The other day, I had a fantasy.
No, not that type of fantasya science-fiction fantasy. A science-fiction,
sustainability fantasy. It featured a distant galaxy with
thousands upon thousands of inhabited planets; a galaxy that had
been there, done that countless times with regard to sustainable
development. Thousands of its planets had successfully made the
transition into sustainability, and thousands had failed. Talk about
a track record! Talk about a database! If there was one thing the
Imperial Confederation that governed this galaxy knew about, it
was sustainabilityits stages, its patterns and what makes
for success or failure.
In this fantasy, the Grand Vizier, the person running the Imperial
Confederation, decides to send a delegation to a distant planet
that is run (some would say overrun) by a species called homo sapiens.
The planet is called Earth, and it seems that the ecological situation
there is getting precarious. The Grand Vizier wants to know how
much homo sapiens have botched things up, and if things are salvageable.
The leader of this delegation, whose name is Zandor, flies down
to Earth and checks out the scene. It takes him about half a nanosecond
to figure out whats happening. Its as if he were a master
dermatologist and hes seeing a teenager with a raging case
of acne. The diagnosis is that simple.
Zandor zips home and reports back to the Grand Vizier before hes
even slept off his saucer-lag. (Actually, he doesnt make a
report, he makes a presentationa Powerpoint presentation,
because, no surprise here, Microsoft has a stranglehold on that
Zandors first slide is titled, Status ReportCrisis
Stage. It has five bullet points. The first one reads,
Stage of MaturityAdolescent. Zandor explains, Weve
seen this pattern before, usually with disastrous results. People
act like teenagers who are drunk on hormones. They want it all and
they want it now. They act as if there were no tomorrow. On Earth,
the dominant cultures actually encourage people to behave this way
because it stimulates the economy. Needless to say, this makes matters
The second bullet point reads, Time Is Accelerating. Technology,
work pressures, the ever more pervasive media and possibly environmental
toxins as wellall these are combining to speed up peoples
internal clocks. Not only are people finding it harder to relax,
theyre also finding it harder to reflectand reflection
is where long-term thinking and emotional maturity come from. Its
one more symptom, says Zandor, of how things are spiraling
out of control.
The next bullet reads, Denial Is Rampant. People just
dont want to hear about how perilous their environmental circumstances
are, Zandor tells the Grand Vizier. They put their fingers
in their ears and start humming pop tunes every time the environmental
crisis is mentioned.
The fourth bullet states, Anxiety Is Increasing. Although
billions of people are in denial, increasing numbers of people arent
and theyre getting more and more alarmed, Zandor says.
The hue and cry is getting louder. It is taking the form of
protests against globalization, boycotts of companies perceived
as particularly egregious despoilers
of the environment and the increasing prominence of sustainability-related
issues on the public agenda. Our Anxiety Analyzer also shows high
and increasing levels of unacknowledged fear among people suffering
from the Denial Syndrome.
Zandors last bullet reads, Change Is Happeningbut
Slowly. Efforts to make a timely transition into sustainability
are picking up, Zandor tells the Grand Vizier. Since
1990, considerable progress has been made. The environmental bar
has been raised considerably, especially in developed economies.
Environmentalists have become much more knowledgeable about the
ecological crisis. Increasingly, they understand that it is a system
challenge that requires issues of social equity to be addressed.
Companies have become more sophisticated, too. They understand that
being a good environmental citizen requires more than simply not
violating regulations. It is about going beyond compliance, and
also about being socially responsibleabout actively
taking steps to address the worlds problems. Also, more and
more companies are disclosing their environmental and social performance.
Unfortunately, Zandor continues, all this change
is happening much too slowly. Many scientists on Earth now believe
that if things continue on their current path, there are likely
to be widespread ecosystem collapses in the 2020 to 2030 time frame
that lead to significant reductions in the planets capacity
to support life. The rate of positive change needs to be accelerated,
and more than incrementally.
It sounds very much like what happened on the planet Niquatime,
the Grand Vizier muses.
Yes, and there was a happy ending on that planet, says
Zandor. People there started banding together to develop higher-level
strategies. Until then, sustainability advocacy had been very
ad hoc. People tended to gravitate toward what they cared about.
Activities werent thought through and coordinated like a military
campaign. When that higher-level (also called whole-system) strategizing
started to happen, things changed dramatically for the better.
There was a four-point program on Niquatime, if I recall,
says the Grand Vizier.
Thats right, says Zandor. And with that he switches
to the next slide titled, The Power of Whole-System Strategizing.
The first of its four bullet points reads Promote Higher-level
Coherence. Sustainability advocacy is an ecosystem,
Zandor explains. There are quite a few gaps in the ecosystem,
and many of them are at the higher levels of organization. Consider,
for instance, communications. Sustainability is first and foremost
a communications challenge. Its about breaking through the
Great Wall of Denial and getting people around the worldand
most of all in the United States of America, which is the only truly
imperial nation on the planetto demand the sort of policies
and initiatives that will set Earthian society on a course toward
sustainability. The communications challenge hasnt really
been engaged at a higher strategic level. The same is true in other
areas as well.
The second bullet reads, Challenge Boundary Conditions. Many
executives would love to make their companies more sustainable,
but the prevailing rules of the business (and, more broadly, the
economic) game keep them from doing so. For example, so long as
the financial markets continue to disregard sustainability performance,
it will be difficult for corporate executives to give it the priority
it warrants. And so long as carbon-based energy is heavily subsidized,
it will be difficult for renewable energy to compete effectively.
These and other boundary conditions must be changed, Zandor
The third bullet states, Produce Some BIG Winners. On
Earth, corporations play follow the leader, Zandor tells the
Grand Vizier. They are forever singing the praises of innovation,
but they are really quite cautious. Companies have been greening
up their operations on a piecemeal basis for the last decade or
more; but to date, not a single major multinational has made a smashing
success of operationalizing sustainability throughout its operations.
If one or two companies lead the way, legions of other companies
The fourth bullet reads, A Crash Course in Design Mind.
Basically, there are two ways to problem-solve,
Zandor says. Do it as you go along, or front-load the creativity.
Accept and work within the existing boundary conditions, or write
your own boundary conditionswhile staying realisticand
take it from there. This latter approachDesign Mindproduces
breakthrough thinking, and they need a lot of that on planet Earth
The sustainability community has some very gifted designers,
Zandor continues, but unfortunately most people dont
seem to understand the value and importance of Design Mind. The
sustainability community needs to get the word out about this approach
Now lets close the curtain on this flight of fancy, with thanks
to Zandor, the Grand Vizier et al., and bring the conversation down
to Earth. The fact is, many of Zandors recommendations are
already being implemented. Around the world, sustainability consultants
are hard at work trying to get multinationals to operationalize
sustainability at a deep level. Policy analysts are developing ways
to create sustainability-friendly boundary conditions, but something
important is missing. More people need to be thinking BIG (read
whole-system strategizing) and more people need to be thinking BOLD
(read Design Mind).
This isnt from the Department of Wouldnt-It-Be-Nice.
Its from the Department of Strategic Imperatives. Time is
growing short. Nothing less will do.
Senior columnist Carl Frankel (email@example.com)
is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in busness and