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Individual Reflection on Sustainability and Change

1949 words (8 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

18/05/20 Environmental Studies Reference this

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After only two weeks of attending Sustainability and Change at AUT, I have realised how superficial my understanding of our sustainability crisis has been. Having previously relied primarily on the renditions of sustainability challenge portrayed in the media, my views and evaluation of sustainability were simplistic and out-dated (Todorov & Marinova, 2011). Understanding now just how interdependent our environmental, social and economic systems are it is clear our challenge spans far broader than reducing carbon emissions to curb climate change and plastic consumption to save the sea’s ecosystem.

Due to my reliance on the surface information shared on the climate change debate, until two years ago my relationship with sustainability was tenuous. Scientists shared information on the degradation on the biosphere whilst key opinion leaders in education, my home, my organisations and the political space argued earth had experienced climate change before without peril of the human race. Proof came in scientific data, such as that on melting polar ice caps (Popescu, 2019) and the same opinion leaders hit back with the growth of Greenland’s Jakobshavn. A pivotal moment in the decision to form my own position on climate change was when I joined Lotto NZ and met my manager and now friend. Her sustainability perspective is so energised it made me want to research the debate and form a position of my own. Since then, my understanding and actions have changed. Personally, I recycle, re-use and make informed decisions to minimize waste. In my organisation, my manager and I, alongside four other colleagues, have also started a sustainability work group, which meets once a month to discuss office sustainability opportunities and work with the wider business to implement change. I now also know Jakobshavn makes up only 7% of the total ice-sheet in Greenland and that the stall in melting can be scientifically explained. (Popsecu, 2019). I have found surrounding myself with people who share an enthusiasm for sustainability has helped me learn more about my role in protecting the planet for future generations, without feeling pressured, scolded or preached to. As a leader, I think developing this network for those coming on the journey would be a key decider of success.

Having shared group discussion in class, at work and at home I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the information provided by the government and media is lacking, which makes me un-optimistic about any significant, rapid mass-movement in the near future. Personal experience tells me a lack of understanding is a key barrier to any action being widely adopted and I would argue this point is especially significant given the majority’s ‘base position’ on sustainability. Social science researchers have categorised the worldviews of most people as anthropocentric, reflecting a belief humans can curb our challenge with emerging technology and economic advancement (Schein, 2015). Given how a worldview comes from heavily entrenched values and beliefs systems (Koltko-Rivera, 2004), this is unlikely to change without compelling information delivered by a respected opinion leader. Higgins breaks out the assumptions of an anthropocentric worldview well in her e-book Economic Growth and Sustainability (Higgins, 2015).

  1. Economic growth is essential to our well-being and it will always continue
  2. Technology developments will ensure our energy source needs will always be met
  3. Population growth and pollution are someone else’s concern

With these assumptions as the base, it’s little wonder climate change, often simplified to a debate on whether or not individuals should up-weight their investment (e.g. sustainable grocery and EVs) or make personal sacrifice (e.g. timed showers), seems a little too detached, a little too vague and a little too big to inspire action. You only have to look at the Woman’s Rights movement, which did not see any real victory in NZ for decades (“Brief history – Women and the vote | NZHistory, New Zealand history online”, 2018), to see how slow social movement can be when it requires a fundamental shift in people’s values and beliefs.

To the point above, I have found it interesting to note that the Kyoto Protocol (Faure, Gupta & Nentjes, 2003) used by NZ and many other countries across the globe to implement the UNFCCC’s objective of reducing the onset of global warming are, from my perspective, not too far removed from these anthropocentric assumptions. Firstly, the market-based mechanisms the protocol is based on provide an economic incentive for a country’s participation in the sustainability movement; even so far as creating a ‘currency’ to allow country to country trade of emissions. They also identify technology as the key to unlocking clean development in countries – technology that when passed on to under-developed countries, results in economic relief by way of a contribution to the origin country’s emissions targets. The key difference, which is also the most important difference, is the rejection of the assumption climate change is someone else’s problem. Under this agreement, climate change is everyone’s problem. These mechanisms really resonate with me, as they allow a more natural alignment against an existing worldview. I think these would also act as a safeguard for continued progress, as regardless of whether the Greens, Labour, National or any other party makes up government the motivation for continuous improvement will remain. In leading business, the same link to economic incentive and technology development will be useful.

At a broader level, I can’t help but think our social context also shapes our willingness to sacrifice tangible personal comfort and convenience for a positive shift we can’t see or experience immediately. The Western social orientation is for that of the individual (Varnum, Grossmann, Kitayama & Nisbett, 2010), which seems to support why leveraging ‘personal advocacy’ and vision to motivate and influence is at the heart of rallying change (Higgs & Rowland, 2000). In my experience this is especially so in business where efforts to create change with information or resource provision alone tend to fall flat. This isn’t to say I don’t think individuals can’t be motivated by producing a positive impact, but I do think it means what’s right often needs to align with commercial viability before its adopted (Newton, 2019). I wonder whether this would be different in Eastern societies, which hold a collective social orientation. I first experienced the tension between what is right and what is profitable within six months of working in the corporate world. The first campaign I led for my global fast food chain employer was an ‘in-store fundraiser campaign’ with a proportion of product sales going to a nominated charity. As part of running the campaign, I the charity invited me to experience the social benefit it provides onsite (and I have insisted a philanthropic arm to all my roles since). For me, why the business would support the charity’s mission was a no-brainer – it is the right thing to do. An indication of my naïveté to commercial reality. In that reality, an executive team assessed brand equity targets, margin analysis and a raft of other forecasts and calculations before granting approval to proceed. It is not that the business did not care; money, hours and capital resource donated prior showed they did, but stakeholder expectations prevail as does the imperative to deliver an overall profit. I have found the same tension in all the businesses I have worked for since.

Whilst my ecological worldview (Schein, 2015) has shifted, some literature would suggest my linear thinking and commercial perspective still renders me ill equipped to lead any meaningful change. I would tend to disagree and believe that re-focused by my better understanding and appreciation of the need for increased sustainability action, my orthodox, left-brain thinking and experience in large-scale commercial business, is the reason I will gain positive response as a leader of sustainability. Many of these same authors suggest change leadership needs to bring about large scale, transformational change as opposed to small movements in the right direction to be of true value (Confino, 2013), (Azmatullah, 2012). Again, I would disagree. If a big part of gaining advocacy is influencing people to do the right thing through a mix of self-serving and philanthropic outcomes, I believe success in small risk-adverse change will help create brave business ready to take on the bolder moves required for a sustainable future.

To summarise, whilst my knowledge of sustainability is definitely growing and I feel positive about my motivations and ability to contribute to positive change, I can’t help feeling uncertain about our future and the likelihood of mass transformational movement before it’s too late. I truly believe knowledge is key and hope that as more and more people educate themselves on climate issues and the risk to humankind, we may kick start our collective journey to preserving the planet for future generations.

References:

  • Azmatullah, S. (2012). Understanding the mind is critical to finding sustainable business solutions. Retrieved 26 August 2019, from
               https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/understanding-minds-sustainability- 
               leadership
  • Brief history – Women and the vote | NZHistory, New Zealand history online. (2018). Retrieved 26 August 2019, from
                https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/brief-history
  • Confino, J. (2013). Changing mindsets is key to preventing social and environmental disaster. Retrieved 26 August 2019, from
               https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/changing-mindsets-prevent-
               environmental-disaster
  • Faure, M., Gupta, J., & Nentjes, A (2003). Climate change and the Kyoto protocol: the role of institutions and instruments to control global change. Edward Elgar Pub.
  • Higgins, K. (2015). Economic growth and sustainability: systems thinking for a complex world. Academic press. Retrieved from
               https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aut/reader.action?docID=1880165
  • Higgs, M., & Rowland, D. (2000). Building change leadership capability: ‘The quest for change competence’. Journal Of Change Management1(2), 116-130. doi: 10.1080/714042459
  • Koltko-Rivera, M. (2004). The Psychology of Worldviews. Review Of General Psychology8(1), 3-58. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.1.3
  • Newton, R. (2019). Change Efforts Can Fail Unless They’re Coordinated. Retrieved 27 August 2019, from
              https://hbr.org/2016/01/to-get-your-company-to-change-focus-on-one-thing-at-a-time
  • Popescu, A. (2019). A Greenland glacier is growing. That doesn’t mean melting is over. Retrieved 31 August 2019, from
               https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/one-part-of-greenland-ice-
               growing/
  • Schein, S. (2015). A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership (pp. 59-61). Sheffield: Green Leaf Publishers.
  • Todorov, V., & Marinova, D. (2011). Modelling sustainability. Mathematics And Computers In Simulation81(7), 1397-1408. doi: 10.1016/j.matcom.2010.05.022
  • Varnum, M., Grossmann, I., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. (2010). The Origin of Cultural Differences in Cognition. Current Directions In Psychological Science19(1), 9-13. doi: 10.1177/0963721409359301
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