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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jul/Aug 2001 : Frankel-y Speaking

Report to the Grand Vizier
Senior coumnist Carl Frankel issues an extraterrestrial call for whole-system strategizing.

By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

The other day, I had a fantasy. No, not that type of fantasy—a 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 sustainability—its 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 what’s happening. It’s as if he were a master dermatologist and he’s 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 he’s even slept off his saucer-lag. (Actually, he doesn’t make a report, he makes a presentation—a Powerpoint presentation, because, no surprise here, Microsoft has a stranglehold on that galaxy, too.)

Zandor’s first slide is titled, “Status Report—Crisis Stage.” It has five bullet points. The first one reads, Stage of Maturity—Adolescent. Zandor explains, “We’ve 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 worse.”

The second bullet point reads, Time Is Accelerating. Technology, work pressures, the ever more pervasive media and possibly environmental toxins as well—all these are combining to speed up people’s internal clocks. Not only are people finding it harder to relax, they’re also finding it harder to reflect—and reflection is where long-term thinking and emotional maturity come from. “It’s one more symptom,” says Zandor, “of how things are spiraling out of control.”

The next bullet reads, Denial Is Rampant. “People just don’t 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 aren’t and they’re 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.”

Zandor’s last bullet reads, Change Is Happening—but 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 responsible’—about actively taking steps to address the world’s 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 planet’s 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 weren’t 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.

“That’s 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. It’s about breaking through the Great Wall of Denial and getting people around the world—and most of all in the United States of America, which is the only truly imperial nation on the planet—to demand the sort of policies and initiatives that will set Earthian society on a course toward sustainability. The communications challenge hasn’t 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 says.

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 will follow.”

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 conditions—while staying realistic—and take it from there. This latter approach—Design Mind—produces breakthrough thinking, and they need a lot of that on planet Earth right now.

“The sustainability community has some very gifted designers,” Zandor continues, “but unfortunately most people don’t seem to understand the value and importance of Design Mind. The sustainability community needs to get the word out about this approach to problem-solving.”

Now let’s 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 Zandor’s 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 isn’t from the Department of Wouldn’t-It-Be-Nice. It’s from the Department of Strategic Imperatives. Time is growing short. Nothing less will do.

Senior columnist Carl Frankel (
is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in busness and sustain-
able development.

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