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Don’t fear the reaper

John Key is doing his best to scythe sustainability from the government dictionary—and maybe he’s right. The S-word has baggage. It's about disagreement, good and bad science, frugality and fear. Chris Tobias suggests how to move beyond the arguments.
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Illustration by Trace Hodgson

John Key is doing his best to scythe sustainability from the government dictionary—and maybe he’s right. The S-word has baggage. It's about disagreement, good and bad science, frugality and fear. suggests how to move beyond the argument and build a healthier, wealthier future together

Sustainability is dead. At least to John Key it is. He’s stricken the word from the lexicon of public servants, also gutting the likes of ‘innovative’ and other perceived leftovers from the Labour government.

But that’s just words. Perhaps more troubling than semantics is the slashing of funding for Enviroschools, sending the Sustainable Business Network out to pasture to cover its operating costs, and flushing the agency aimed at improving resource efficiencies across all government departments, also known as Govt3.

Then there’s the reduction of staff at the Ministry for Environment, a “pause” on the Emissions Trading Scheme and the worrisome roading fetish. What’s next, a climate change denier in cabinet? Oh wait, there’s Rodney Hyde looking ever so pleased with himself … so much for a blue–green future.

On the one hand, the missing S-word is a bit troublesome. Sustainability is still buzzing in international conversations from agriculture to climate change to economics. Having our bureaucrats unable to utter the word sustainability makes Kiwis appear more like Muppets on the world stage. It puts us closer to the perspective of, say, Russia, versus some country allegedly trying to be clean and green—to speak of clichés that really need the toss. And with everyone from the US to Scotland getting some kind of climate legislation underway, New Zealand looks more and more backwater. How can we as New Zealanders participate in, much less advance, the conversations on key issues shaping our future, if we can’t engage with the language that everyone else is using?

Maybe the word sustainability has become a bit overused in the past few years anyway. National’s wordplay might anger some, but there’s a lot more going on in this scene. Here’s a perfect opportunity to rethink a few things.

Sustainability was once a word to rally around, a bold step introduced by the Brundtland Commission nearly three decades ago. It was about better, more efficient and holistic business, healthy vibrant communities, strong unique cultures and thriving biodiversity. Tails wagging all around, fawns frolicking, rainbows everywhere …

That was at least until everyone from bleach companies to arms manufacturers started touting their sustainability claims, ramping up their PR assaults. Suddenly everyone who could distinguish paper from plastic deemed themselves sustainable overnight and all their products inherently ‘green’.

Don’t talk to communication and organisation expert Peter Senge about ‘sustainability’. “It’s not just a bad word,” he said recently in an MIT Sloan Management Review interview. “It’s technically what we would call a negative vision … it motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. As soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation.

“Sustainability does not spur society on to an ultimately better solution.”

In other words, sustainability hinges on ‘less bad’ rather than ‘more good’. So what useful concepts are we meant to flush out of it? If, as Senge suggests, our future isn’t about fear, then it should be about hope, and not some politically enthralled Obama-esque hope. Hope that enables significant action at every level, especially personal.

While politicians fumble and vocabulary fails us, globally a profound change is underway. Documented extensively in Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest (Buy@Fishpond) and seen in every corner of Earth, there are people taking action. From entrepreneurs to community activists, NGOs, local governments, classrooms of school kids—inspired individuals everywhere are taking defining matters and big issues into their own hands. In Godzone there’s Intersect, 350.org, Nexus, New Zealand Forest and Bird, Kapiti Project, Rainbow Valley Farm, Urgent Couriers, Ziptrek, Untouched World, the enlightened sponsors of this magazine, of course … and plenty more that we don’t have space to list.

We’re part of this movement, and New Zealand is not shy for examples in any category. It’s shy about telling its story. Call it humility, introspection or a fear of tall poppy, but it does us no justice and only slows down the cause. Our inability to convey and share what we’re up to gives the impression we’re working in a silo. It’s us, alone, against a world full of problems—when nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem is that the green building people don’t talk to community groups, academics don’t connect with business on lifecycle costs, the organics folks don’t update the well-meaning farmer, the engineer isn’t sharing with the council, and the marketers only see green as a colour. All parties involved are working hard to fix the world’s woes—but not together. Until that happens progress will remain painfully slow and splintered.

Because of this disjointed scene, media misses the real stories: a planet in flux, a country taking action. We’ve pocket-sized our own agenda by our inability to connect, communicate, influence and reach critical mass. We’re stuck quibbling about vocabulary and issues the rest of the progressive world has come to accept. As Gareth Morgan alluded, we’re stuck in non-existent debate, with a problem of media giving equal airtime to arguments that don’t have equal weight.

Grasping our interconnectedness is essential. Global issues like climate change and energy decline will effect, and are already affecting, everyone. It will take a shift in everyone to adapt to what is unfolding before us. But the process of changing our lives is uncomfortable at best. It means questioning our lifestyles, our businesses, our landscapes, our institutions, our relationships and ourselves.

Local researcher Nick Jones thinks the solution lies in helping people see where we’re going. “How can we get people comfortable and confident with change? What does this future we’re stepping into look and feel like? What is the lifestyle? What actions do we need to take to get us there?” he asks.

To help concrete our community, we’ve developed an Internet hub called Celsias. At celsias.co.nz you can share what you’re up to, no matter how far down the road you are. Making some lifestyle changes? Talk about it. Altering your business model?  Seek help and input from others hard at work. Got an initiative or action to help change the world? Place it on Celsias’ Actions page and encourage others to join. Celsias is the perfect way to connect with like-minded people who put action ahead of words.

We can now share media like never before. From blog articles to videos and podcasts, we no longer need to rely on mainstream media to do the explaining for us. Switch on your cameraphone and show the world what you’re doing in the community. The revolution probably won’t be televised. We’ll stream it online instead.

We need to share our stories, our insights, our progress, our foibles, and demonstrate to others what we’re working towards. We need to bring others along for the ride. Celsias, WA$TED, Green Drinks, community gardens in Manukau and Good magazine are positive, homegrown steps forward. If you’re feeling a bit isolated where you are, join us on Celsias first and connect with other switched-on people, then take it offline to any of the numerous events taking place.  Better still, create an event of your own and use Celsias to rally the troops.

While the word sustainability might be in its final throes, the people behind its more lofty ideals certainly are not. It’s not just about empty idealism. The momentum is clear, and a better vocabulary will develop with time, created by those taking action. People from all walks of life have awakened to the reality that a bright future means not repeating the past. It’s time to bring your experience to the table, to learn, share, and progress with the rest of us. We look forward to having you on Celsias. Politicians, pundits, and so-called experts may not be at the forward edge of this shift, nor are they needed. As with actions, so with words: it’s up to us.

We don’t need a word to rally around; all we need is each other. Meet some of the people behind celsias

Nick Gerritsen, eco-innovator and Celsias co-founder

“Celsias came about as an idea to create an open and democratic space around the related issues of climate change and sustainability. We had been working on a couple of other clean technology startups and this made us realise that the quality of information available on the net was often managed, or designed to achieve a certain outcome. The result was polarisation of views around something that is fundamental to us all. There was also a big difference in terms of engagement from one geography to another.

“So we simply decided to start posting content in our new space—the Celsias space—operating across geographies and open to individuals, NGOs and corporations. The result amazed us and now is the time to take it further. Celsias now is a unique online community that provides an opportunity to mesh together numerous parties to collaborate and act together. Little things—even individual actions—can make a difference.

“It’s important to join and become part of the Celsias movement, because the users will determine what it does and how effective it is. Perhaps this can contribute to the creation of a tipping point—that would be fantastic.

“I guess we still believe that individuals can change the world.”

BMW corporate communications manager Piers Scott

“We are thrilled to be part of Celsias and building a stronger sustainability network in New Zealand. As the world’s most sustainable carmaker, BMW Group has integrated the principles of sustainability into every aspect of our business, from production to the efficient use and recyclability of our cars. A sustainable future requires nothing short of a lifestyle revolution and only those that recognise their social and environmental responsibilities will survive and prosper. Through Celsias.co.nz, an exciting new platform exists to help us rise to the challenge.”

Mike Tournier, carboNZero programme business manager

“The carboNZero programme is assisting organisations and individuals in measuring and reducing their impact on the environment in very practical and credible ways.

“Celsias provides an opportunity for individuals and businesses to share best practice, encourage reductions and promote the latest in sustainability products and services. The carboNZero programme is well aligned with these objectives and we’re proud to support New Zealand’s new website, magazine and social networks for sustainable business.”

Vicki Buck, greentech investor and Celsias co-founder

“Celsias is about practical action on climate change, and using the power of the web to link those who want to do things now.

“I fear that governments won’t act anything like fast enough on this issue, and so it’s up to us. Celsias is very practical, whether it’s about the school project or the business undertaking, in the local community or across the planet.”

David Atkins, Image Centre chief executive

“Regardless of your views on anthropogenic climate change, we have to support a cleaner world and activities that make our planet a better place. At Image Centre, we were one of the first print companies in New Zealand to have both FSC and PEFC Certification. We continue to promote sustainable forests and only use inks that contain vegetable oils and modified vegetable oils.”

Kate Russell, Celsias.co.nz writer

“Before starting with the Celsias team, the part I played in combating climate change consisted of actions around the house—recycling, keeping a vegetable garden, composting and reducing electricity use. It’s a fairly solitary approach.

“Celsias offers the opportunity for interaction with other like-minded people, either at home or in business. It creates an informed environment that encourages and rewards real actions.

“This is where the motivation to work at Celsias lies for me. It’s about doing something to foster a sustainable planet. By making people aware of initiatives happening all across our country and the rest of the world, Celsias is a positive and vital presence in the sustainability movement.”

Andy Preece, Spicers Paper general manager

“As New Zealand’s leading sustainable paper supplier, Spicers Paper is thrilled to be involved with Celsias, a unique platform through which like-minded companies can engage and learn from each other. We encourage all New Zealand businesses to get involved and work together for a more sustainable future.”

Bonnie O’Neill, Celsias.co.nz writer

“I grew up playing in the crystal-clear Coromandel waters. I hope my son will be able to do the same. This is what inspires me to work with the Celsias team. Through Celsias, I can help give credit to the numerous people and organisations working hard to protect our planet. This is about individual efforts on a global scale, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Nick Nightingale, Resene managing director

“Fifty years ago, Resene turned the paint industry on its head with the development of New Zealand’s first waterborne paint. Since then we’ve achieved ten years of Environmental Choice certification, developed an environmental choice product range and progressed a range of sustainable initiatives. But we know it doesn’t stop there and we’re committed to continuous improvements.

“Celsias provides a forum for us to all share our progress and learn from the developments and successes of others.  The greater the contribution to Celsias, the greater the opportunity to learn.”