Monday, November 7, 2011

Beyond Hope and Fear:
How to Beat Green Battle Fatigue and Stay in the Game

I identify as a Green Warrior, since you’re reading this perhaps you do too. Since the early 1990s, I have been involved in three initiatives with a common thread of sustainability: New Urbanism, electric vehicles, and green building. During this time I became aware of the need for radical change in our entire infrastructure, and also of many deep and pervasive interconnections between all global initiatives that may fit under the “sustainability” banner- initiatives around water, energy, agriculture, women’s rights, social and environmental justice, evolving political systems…and a lot more.

Green Warriors work in many fields and types of organizations - green building, communications, fair trade, environmental disciplines, non-profits, government agencies, even the financial sector. When I worked in a green mechanical engineering firm, I used to scoff at what I called the Bamboo Floor People, the “greenwashers.” We Green Warriors know we need significant advances, not tiny incremental ones, and it’s much easier to put recycled bamboo flooring in a building and call it green than it is to push hard to install a highly energy efficient HVAC system that is ultimately much greener. But lately I’ve realized that since all our efforts are so interconnected, and that we’re all becoming more aware of it, some of the greenest initiatives are about not recycling or rooftop gardens or great building systems but about equalizing the distribution of power, wealth, and health. Green building and energy efficiency promote social justice and vice versa. So for my own purposes I’ve redefined green and sustainable to be widely inclusive. All over the planet now, people are coming to the same conclusions by very different paths.

As Green Warriors, every day we fight the inertia, risk aversion and resistance to change that threaten to imperil our planet and our species. We find ways to present ROI on green projects that are almost irresistible but are dismayed when they’re rejected for reasons we or our clients barely understand. We’re acutely conscious of the scale effects of the smallest decisions: a specification of a system component; a new hire; pursuing or accepting a new project or client; separating our trash; driving or walking; turning off the water or the lights.

But most of us believe on some deep level that we’re on a short fuse to total ecological meltdown and widespread economic and social failure, and that in view of global warming, in order to survive as a species we must effect widespread, fundamental, systemic change within a time frame that we know is impossible. Nevertheless, we who choose to fight rather than flee soldier on, by turns warmly optimistic and bitterly fatalistic. The more I learned about the rampant waste and inefficiency in our entire culture, the worse I felt about the current state of the built environment. It’s now almost impossible for me to enter a building, a neighborhood, or a city without noticing wasted energy and inefficient design. I feel this most when I’m deep in the Heart of Sprawl – trying desperately to exit some generic big box parking lot, cursing traffic engineers, zoning codes, big box retailers and the desperate, failing, pliant communities that they prey upon.

Not to trivialize what our military personnel go through in our recent wars (necessitated largely by energy security concerns), but we Green Warriors suffer from a kind of shell shock or battle fatigue: a sense of utter futility when we finally face the sheer size and scale of the imbedded inefficiencies and wasteful and destructive technological underpinnings of our built environment, our transportation systems, and our manufacturing and agricultural infrastructures.

We Green Warriors typically focus most of our energy on setting examples, on telling positive stories, on selling win-win-win and “triple bottom line” solutions and projects to clients, with varying degrees of success. But I suspect that there may be a widespread morale problem that we don’t talk about too often because a lot of our behavior is at root somewhat both altruistic and idealistic – in our zeal we are afraid to counter any doubt or admit defeat. We also take an adversarial approach to the “other side” and feel that if we don’t keep the pressure on, all will be lost. These reactions are entirely understandable, but we’re still often operating largely on either hope or fear. We need to address our own hidden morale problem, and take a closer look at reality.

The first remedy for Green Battle Fatigue is assessing what Tony Robbins calls our “evidence procedures.” Both hope and fear usually involve making decisions based on very little evidence. For instance, today the Republicans are stoking fear of change by claiming that increased environmental regulations will damage the economic recovery, but there is little evidence for this, in fact the opposite is true: recent history shows that increased regulations (such as tighter energy efficiency standards) usually have a positive effect on the economy. We forget that we have ample evidence that green and sustainable initiatives are pervasive, successful, and happening at scale all over the planet: we tend to ignore success stories in favor of apocalyptic scenarios. The behavioral aspects of the hope-fear dichotomy that makes apocalyptic thinking so easy are complex and fascinating, and understanding them and learning to manipulate them is crucial to effecting widespread change. But let’s continue to collect the data and use it to our advantage.

Next, we need to envision the future in a more positive and realistic way. There’s no question that in the general media today, apocalyptic scenarios prevail. But we have on hand several visionaries like Jeremy Rifkin and Amory Lovins who provide detailed, evidence-based descriptions of a future with energy security, balanced budgets, fewer wars, equalized distribution of wealth, clean air and water, ample food, and a balance between humans and the environment. We need to be creating broad, shared, compelling narratives, mythologies, theories, and models for the future, based on examples of success in history or in the present, on a wide scale, beyond single projects. These must be shared by everyone - the general public, who must vote at the ballot box, the store, and at work; technologists who deploy large resource intensive systems; thought leaders who inspire action; politicians who must find a way out of economic and political problems; and designers, engineers and architects who must develop and execute projects on many scales that are at the heart of the necessary transformations. Our visualizations of future cities have to progress beyond glass box high-rises sprayed with plants (the Organic Jetsons aesthetic). Designing better, more sustainable cities is particularly crucial given the global trend toward urbanization and increasing density.

Connected to envisioning the future differently is dreaming big, very big, perhaps bigger than you may be comfortable with. It’s counterintuitive to step out of our comfort zone in a recession, but in many cases we may have no other choice. For instance, all over the country municipalities and state governments are being forced to try new things, including previously dismissed green initiatives, because they’re out of money. Green initiatives generally create jobs, improve living conditions, and increase tax revenue while saving energy and reducing environmental impact: dire times my provide fertile grounds for implementation on a number of fronts. More importantly, as Daniel Goldstein points out in his book “Invisible Energy,” when you adopt an evidence procedure and do the math, there is really no downside to thinking really big in terms of future energy reduction targets- contrary to the claims made by most Republicans today, energy reduction efforts will not result in lost jobs or a slowed economy- the opposite has been shown to be the case historically. From a careful risk-reward analysis, it turns out that the real risk is in business as usual, in fighting to maintain wasteful inefficient, financially ruinous practices and systems in the face of strong evidence against them.

Another step in overcoming Green Battle Fatigue is to get some perspective about time scales and global warming. This is particularly difficult to do, as we’re told constantly by scientists that it’s too late, we’ve already passed the carbon tipping point. While we don’t have consensus on the true extent of our ability to impact the future, we do have enough solid evidence that we must reduce carbon output. But the best way to deal with the global warming issue as Green Warriors is to realize that all of the things we must do (and are doing) to combat it – tighter emissions regulations; higher energy and water efficiency standards for buildings, cars and industrial plants; halting global deforestation; reinventing agriculture (to mention a few) – we should be doing anyway, for many other economic, political, ecological, and social reasons. We’re already seeing the effects of climate change in increased natural disasters and shifting weather patterns- adaptive green design will make buildings more resilient to natural disasters as well as more energy efficient. Climate change means that many parts of the world will get more rain, while others will be dryer- this will drive adaptations in agriculture, and provide opportunities to replace systems based on synthetic petrochemically intensive fertilizers with more robust systems. Decentralized power grids will prove more resilient and provide cheaper, more reliable energy. Gradually, the realization that solutions with multiple positive outcomes are preferable will become a greater part of the decision making process for political and economic systems all over the planet.

Finally, we need to be engaged closely with our audiences and our clients by apprehending and communicating interconnectedness. This is challenging and difficult given the nature of media and the way the brain works. We want simple stories, and interconnectedness is complex and hard to process. But we can be creative in how we do this: just to grab a random example from the movies, in Avatar, the planetary organism that the Na’vi plug into is a great metaphor for interconnectedness: it’s a blend of real things like neural networks and hyphae or mycelium networks that are the largest living organisms on earth. On a practical level, apprehending interconnectedness means facilitating the natural evolution of “multiple win” initiatives, and being able to find and communicate a real, credible “win” for every stakeholder in any new proposal.

Connecting with our clients, our communities, and our colleagues is crucial to our personal sense of having an impact, and this more than anything allows us to overcome Green Battle Fatigue syndrome. When we’re dreaming and planning big, it really doesn’t matter if we’re wrong about the details - we won’t know unless we try, and the things we should be doing are necessary on many levels at once. But it does matter that we’re planning, and it matters even more that we maintain a real, vivid, evidence-based vision of the future and our ability to impact it positively on a personal level. This will give us the inspiration we need to stay in the game and win.


  1. Nicely written-that helps. The need to feel optimistic and energized in face of doom and doomsayers is real for many of us who've been trying to do the right thing( in our work and personally). It is easy to feel, as a builder, that the scale of our projects is so small as to be irrelevant. It is hard to tell one's self that "each weatherstripped door is a step in the right direction". But it does keep you sane to say that.

  2. Right- it's like voting- you feel like only one drop in the ocean, but you still exercise your choice and feel the power of doing that. So knowing the downstream impact of all kinds of decisions, not just "paper or plastic" ones, can be overwhelming if you give in to that feeling (as we all must at some point) but also energizing. One weatherstripped door can have an impact on the next door neighbors, the family, etc, and can help raise awareness.
    I struggle with optimism and pessimism: we seem to want things to fall into black or white all the time. We're kind of hardwired to be optimistic and gravitate toward it naturally, but what I'm talking about is a feeling of power based on knowledge that you can have (and are having) an impact- we have the data that backs it up. So it's a bit more powerful than being becomes more deliberate and expansive and action becomes easy and almost inevitable. Does that make sense?