11 January 2010

The Psychological Challenges of Sustainable Leadership

Posted by jcloud under: Creation; Evolution; Forum; Future; History; Science; Sustainability .

Those of us who have long been working in the field of sustainable development have, I think, a definite ambivalence around our current situation.

On the one hand, it’s good to see that people are finally waking up to the issues and starting to pay more attention. We are, in some sense, coming into our own. There’s lot of work to do, an increasing opportunity for funding, social and political recognition, and so on. On the other hand, the problems are greater than they have ever been, and there is still a great deal of social resistance to accepting them.

Personally, I go from being elated to being depressed – often very quickly – and I think I’m one of the saner people on the planet.

The fact is, if the challenges we face as a species are real – and a near-unanimty of scientists are convinced they are real – then there is plenty of reason for sadness, despair, and grieving. Many people are in fact going through the classic stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Part of the raison d’etre of the SLF is precisely to address this sense of overwhelming despondency that anyone who is conscious must necessarily feel, at least sometimes, in addressing the mutliple crises of climate change, species extinction, ocean acidification, population overshoot, etc. that we currently face. It’s helpful to know that if you don’t feel despair at times, you just don’t understand the magnitude and nature of the problem.

Scientifically, there’s plenty of evidence for a pessimistic viewpoint. Perhaps the latest is Peter Ward’s argument that life is its own worst enemy. In The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Ward’s proposes that all but one of the mass extinctions on Earth were caused by life itself, and reveals that there is an alarming decline of diversity and biomass on Earth, caused by life’s own “biocidal” tendencies. You can listen to the NPR interview here:


His ultimate conclusion is that we need to “engineer” a much more favorable environment for ourselves – one that indeed looks like Gaia – but he’s not sure we’re clever enough to do it.

But surely underneath this “scientific” analysis there is a layer of feeling – an awe and a terror at the fragility and self-destructiveness of life – that Ward’s careful analyses are busy holding at bay. Why else be so antagonistic to Lovelock, who holds that the earth is a living organism that seeks to preserve its own integrity? In Ward’s view, life is more like the god Chronos or the Medea of Greek mythology – consuming their own children in an ecocidal orgy of self-destruction.

What we need to bring to this, however, is that we humans choose which view to operate from: we can be the cynical “quarterly-results”-oriented corporate criminals of Avatar, or the integrated forest beings of the planet they are despoiling. Like other fictional treatments, Avatar is a parable – and an extraordinarily explicit one at that – of the psychological and emotional dilemmas that we currently face. Art mirrors liife, just showing it more vividly and dramatically in order to arouse a deeper awareness than we are evidently present to in everyday life.

What the SLF provides for me is the opportunity to explore, to think, to invent the reality within which I choose to live, knowing that nothing is truly “inevitable,” but not much is avoidable either. In other words, to live authentically, knowing that we are plunging forward to self-destruction, working to bring enough of us to our senses to avert a complete disaster, and choosing the improbable but honorable path – to save the Earth not for what humanity is today, but for what it might become.

One Comment so far...

isabel Says:

18 January 2010 at 8:17 am.

Good point. Since we just don’t have the capacity to know it ALL, we simply choose which interpretation of reality fits us best and we want to believe and live with. Shiver in the corner with fear, drag the soul along the days in hopelessness, or feel excited with what we (i) may be able to contribute to influence our destiny.

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