Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
In this guide:
- A review of the state of the climate and nature crises
- Why this means we need a new approach to sustainability leadership
- Nine things do we sustainability leaders need to do differently in 2024
In the last year or so we’ve seen a slew of reports about the state of the environment showing that we’re close to, or perhaps have already gone beyond, the point of no return with climate change and several other planetary boundaries.
It’s genuinely scary stuff, and it sometimes floors me.
And yet, other reports show real progress and suggest that we’re in with a chance of tackling the climate and nature crises. We have the technology, but what’s holding us back is social and cultural change.
I’m deeply worried by false and naive optimism, but I genuinely believe success is possible. But only if, as sustainability leaders, we adapt and evolve our approach.
Read on as I explain why, and what I think this means for how we do sustainability leadership in 2024.
An emotional rollercoaster
I’ve taken a bit of a break from work and podcasting over the last couple of months due to some family commitments and the holidays. Things are settling down now and I’m looking forward to being with you more regularly again.
Those few months have been an emotional roller coaster. I was thinking deeply about the state of the environment. At first I got myself into a spiral of anxiety and despair.
And then I tried to understand what I needed to work out so that I could move forward.
It boiled down to this question:
How can I, and other sustainability leaders, work for positive change without being overwhelmed by the scale and momentum of the climate and nature crises?
It’s taken me a while, and the rest of the episode is my tentative answer – and I’m genuinely positive and hopeful.
If, like me, you’re uncomfortable with naive or artificial optimism – take it easy, I’m definitely not dishing out platitudes about “just one more push and we will save the planet”.
Before we dive in, I’ll outline where I’m going:
- First, a quick review of the state of the climate and nature crises
- Then, why I believe this means we need a new approach to sustainability leadership
- and finally, my draft Sustainability Leadership Manifesto, nine things do we need to do differently in 2024.
The state of the climate and nature crises
Let’s start with a quick review of the state of climate and nature.
They’ve been a number of important reports in the last year, and they’ve been pretty well covered in the media. I’ll include some relevant articles in the blog based on this episode (you’ll find a link in the show notes).
But here are the headlines from three reports, all from reputable scientists and organisations, that I find especially worrying:
Here’s the first one:
If humanity wants to have a 50-50 chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we can only emit another 250 gigatonnes (billion metric tonnes) of CO₂. This effectively gives the world just six years to get to net zero.Carbon budget for 1.5°C will run out in six years at current emissions levels – new research
And then we have a report by around 50 scientists for the Earth Commission, published in Nature, pointing out:
it’s not just climate, we’ve already breached most of the Earth’s limits: climate change, the biosphere, freshwater, and nutrient use in fertilisers.It’s not just climate – we’ve already breached most of the Earth’s limits. A safer, fairer future means treading lightly
And finally, a report by 200 scientists from around the world identifies over 25 tipping points in the Earth system, including the collapse of ice sheets, degradation of ecosystems, and disruptions in ocean and atmospheric circulation:
We’re close to the point of now return with some of these, and the loss of coral reefs and collapse of vital climate systems are becoming likely.Climate tipping points are nearer than you think – our new report warns of catastrophic risk
As I’m sure you know, these aren’t isolated reports by mavericks. This is mainstream science and there are plenty of more reports and studies showing that without radical action we’ll face extraordinary disruption and devastation.
And yet , if we don’t look too closely, (and ignore the wars) the world seems to be getting on just fine. It’s easy to believe things aren’t actually that bad.
But I find these reports deeply depressing and scary. How on earth are we in this state? Why are politicians and business leaders still not taking action? Why is business as usual still even on the agenda?
I’d like to share a quote that’s been in my mind a lot recently.
It’s from an early environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, writing in 1949, a time when the damage we were doing to nature was only just starting to become apparent to a small number of pioneers like himself:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
Over the years I’ve often felt like Leopold – feeling the pain that comes from knowing we’re destroying nature, and feeling alone because so few other people, apart from other sustainability folk and environmentalists, seemed to know or care.
But things really have changed.
Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold was one of the few who saw what was happening and was concerned. Today, there is more and more evidence that most people not only know the situation is bad, they want to do something to help and they believe governments should do more.
For example, in 2021, Ipsos MORI surveyed people across the G20 nations for the Global Commons Alliance and found:
73% of people in G20 countries believe Earth is approaching potentially abrupt or irreversible tipping points because of human action.
83% are willing to do more to become better “planetary stewards” and protect and regenerate the global commons.
73% agree their country’s economy should move beyond a singular focus on profit and economic growth (GDP) and focus more on human wellbeing and ecological protection and regeneration.73% believe Earth approaching tipping points
Of course awareness and concern doesn’t always translate into action for very understandable reasons, but this and many other surveys show
- not only that the common assumption that most people don’t know and don’t care is just plain wrong,
- but also there’s a huge potential here that sustainability leaders can help unleash.
This turnaround of public awareness and concern is hugely significant. And we’ve made very real progress in other areas too:
Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is essential. We’re not there yet, but made progress that seemed unimaginable when I was getting started in sustainability.
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, and the world’s foremost energy economist, said recently:
“Despite the scale of the challenges, I feel more optimistic than I felt two years ago,” he said in an interview. “Solar photovoltaic installations and electric vehicle sales are perfectly in line with what we said they should be, to be on track to reach net zero by 2050, and thus stay within 1.5C. Clean energy investments in the last two years have seen a staggering 40% increase.”‘Staggering’ green growth gives hope for 1.5C, says global energy chief
This growth in renewable energy generation is just one example of a positive social tipping point.
The same team that identified over 20 negative tipping points in the Earth system, also identified possible positive tipping points in human technology, economics, politics and social behaviour. They also found we’re seeing positive tipping points in action, in areas ranging from renewable energy and electric vehicles, to social movements and plant-based diets.
As well as technological change, changes in people’s behaviour will be crucial to tackling the climate and nature crises, so its hugely exciting that research line this is identifying more of these positive tipping points, and their potential is being recognised.
Why we need a new approach to sustainability leadership
So where are we with the climate and nature crises?
At its most basic we’re looking at a race between negative environmental tipping points and positive social tipping points. The question is will we shift our power generation, our agricultural systems, our consumptions levels etc fast enough to prevent the breakdown of the climate and other earth systems?
Some very smart people, with access to credible data, believe it’s possible – for example Hannah Ritchie’s new book “Not the End of the World” argues that we “could be on track to achieve true sustainability for the first time in history”.
That’s hugely exciting and positive.
But I still feel deeply uneasy, I worry that conventional sustainability leadership is not up to the job.
As Einstein famously said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
And that’s the problem with conventional sustainability leadership – like most of our dominant culture – it ignores three fundamental realities.
Right, back to the three realities that conventional sustainability leadership ignores – to our peril.
The first reality is that we are part of nature
The first reality is that we are part of nature. But for centuries our anthropocentric culture has trained us to feel separate from nature, and to believe we can and should dominate and control the rest of the living world for our own benefit.
As you know, the results have been disastrous.
Not just because of the destruction we’ve caused, but feeling connected with nature is good for us. Research is demonstrating that the more you feel connected with nature:
- the more you care about nature
- the more you care about people
- you have a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in your life
- you’re more creative
- and have greater physical and mental wellbeing
Exactly the sort of benefits that society needs – and that will make us better sustainability leaders.
The second reality is that humans are naturally kind and caring
The second reality is that humans are naturally kind and caring. I mentioned some of the evidence for this earlier – there’s plenty more.
Unfortunately our consumerist culture assumes people are selfish and that they can only be motivated by carrots and sticks. This creates a vicious cycle with government policies, business, the media and more, all reinforcing selfishness and greed.
The results include:
- ever increasing resource use and pollution as people seek happiness through overconsumption
- growing individualism as people natural desires to look out for each other and work together for the common good are suppressed
- As sustainability leaders we often instinctively use carrots and sticks to motivate action, rather than tapping into people’s deeper humanity.
Collaboration for sustainability: What works?
Join other sustainability leaders to discuss the factors behind effective collaboration, and how to apply them in your work.
12:30 – 13:30, Wed 6th Mar, 2024. Read more and register on our events page…
The third reality is the potential of collective action
The third reality ignored by conventional sustainability leadership is the potential of collective action. Our managerial culture would have us believe that the social change we need for sustainability will only be achieved in two ways.
The first is top down government – or organisational – policy. The second is the result of the choices of individuals – whether as voters or as consumers.
These are both important, but what’s missing is collective action – where people see the current system is failing them, and those they care about, and work together towards a shared positive vision that matters deeply to them.
We often think about collective action as protest movements – the suffragettes, civil rights, antiapartheid – that disrupt and overturn the status quo. Which is one reason that the establishment isn’t keen on collective action!
But collective action is also about creating change by building alternatives – like the Fair Trade movement, Tech for Good and the B Corporation movement.
As sustainability leaders we can collaborate with other sustainability leaders in our sector, and work with people at all levels in our organisations who want to create positive change.
Collective action comes with a powerful side effect: it feels good! We feel empowered by working on something worthwhile, we have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose, and we can draw on each others’ skills, experience and creativity.
We’ve picked out three realities that are ignored by conventional sustainability leadership:
- We are part of nature
- People are kind and caring
- and the potential of collective action
There are plenty more ways in which conventional sustainability leadership risks trying to tackle the climate and nature crises with the same thinking that created them – but these three are a powerful starting point.
A draft sustainability leadership manifesto
We’re in this extraordinary situation:
- we’ve made good progress in some areas, but we need to accelerate to reach the positive social tipping points
- we’re heading rapidly towards environmental tipping points with devastating effects on people and nature
- and we don’t know, and can’t know, if we’ll succeed in pulling back from the brink.
This isn’t just a technically complex situation. It’s also emotionally complex – for us, our families, our colleagues and for people across the world.
The situation we face affects people in different ways – while some will be feel motivated and inspired to act, there’ll also be anger, despair and denial.
And while 80% of people are aware of what’s happening, many will be too overwhelmed with other pressures – work, family, the cost of living crisis – to give the climate and nature crises any thought at all, beyond perhaps it being yet another anxiety.
This all means the people side of sustainability, whether that’s engaging with senior management, colleagues or other stakeholders, is more important now then ever before.
So given all this, what does sustainability leadership that’s fit for 2024 look like?
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and to an extent the answers will be different depending on your own situation.
But I’d like to offer you my tentative conclusions – perhaps a provisional sustainability leadership manifesto.
I want to come back down from the big picture and generalisations, and suggest nine specific attitudes, strategies and practices.
It’s easy to say ‘change your attitude’ or ‘shift your mindset’. It’s harder to do, especially when it means going against the culture of your organisation.
Often, this is something you have to work at, to actively cultivate. That’s what I’ve found. I’ve also found it really helps to work on this with other people on the same journey.
Here are three attitudes I invite you do adopt:
1. Let go of “saving the world”. Instead focus on creating the future we need.
We’ve been conditioned to think about “saving the world” or “saving the environment” for too long.
The idea of saving the world inevitably leads us to think about preserving or extending the status quo, and we know that the status quo isn’t the answer. At a psychological level, “saving the world” can stimulate negative and reactive thoughts and emotions.
Once we start focusing on the future it creates a different, more positive energy, for you, and the people you’re working with. It opens up possibilities and unleashes creativity.
2. Accept uncertainty. Instead foster the conditions for positive change to emerge.
Management education and organisational culture has conditioned us to believe that we should be able to work out exactly the outcomes we need, plan and deliver the necessary change successfully.
The reality is that uncertainty – whether that’s humanity’s ability to tackle the climate and nature crises, or our ability to control the outcome of a sustainability initiative – is fact of life. Complex systems, like society, organisations and people, are inherently unpredictable.
Once we accept that we can’t control everything, we can work with others to identify and then foster interventions that takes us on the right path.
3. Don’t worry about what others are or aren’t doing, unless they’re within your sphere of influence. Instead, apply your energy where you can make a difference.
It’s easy to spend too much time worrying about things we can’t control. Think of the way events like COP can dominate our media consumption and our thoughts – unless we’re directly involved, what matters for most of us is the result – not the process.
It’s good to be informed, but if we’re not careful our feelings of despair and sense of powerlessness can overwhelm us, sapping our energy and effectiveness.
Recognise the tremendous potential you have through your work to genuinely contribute to the positive social tipping points we so urgently need.
Taking action, especially with others, is good for your mental health, and strengthens your courage and commitment.
That was the three attitudes. Now let’s move on to strategy.
4. Develop and deliver initiatives that offer multiple benefits for people and nature
We don’t know, we can’t know, whether we’ll succeed in tackling the climate and nature crises. What we do know is that the climate and nature are inextricably linked.
For these reasons, and others, as a society, we need to find solutions that ideally have multiple benefits, solutions that
- reduce carbon emissions
- help us adapt to the change climate
- enable nature to recover and regenerate
- enhance wellbeing
- and increase resilience
We may be constrained in our organisations, and there may be good reason to prioritise particular issues – but as we shift our attitude from saving the world to creating the future, we need to shift our actions from reducing our impact to enabling nature and people to flourish.
5. Seek out opportunities to collaborate and cooperate.
Collaboration is crucial to tackling the climate and nature crises. Indeed, when I interviewed Alan Hendry, sustainability director with Mott MacDonald, he pointed out that no less than four major reports identified lack of collaboration as a barrier to success.
So, seek out opportunities to collaborate and cooperate at every scale – within your team, across your organisation, up and down the supply chain, across your sector and beyond.
6. Recognise and foster people’s desire and capacity to care for each other and for nature
Too often people are seen as part of the problem because it’s widely believed that they don’t know, don’t care and won’t take action. It’s not true, and I’ve mentioned just some of the evidence for this earlier.
Time and time again I hear that when sustainability leaders listen to what colleagues are concerned about and interested in, they discover people just waiting for someone to take them and their ideas seriously.
So, reach out to people across your organisation, listen to them and their ideas, and work with them to unleash their enthusiasm and ability.
We talked a lot about the practicalities of this in our first series – I’ll link to a couple of episodes in the show notes.
That was three strategic approaches I invite you to bring into your sustainability leadership.
The final section is Practice. I guess that in some way these three areas are also strategic, but in my mind these are about getting started, focussing on self development and looking after yourself.
7. Build your trusted support networks
I can’t imagine doing not doing sustainability leadership of some kind. I find it hugely inspiring and rewarding.
But at times it’s really tough. I’ve struggled to solve problems and find ways forward, and I’ve been emotionally wiped out by some people’s negativity and by the devastation of nature.
What’s helped me overcome these practical and emotional challenges – is other people.
People who understand because they’re also working in this field, people I trust to listen, to ask the right questions and to offer the support I need.
If you don’t already have a few people like this, find them and work together to develop your ability to be there for each other.
8. Strengthen your sense of connection with nature.
I talked earlier about how the more you feel part of nature, you’ll have a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and better physical and mental health, and other benefits.
I know from my own experience what a difference this makes – both for myself, but also for people we work with.
Strengthening your sense of being part of nature will help make you a better sustainability leader.
It’s easy to get started – by simply making time to notice, experience and appreciate nature whenever you can. I’ll put a link in show notes to the Nature Connection Handbook from the University of Derby which will give you more information.
9. Develop your skills and capacity with the Inner Development Goals
Sustainability leadership in 2024 needs skills and capacities that are generally not covered in conventional education and professional development.
As the Inner Development Goals initiative puts it:
We lack the inner capacity to deal with our increasingly complex environment and challenges. Fortunately, modern research shows that the inner abilities we now all need can be developed.
The IDG framework identifies these inner abilities:
Relationship to self
Caring for Others and the World
All of these skills and qualities are part of being human. You’ll likely recognise them in yourself, and appreciate why they are so important for sustainability leadership. And once you do, you can start to consciously develop them and apply them in your work.
What do we do differently now?
So to recap, here is our draft sustainability leadership manifesto: nine things I believe us sustainability leaders need to do more of in 2024: