing politician on a dopamine high (imagine Donald in this scenario!) but an unpretentious, understated young woman with a mix of elation and concern written onto her face.
During the first part of her speech, despite the overwhelming success and victory, Jacinda Ardern seemed tired and somewhat exhausted, underneath the well controlled mannerisms and carefully crafted words. Explainable, of course, by the obvious demands of being on the 'campaign trail' for the last few weeks and months while fighting a global pandemic and - incidentally - ridding New Zealand of the virus for the third time in the process. Let alone raising a small child at the same time (which is enough to exhaust most of us).
But maybe there was more to it than that.
Through the words, I felt like I could glimpse a part of her that may have secretly been wishing for a different outcome, one that would have sent her to the opposition bench and thus out of politics - free to spend time with her precious daughter and family. As a mother, I would by no means be surprised - although I may well be projecting.
And, maybe, a part of her that may be wishing she did not have to step out to slay the dragon.
Of course this is not who she is and it is obvious that our "team of 5 million" is in need and desire of her attention and focus. So even though that part of her may well exist - there was never a question she's step up and stay committed to job at hand, 100%.
Aside from the obvious though, I wonder if there was another level of exhaustion. The exhaustion of acting out of integrity after being more or less forced onto a 'classic campaign trail' through a cocktail of Judith Collins, standard practice and public/media expectation. I am not sure if the possibility to radically change an election campaign really existed within the forcefield that surrounded it - but I am almost certain that, if Jacinda could have had it her way, the last few weeks would have looked radically different.
Which kind of brings me to my point. My sense is that last nights election results were more than a strong mandate for the NZ labour party and a vote of confidence in Jacinda Ardern's leadership. My hallucination is that last nights election results were a - possibly unconscious - majority vote for a new way of BEING.
Which brings me to the point in Jacinda Ardern's victory speech where she talked about the 'increasingly polarized times we are living in".
If there was one single biggest mistake that opponent Judith Collins made (and continues to make), in my opinion, it was to completely and utterly miss the writing on the wall - and forcing a campaign based on the old, outdated and boring-as-hell method of polarization.
More than anything, I imagine this being the cause of Jacinda Ardern's exhaustion - being forced by circumstance into a way of BEING that is not really in line with the identity she has created for herself. Despite being called the 'greatest communicator of our time', which makes up for a whole lot - there was, at times, almost a sense of disbelief or confusion about her during this campaign, as if what she really wanted to say was "I can't believe we're still playing this stupid game - just grow up". The fact that she was confronted with someone who not only seemed to lack alternatives, but even takes pride in being some sort of a dinosaur in that sense (who wants to be called the 'crusher' for goodness sake?!?) only seemed to increase that confusion, but also served to force her into inauthentic territory at times.
Here's the thing though - I believe, on some level, we ALL share this exhaustion - and the confusion - not just in New Zealand. We DO live in increasingly polarized times. The reasons for this are, I believe, manifold: If you have watched the "Social Dilemma" (highly recommend) you may have gained an understanding how our use of technology and social media results in amplification of our opinions - by design, but not necessarily by intent. Yes, our attention is being trade off like a rented mule, the intention is monetization of our attention (or - in Judith Collins' case: gaining the attention of voters) - and the tools to achieve that are more and more sophisticated ways of capturing that very attention. I don't even necessarily believe there's any malicious intent in terms of undermining our social fabric or pushing any particular agenda. What leads to this crisis is more likely the combination of our own negativity bias and our mind's tendency to look for threats (which has kept us alive as a species) which happens to be picked up and amplified by the algorithm because it happens to be driving our attention.
Combined, this takes us onto something of a death spiral - one which is quite likely not actually compatible with our model of democracy at all. The idea of democracy was conceived in much smaller communities with a bell-shaped distribution of opinions, leading to a somewhat moderate manifestation of collective intelligence. Currently we're messing with the shape of this bell curve through social media algorithms, flattening the middle and increasing the edges. What this means going forward warrants a whole other investigation.
What we are collectively experiencing as a result, however, is polarity exhaustion. We don't want to argue anymore, yet we also can't stop. We hate it, but we love it. We are trapped between our instincts to defend ourselves and our opinions as a matter of survival - and our equally human desire to find peace, to connect, to "love each other". (Apparently, Jacinda Ardern in her early days was heard to have said the Labour party was about 'love', greatly confusing some of those who overhead this statement).
So Judith Collins tested us all on that. She tossed the bait of polarity out there to see if we would take it. Unfortunately - as Ran Prieur in his 'parable of the violent tribe' identified so well - the aggressive paradigm always wins. Which left Jacinda Ardern with no choice other than to try and stumble along on that fine line between getting drawn into the drama or quitting the game altogether (which would have meant, again, that the aggressive paradigm wins).
So now what?
Here's my hope: I hope that we all - including Jacinda Ardern - can see these election results as an expression of desire, of collective positive intent. Yes, we're all still trapped in our old narrative - of polarity, of scarcity, of competition, of economic growth, of dog-eats-dog, of exploitation, of colonialization - all of that. But through their vote this weekend, NZers have expressed their intent, their readiness to try and do things differently. They have shown they are as exhausted by this game as Jacinda appeared to be - and ready to abandon the CERTAINTY of what is familiar for the chance of finding a new way forward.
This election was a vote of trust, a vote of hope. And a vote for choosing love and compassion over polarity - without really knowing what that means and even though polarity still has its' icy grip on us. It was a vote for our humanity 'in principle'.
The question remains what we'll do with it. And our eyes are on this young woman who is now faced with the challenge of TRUE leadership - leadership into a territory that is still completely unknown.
Up until now, coalition arrangements meant being politically constrained by the old story that made radical change practically impossible. With these shackles removed, the only limits to our possible transformation are our courage - and our trust.
I saw hope and joy return to Jacinda Ardern's face when she spoke about what lights her up most: a vision for a better world. Opportunity. Fixing what's broken. Coming up with a new story. That's when life returned to her face - and, with it, her determination, strength and courage.
Being courageous doesn't mean not having fear. And it would be plain naïve and stupid to not be feeling fear when tasked with leading an entire country, however small, out of converging crises of health, economic collapse, polarization and climate breakdown. It would be INHUMAN not to be absolutely fucking terrified. But our chance at true transformation is not determined by the degree of fear we are experiencing - it is determined by our degree of courage.
Yes, last nights' election results were a 'mandate to accelerate'. But what if they were more than that? What if they were an expression of all our courage - our courage to let go of an old narrative and make room for something new. Something unknown. Something we will have to figure out as we go, just like we had to figure out our response to COVID-19 as we went.
The opportunities lying ahead now are much much bigger than just 'economic recovery after COVID-19'. They are even bigger than 'building back better'. I'm tempted to say the opportunities ahead now are for a radical transformation that is nothing but short of a leap in evolution. And as I open my mind to the magnitude of this opportunity, Jacinda Ardern - despite everything she already is and stands for - seems like a female version of David in the face of the Goliath that is our entire industrial civilization. And my feeling last night was that, on some level, she sensed that too.
The thing is though - every opportunity is an opening - nothing more. It's POTENTIAL change. An open door does not mean we'll step through it. We could close it again. We could stick our head through and have a look, but not enter. We could turn around and look for another door. We could even pretend it was never there in the first place. The options are endless.
So one possible conclusion to this article could be to say 'Well, let's see what she makes of it' - but that would be completely and utterly diminishing myself and the role and potential of everyone around me.
A more exciting, more empowering and far more hopeful conclusion from last nights election results is this: Let's interpret them as a 'mandate to accelerate' for all of us.
Despite the fear, the uncertainty, the struggle we are all going through at the moment, a vast majority of us have expressed an intention to choose courage and hope - and a general willingness to not only embrace change, but to CREATE it. This task is not just the responsibility of one courageous leader - it's the responsibility of all of us to choose again, every single day, to ask ourselves who we TRULY are, who we WANT to be - and how we want our world to be. The responsibility to choose to focus on solutions, engage our creativity - and be courageous again, every single day.
So my call to action to myself and everyone who made that choice in the last few weeks is this: Lets get on our feet and stand beside our courageous leader. Lets accept that we won't get it all right first time, lets accept that we'll have to figure shit out as we go. Let's embrace setbacks and mistakes that will happen and use them to rapidly learn and adapt. Let's shift our focus onto what we WANT, not what we don't want. Let's allow ourselves, right now in this time, to DREAM up new ideas and solutions, to do the unprecedented, the unusual - so that we can all move forward together.
New Zealand is a tiny island at the bottom of the world. But we have opened a door stepping through which could set a precedent for a transformation that could well sweep the globe. Because I think it's not just us here who are exhausted and who are ready for something new.
Realizing this opportunity is not up to Jacinda Ardern or the Labour party - it's up to all of us. My sense is we have just elected a leader who is courageous enough to jump in with us for the ride. A leader who has already shown that she holds values that allow for true transformation. Let's make the most of that. Let's START moving.
Natalie is an accredited judge, sustainability expert and executive coach with strong views on doing what it takes to make the world how we want it to be. You can find out more about her on www.imaginal.co.nz or www.nataliehormann.com.