Reframing Sustainability

Peter Denton, Ph.D.
Keynote Address – EECOM Conference 2016, International Peace Gardens

peaking here today is kind of like preaching to the choir. It is great to have a friendly crowd who does not think a polar icecap is the name of some new cold drink at Tim Horton’s or need to be convinced that these icecaps are melting.

As environmentalists, we are unfortunately used to a rather more hostile or puzzled reception. But while it is energizing to be with like-minded people, we all have to head back out into that social and cultural wilderness when a conference like this one is over. It is what we do – who we are. That local environmental choir to which we each belong has to become a global chorus to make changes that need to be made for all of us to have a sustainable future.

But it’s not just enough to sing, is it? I imagine some of you are old enough to remember the Coca Cola jingle, “I want to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” That hasn’t worked out too well since it was first aired in 1971 and then turned into a hit song, minus the Coke.

As a society, we seem to oscillate between two poles, between denial and despair — and as environmentalists, it can be even worse for us, because we know both poles are melting faster by the year.

So this afternoon I am going to try and do the impossible. I am not going to preach to the choir and tell you things you already know.

Instead, I am going to try and make you think about the sustainability nexus in a different light, to reframe it in ways that are both hopeful and practical.

At the risk of giving away my punch line at the start, as environmentalists, we are not providers of information. Nor are we harbingers of doom. We are messengers of hope. I’m going spend the rest of our time together unpacking what this means and why it is the punch line, but I want first to go back to that idea of a global chorus.

A couple of years ago, Rocky Mountain Books published a book called Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet. It was edited by a young musician from Prince Edward Island, Todd MacLean, who just had a thought one day in the shower about how neat it would be to put together something that spoke about the hope people had for the future.

He had never done anything of the sort before, never written a book or edited anything, but he tried, anyway.

He asked people all over the world, from many walks of life, these questions: “Do you think humanity can find a way past the current global and environmental crises? Will we be able to create conditions necessary for our own survival, as well as that of other species on the planet? What would these conditions look like? In summary, then and in the plainest of terms, do we have hope, and can we do it?”

He got amazing responses from people whom you might think never look at random emails out of the blue, and compiled the book. I was asked to fill in a hole at the end, and so wrote for February 9th – a good day for a Manitoban to write up something about hope, on what is usually one of the coldest days of any winter.

My entry began like this:

“Hope is a creative act. It is creative because it generates something new out of the daily chaos of our lives. It is an act because through hope the possibility of a different future is created. We can work and dream toward what is possible but only if hope leads the way.”

While I think we need to work on our public image, environmentalists are the most hopeful people I know. They not only hope for a better future, they spend their lives working toward it, often without much in the way of the tangible rewards that other
people get for their efforts.

Perhaps the only profession just as hopeful as environmentalists would be teachers!

Anyway, to start, I need to set out three guiding principles that underpin what I want to say today about reframing the sustainability nexus.

First, sustainability is primarily a social and cultural problem, not a scientific or technological one. We know what needs to be done and have the tools we need to do it – we just don’t.

Second, all ecology is social ecology. Environmental sustainability is inextricably interwoven with social sustainability – we cannot separate environmental sustainability from sustainable development. Ecological justice embraces all of us, everywhere.

Third, a sustainable future will be the result of the choices we all make, together, every day. On a round planet, there is no place to hide. We can’t escape the consequences of what people have done, but we can make better choices today than we did yesterday,
right where we live.

I’ve written three books in Rocky Mountain Books’ Manifesto series to outline these themes: Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World (2012); Technology and Sustainability (2014); and Live Close to Home (released in October 2016), so here I am just going to flag them and move on.

This trilogy is not intended to provide information, but to nurture hope, but we can’t skip straight to hope this afternoon without talking about information.

As environmental educators, we all know the importance of information, of just how little too many people seem to understand about natural systems or about their interrelationships with the way people live.

Recently I cringed when I heard a local municipal councilor, who led an unsuccessful mission to torpedo a city-wide organic composting initiative, admit he did not realize that rotting organics produced a greenhouse gas.

He had the rare courage to admit his ignorance and I hope he learned something from the encounter, but it is still frightening that people who are responsible for decisions that affect all of us know so little about what is actually going on.

While I am sure we all know more about greenhouse gases than that councilor did, we still have a tendency to inhabit environmental siloes. Calling them “cylinders of excellence” does not diminish the problem.

We all have information that someone else needs, but rarely share it. Too often we spend much time and energy reinventing the wheel, and so diminish and fracture our efforts toward a better future as a result.

For example, how many people here know what UNEP stands for? (The United Nations Environment Programme.)

How many people here know that after Rio+20 in June 2012 UNEP was given responsibility over all of the environmental efforts of the United Nations?

Or that the Second World Parliament of the Environment, UNEA 2, was just held in May 2016 in Nairobi at UNEP’s global headquarters?

In part, I have to take some of the blame for this result: I am currently one of the two civil society representatives for North America to UNEP, elected at meetings in Washington in 2013.

Despite all our advantages, even our region lacks any significant reporting structure or means of engaging people doing environmental work in some collective fashion.

This also likely means you have not heard about GEO 6 – Global Environmental Outlook 6 – UNEP’s flagship product, which was just released at UNEA 2. The global version will not be out for a couple of years, but the regional assessments for the six global regions are complete.

This is the most comprehensive effort to date to provide a snapshot of the planet’s health, and while it is based on the most recent data, that is still several years old. The intention is to tie it to an interactive, real time data stream, through a site called UNEP Live.

These are both amazing resources that must be used for environmental education and for policy development, but they have an Achilles heel. We desperately need more and better information if we are going to base policy decisions on good evidence.

I was privileged to be part of the writing team for the North American Regional Assessment. It was unnerving how little we actually know about what is going on around us, even here at home.

For example, the most recent national statistics on municipal wastes and waste diversion in Canada consist of a one page summary note in 2010 from Statistics Canada. There is no national data collection, and most provinces don’t have good numbers themselves.
This is just laziness. We have to do better.

One of the interesting features of GEO 6 was the intentional effort to promote and include citizen science, along with so-called “grey literature” and indigenous local knowledge, or ILK. When it comes to measuring climate conditions, school children can be enlisted to upload data, just as the rest of us could do it ourselves with cell phones. Around the world, indigenous peoples are finally starting to be treated with respect for what they know about the places where they live.

There are other ways to figure out what is going on and to pool that information, by thinking creatively and working, literally, from the ground up, listening to the elders or just to ordinary people. We just have to do it.

While information is necessary, however, the need for more information cannot delay the decisions that we must make. I have witnessed a kind of informational paralysis, or datalock, when scientists and policy makers get together.

There is either too much information, or not enough of the right kind, or people can’t agree on what it means, so decisions are deferred until some future time. Too much information can swamp common sense.

So while both formal and informal kinds of public education are crucial, we know that providing information is not enough.

Sustainability is a problem not because people don’t know the facts, but because they refuse to admit the obvious. Nor will they easily accept responsibility for the choices that have created the situations they try so hard not to see.

There is a world of difference between information and knowledge, after all. Knowledge is information in context, interpreted, framed, explained and owned. Our responsibility as environmental educators is not just to provide information, but to provide context, to transform what can be gleaned from any Google search into knowledge that people understand, including policy makers.

Much of what we are exchanging here are the lessons we have learned about how to take information and transform it into knowledge that our audience, of whatever age or ability, can understand.

This is incredibly important. Information-dependent policy development will simply take too long, if it ever gets started at all.
We need evidence-based policies, but that information needs to be framed in a way that it becomes useful knowledge, knowledge that can be directed to a purpose.

It needs to be interpolated, not simply collated. A quantitative system can only be predicted if all the parameters of the system are understood. It’s kind of like predicting the weather – ever notice that even on the prairies our weather specialists can barely manage to predict what the weather will be six hours out?

So specific predictions about climatic events are never going to be accurate, no matter how much information we gather. Instead, we have to make qualitative assessments, finding new ways to understand all of the human and ecological systems within which we live. We have to adapt to the changing conditions of dynamic systems.

Knowledge is information in context – but what kinds of contexts are possible? And what can we do to change those things that are blocking our way forward into a sustainable future?

It’s all about changing our perspective. Let me demonstrate. You are all arranged in a
particular way in this room. I can’t change any of you or where you are. All I can change is my own perspective on this room and everything in it. Let me demonstrate by walking around the room and showing how new perspectives emerge when we change position in some situation that otherwise seems gridlocked.

Consider how this works for issues in sustainability, which as you recall, I described as a social and cultural problem. People feel trapped because they think there is nothing they can do to change the arrangement of the forces in the world that threaten their future.
They slide into denial or despair because there seems no other option. They feel powerless and so they are.

Take the information they have and change the context, change their perspective, and it is amazing how new possibilities emerge. Hope emerges out of those possibilities, if we allow it to – then and transform it into action.

Todd realized this with Global Chorus. He said: “I guess I am now a guy who has learned, in my own little way, what can be done when you choose not to follow what you think and instead follow what you believe.”

In part, this is the result of living in this wired world of ours. We all can do more than we think.

I have had this same experience. In late January 2012, fueled by the frustration of teaching the same round of things over and over, I started writing a blog. Two weeks and 25,000 words later, I emailed a publisher out of the blue and said I wanted to turn it into a book for the fall. Two weeks after that, he agreed – but wanted the manuscript for Gift Ecology in six weeks to fill a hole in their fall lineup.

One year to the day after I got that email, I was having a private meeting in Nairobi with the president of UNEP, who that year was the Environment Minister from Sudan, talking to him about my book, the role of civil society in changing the world, and Muslim- Christian relations. That was only the beginning. It would be a long conversation to tell you the rest of the story and I still have no idea what is coming next.

For example, in April, I went to Tehran for the Earth Day weekend with a couple of dozen people from around the world for the Second International Seminar on Environment, Religion and Culture. In June, after UNEA 2, I drove across the Great Rift Valley en route to the Loita Hills and the Maasai community with whom I have been working since that first trip in 2013.

This is a long way from home for a kid from St. Andrews, Manitoba, whose previous exposure to anything exotic was walking through the zoo in Winnipeg!

I haven’t changed who I am or what I believe – I just found a bigger audience, full of possibilities that I couldn’t see from where I stood before, an audience who also saw more possibilities in what I could do than when I stayed in my classroom, thinking that
was all I could do to change the world.

From the moment we wake up, we are bombarded with the message that we are just one person, that society is run by elites and by masses, not by people like you and me. You might roll out of bed determined to change the world, but by the second cup of coffee, you are back in the rut, frustrated and powerless.

But that, too, is a choice. It’s not the way things have to be – nor is it the way things have always been.

No event for good or ill in the history of humanity was ever the result of the actions of a group. It always began with one person, making a choice. Others saw that choice and made their own choices in support, so we lose sight of that original decision.

One person can change the world. In fact, that is the only way it ever changes. That change starts with our own choices as individuals. We make choices, every day, each one of us, all the time.

I would begin my ethics and sustainability classes by asking this question: “How many of you have made an ethical choice so far today?” Most of the time I just got puzzled looks and silence in response.

But we all make hundreds of ethical choices in a day – we just don’t stop and think about what they are. For a sustainable future, we need to make better choices today than we did yesterday – not great ones, just better ones.

This is where the power of one choice by one person gets multiplied. The planet is in the shape it is in because of the poor choices people have made, one at a time, right where they live.

Our only hope for a better future than the one that will surely arrive is to do the same in reverse, to make better choices right where we live, and watch the tide grow.

As Todd wrote at the beginning of Global Chorus, “So please, embrace this notion: if you do have any idea that can help your household, your workplace, your community, your city, your region, your country to be more environmentally sustainable and/or socially harmonious, do not hesitate. Do it.

“Because the reality is that these kind of helpful ideas come to us for a reason: to help us evolve. But a helpful idea is wasted if it is not borne by action into this help-hungry world.”

This afternoon, I want to take us one step further, in closing. If there is a world of difference between information and knowledge, there is even more between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom lies in understanding our choices, what to do with what we know.

We began our day discussing aboriginal attitudes toward the environment, unfolding what it means to consider all our relations, and I want to suggest that indigenous traditions world-wide offer a glimpse into the wisdom humans have always embedded in their choices, day-to-day.

We have just lost sight of that wisdom, those choices, in the development and global extension of the western industrial society which we have inherited and which, without significant changes to the choices we make, we will perpetuate, with disastrous consequences for our children and for the future of the Earth.

We have both the power and the responsibility to choose – but where and how? How do we express our hope in tangible and practical ways?

The three books I wrote are all independent, though the themes are woven together. The third one, Live Close to Home, focuses on where we need to make those better choices.

We live in an unsustainable global culture because we focus our primary attention on other places than where we actually live. We need to live close to home, to realize what we mean by home in all its dimensions.

We need to realize we live in a universe of relations, not an environment of connections, and embrace the story of all those relations, a story in which we are both authors of our own parts, and characters in the lives of other people.

As North Americans, we have an additional burden to carry, however. We not only have to mind our own homes – we need to support and encourage people in other countries to do the same.

With more time, I wanted to discuss the 2030 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, to which the UN has committed – goals that acknowledge the planetary interrelationships between society and ecology, toward social and ecological justice. Please look them up – and find ways to embed them in what you do at home and for other people.

Finally, educate yourselves about what environmentalists elsewhere face in their daily struggles to make a difference where they live. It is an increasingly dangerous profession for our colleagues in other places, who are constantly under threat – with someone murdered or assassinated every other week.

One day at lunch in Nairobi during UNEA, a gentleman joined me at my table in a crowded cafeteria just as a colleague left. I spent most of the next hour having a very interesting conversation with the Environment Minister from Somalia, Buri Hamza, who turned out to be a Somali-Canadian who had returned to his home country after many years away, leaving his family behind in Toronto.

We talked a lot about technology and the environment, so I gave him a copy of Technology and Sustainability and we promised to continue our conversation, as he pondered ways to bring me to Mogadishu to give some lectures. At the session in the afternoon, he was a speaker…but in a seat with the label “Special Guest” instead of his name – the only time I had ever seen this done at UNEA. I thought it odd, but wondered if there might be security reasons for it.

Three weeks after our lunch together, he was killed when the terrorist group al-Shabaab sent a suicide bomber and others to attack the hotel back home where he was living. He was crushed by the debris when his part of the hotel was demolished, the only real target there that day.

Somewhere in the rubble of his room would have been that copy of my book.

Hope is not cheap. Those creative acts that hope inspires come at a cost. Hope is powerful enough, however, to change the world, because it emerges from the same Earth story in which we all live out the roles we have been given or which we claim for ourselves.

To close with what I wrote at the end of my Global Chorus entry:

“Hope is just as resilient in the human heart as the impulse to survive is resilient in living systems. That resilience does not excuse us from doing things that deny hope any more than it excuses us from actions that destroy life. When the spirit that is in us aligns with the spirit found deep within the Earth, green will no longer be just a colour.”

One Earth. All we have. All there is.

Thank you. Miigwich.

Peter Denton is an activist, writer, speaker and educator. He blogs at and tweets @green_ethics.