Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Human and Environmental Sustainability Summit

It had been quite some time since I attended some sort of "sustainability confab" - I was in need of a few big ideas. The inaugural edition of the Mount Desert Island Biological Institute's Human and Environmental Sustainability Summit took place in picturesque Eden, ME on August 9th. We just so happened to be visiting the island for our annual vacation and family visit so I decided to attend.

Reading the event's description - a gathering of voices from the public, private, and academic sectors showcasing collaborative real-world solutions for our most pressing environmental issues - gave me hope that I'd come away energized and maybe even optimistic.  I found myself most curious about what Chris Mooney, a well-known science writer and public speaker, and Rebecca Henderson, a Professor at the Harvard Business School and Co-Director of the HBS Business and Environment Initiative would have to say. Larry Langebrake, Director of the Marine Technology Program of SRI International and MDIBL's Director of Community Environmental Health Laboratory Jane Disney were slated to appear as well. I found the twitter hashtag and began interacting with others tweeting about it.  This led to a small, informal tweet-up over lunch prior to the event.  I love twitter for this - making connections with people that otherwise may not be made.

After a brief introduction by Lab Director and Professor Dr. Kevin Strange, Mr. Mooney set the stage for us by highlighting the fundamental problem associated with environmental issues - that "science" is mistrusted and misunderstood and that this mistrust is rooted in ideology stemming from our psychological makeup. Whoa.  We hold dear the idea that we arrive at our political beliefs rationally and objectively, well, that's pretty much complete bunk.  A more accurate assessment is that our political beliefs are closely aligned with our psychological make-up - we believe what makes us feel good and aligns with who we are.  Makes intuitive sense, right?

After many great charts and graphs illustrating the psychological and personality differences between liberals and conservatives including their diverging trust in science since 1970, the difference in their feelings when asked about moral issues (some of them feel physically repulsed by things), I was thinking differently.  I recall one chart in particular with character traits along the horizontal axis and the strengths of those traits plotted vertically.  The one characteristic that was highest in respondents considered liberals and non-existent in those considered conservatives was "openness".  That struck me - mostly because of how I perceive myself and my beliefs.  Where was I on that spectrum?  Almost as an aside he made a comment about the term "follow the money", something often used when criticizing partisan think tanks for the information they push out. He offered that the term is too simplistic, it's about "following the psychology".  That made a lot of sense, and explains why some messaging works and some does not.  Language is powerful, and groups seeking to influence opinions and behaviors must use words that tap into the feelings of the people they're trying to reach.  The challenge becomes understanding the psychology of the people you're trying to reach.

Rebecca Henderson had the unenviable task of taking the mic immediately following the lunch break on a gloomy, rain-soaked day to tell us about those mythical private sector partnerships that work.  Her review of what the key elements of successful partnerships was illuminating, citing the need for mutual trust and respect, without which a partnership has a much lower chance of succeeding.

We learned about the connection between Unilever and The Rainforest Alliance to help Unilever source its tea sustainably.  Unilever owns multiple brands that use tea leaves as a primary ingredient.  It's in their best interest to prevent environmental degradation and improve small farmers' economic conditions as both these things could affect their supply.  It is factors like this that will drive businesses to move themselves along the sustainability spectrum - and the rising social demand for it.

I found her anecdotal tale of Eastman Kodak's demise at the hand of the digital photographic age compelling.  It was a sober reminder of how businesses perceive change and a practical example of why change in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need for change (denial, no money to make, no faith in the ability to change) does not happen.  They saw the digital train coming (as did Polaroid) and did not believe that they could make the necessary changes to catch the next wave.

The thought she left me with was how easy it is to de-carbonize our economy - simply price externalities accurately for enterprises and consumers. Now go do it.  Does anyone have enough political capital to do this? Not yet?  Soon?  Remember that comment about tapping into psychology from Chris Mooney?

The afternoon culminated in a ticketed dinner for the lab's Richard M. Hays, M.D., Memorial Lecture featuring Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, aquanaut, and author. She was the chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1990 to 1992 and Time Magazine's first "Hero for the Planet."  Take a look at her TED Talk and tell me if you either come away inspired or overwhelmed by the challenge

I focused on two elements that connected with me of a packed afternoon. To get a bigger picture of the event, check out what other people had to say by reading the tweets tagged with #EnviroSummit.  There are great thoughts from Karen James, Sylvia Earle, D.J. Brooks, Jerilyn Bowers, Chris Mooney, MDIBLRegina the Lobster, and others.

More information:
The Mount Desert Island Biological Institute
Harvard Business School Business & Environment Initiative
Citizen Science
SRI International
Frenchman Bay Partners (what Jane Disney spoke about)