What does it mean for an environmental organization to work expressively, to live out the values of sustainability and deep ecology in its day-to-day work? Most environmental organizations striving to be coherent focus on behaviour. Do we recycle? Do we compost? Do we use energy-efficient light bulbs? Do we reduce our use of water and paper? Do we bring our own mugs?
Sustainability is not this tame. Sustainability requires astonishment. At the exaggeration. At the audacity. At the outlandish impossibility of taking it all in.
Horsehoe bat. Stubfoot toad. Girdled lizard. Hairy armadillo. The hidden pathways of water and air. The slow growth. The flash flood. Loach. Damselfly. Pleated gibbon. Slow loris. Roufus-headed ground roller. The gnats and thistles and burrs. The eyeless creatures living deeper than we can go. What is molten. What is frozen. What is oozing and what is parched. The fact that you don’t understand it and never will. The thousand things. The million things. The hint that maybe it is not a million things at all, but one thing with a million preposterous disguises.
So how do you live that? An expressive approach to social change is never primarily about behaviour, it is about experience. How can we experience sustainability, not just physically, but viscerally, intuitively- the awe, the interconnectedness?
We thought about this question during a conversation with Karan Kashyap from the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN). Karan came to a workshop we did in Delhi about a year ago. He was quite enthusiastic about expressive change, particularly the idea of the giving field because he felt that he had received so much from his work with IYCN. He told us he had been personally transformed by his experience there. We stayed in touch and recently we asked him to tell us a little bit more about this change.
Karan said that he had come into the work focused on how he could raise environmental awareness among young people in India but quickly found his own awareness shifting. It wasn’t just that he was wasting less, recycling more and buying different kinds of products. His overall mindfulness and sense of connection to the world increased. He became much more attuned to the impact his actions had. He became much more reflective about his own life patterns, much more curious about the hows and whys of things that formerly seemed quite distant to him. He lost weight. He gained confidence. He became increasingly excited by his own learning, by what he calls his “upward journey”. He says, “I do not know if IYCN is guiding me in my life or I am guiding it in its life.”
Organizations like IYCN can help us re-connect to the roots of sustainability, not just intellectually but experientially. Our love of nature begins to seep into our work spaces. We begin to see that the patterns and relationships that sustain the natural world “out there” are mirrored in our organizational lives. We become more attuned to growth – others’ and our own. We become more comfortable with the unpredictable and unexpected. We recognize that our work is not a continuous linear process, but one that contains dips and peaks and periods of creative destruction, even death. Our failures become compost. We begin to appreciate the wildness of being human.
More importantly, we become more reverent toward diversity. We become grateful for the differences in others that used to baffle or annoy us. Many of us remember the spotted owl controversy that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. in the late 80s. Landowners and timber companies filed a lawsuit against the government’s decision to preserve millions of acres of forest in order to protect the habitat of the rare and endangered spotted owl. Hundreds of timber workers took to the streets in protest, chanting “families first, owls last”. Why should so many people lose their jobs for the sake of a few birds of dubious value? Dozens of similar controversies have erupted over the years.
Why do all these strange little species matter? One of the great gifts of the environmental movement has been to help us see that not only do all species have intrinsic value but they they are all interconnected. The movement has taught us to be humble in the face of the awesome, if often unseen, dependence all species have on each other. We matter to each other, even if we can never fully understand just how much.
We will know we are starting to live out the core values of sustainability in our organizations when the peculiar awkward colleague at the desk in the corner becomes just as important to us, just as loved and mysteriously necessary, as the spotted owl is to the forest.