Home All Sustainability: From denial or depression to hope and personal responsibility

Sustainability: From denial or depression to hope and personal responsibility

written by Kathryn Britton 7 November 2007

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Our time gives us the extraordinary challenge we call sustainability: to collectively change the way we live to be in balance with the planet. Most of us know that we cannot continue indefinitely consuming resources and producing waste at our present rates.

It is very easy to talk about sustainability in a way that drains the energy for change out of people (Ludema et al, 2003, p 6). Talk only about the immensity of the problem and then watch a room full of people move into either denial or depression. So how do we talk about sustainability in ways that lead instead to hope and personal responsibility?

Appreciative Inquiry has a model for making transformational instead of incremental change. The first step is Discovery, figuring out what is already strong and resourceful in the system, often surprising the people involved. The second is to Dream, to collect aspirations for the future. The third is to Design, to invent ways to reach our aspirations from where we are right now. The fourth step is Destiny, putting our innovations into practice, practice, practice. Let me say a little more about Discovery and Design for sustainability.

We need to discover our strengths by collecting stories of people collectively facing big challenges resourcefully and well. My friend in San Diego talks about the way the community dealt with the fires this fall. Half a million people were evacuated from their homes, most of them going to friends or hotels. The ones who went to shelters were supported by the generosity of people from all over the region – blankets, clothes, food – all given without thought for return. She was awed by the orderliness of this massive collective action.

Dry Creek Bed

Dry Creek Bed

In my own community, we are facing a serious drought. Dealing with the water shortage is a constant topic of conversation. People are watching their water meters, putting buckets in showers to collect water for bushes, delaying new landscaping until next year, bathing less frequently and/or with less water, and watching every drop as they wash dishes. Ordinary people are inventing and sharing ways to reduce water usage and reuse water. Our water company has instituted block pricing to reinforce these behaviors without putting undue pressure on low income families. The cost for the amount of water needed for basic needs is low and the rate goes up for each increment in consumption.

I recently participated in a sustainability Design workshop. My group explored ways to meter and project the impact of individual consumption decisions to help people see how much their individual choices matter. For example, it is very easy to look around and feel that our own driving decisions are so small relative to the overall amount of driving that they don’t matter. But the overall amount of driving comes from multitudes of individual decisions, and we only have control over our own. What if I reduced my driving substantially, for example, by organizing the way I do errands more efficiently? Could projections help me see the importance of my decision by projecting the impact if everyone behaved that way? For another example, I am washing vegetables for dinner. Do I let the water run down the drain, or do I collect it to water my bushes so that I won’t need to use the hose later? What if every person in my town collected the water for their bushes? How many days would that add to the capacity of our reservoirs? What if everybody in every water-challenged community in the country did it? In the world?

The solution to sustainability is in our many individual hands. There is no outside hierarchy that can fix it for us. In the 1960s, Victor Frankl proposed that the United States needs to be bracketed on the west coast with a Statue of Responsibility to match the Statue of Liberty on the east coast. We can choose personal responsibility, move forward with hope, and remember that humans have achieved many things that were initially viewed as impossible.


Appreciative Inquiry Resources

Appreciative Inquiry Commons – a world-wide Web portal where Appreciative Inquiry, positive change research and organizational leadership connect for world benefit

Cooperrider, D. & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler. 85 page introduction to AI.

Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.

Ludema, J., Whitney, D., Mohr, B., & Griffin, T. (2003). The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.


I was inspired to write this by several presentations I heard at the International Coach Federation conference, especially Julio Olalla‘s discussion of finding an alternative to denial or depression and Sir John Whitmore‘s discussion of personal responsibility. The design workshop occurred at the Appreciative Inquiry Symphony of Strengths conference and was led by IDEO designer Peter Coughlan.

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Angus 7 November 2007 - 1:08 pm

Excellent Kathryn
you are so right that “The solution to sustainability is in our many individual hands. There is no outside hierarchy that can fix it for us” …. The man on Mars, who had the key, has gone away. I so love appreciative inquiry. I wish I could run it better in my brain. Most of my conversations with myself still start with ‘why the blazes Angus did you…’
Great stuff Kathryn
lots of love

Coert Visser 7 November 2007 - 4:29 pm

Dear Kathryn,

My favorite approach to individual and organizational change, the solution-focused approach has an interesting view on sustainability too. I have tried to describe it in this little article: http://tinyurl.com/3xrsuy

I hope this is an interesting addition to the things you mentioned.

Best wishes,
Coert Visser

PS should you not be familiar with it, the solution-focused approach is kind of like a close relative to appreciative inquiry.

Kathryn Britton 9 November 2007 - 9:59 am

Angus, Thanks for the comment. You know what it takes to develop a habit of thinking appreciatively about yourself: practice, practice, practice! Good luck.

Coert, Thanks for the pointer. It’s going to take all kinds of positive energy working together. I’m interested to learn abut the solution-focused approach.

The opendesk comment is a link back submitted to the opendesk blog by Rashad Bryan.

Coert Visser 10 November 2007 - 4:42 am

Dear Kathryn,
Thank you, I agree.
Here is an introduction article on solution-focused change: http://tinyurl.com/2ln29w
I hope you like it.

Jeff Dustin 10 November 2007 - 5:11 am


I read some of your articles and I am intrigued by solution focused change. Very cool stuff!


Coert Visser 10 November 2007 - 6:33 am

Dear Jeff,

Thanks. Yes, it’s intruiging. Ever since I’ve found out about it in the year 2000 I have been exploring it and using with great pleasure, and I am often amazed by how well it works. I have the impression many positive psychologists don’t know it and I think that’s a pity. Although it has a different origin, you might say it is a brilliant practical application of PP. (By the way, this monday, I will do a lecture for 550 psychology students in Groningen, the Netherlands, about positive psychology and solution-focused change)

Thanks for your interest!


Jeff Dustin 10 November 2007 - 2:26 pm

If I may ask you a question…

I work with students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. These children come from extremely abusive backgrounds and subsequently are 100 percent impulsive. It seems like progress is imperceptibly slow and the burnout rate at my job is measured in weeks to months. I wonder what steps a solution focus could bring to help staff cope better with the daily grind.

Jeff Dustin 10 November 2007 - 5:22 pm

Just following up a search on my name. My name is Jeff Dustin. Didn’t know there was more than one.

Jeff Dustin 10 November 2007 - 11:52 pm

Unfortunately, we are Legion.

Jeff Dustin 10 November 2007 - 11:54 pm

…but I am the REAL Jeff Dustin 😉

Kathryn Britton 11 November 2007 - 11:15 am

Positive psychology isn’t a fair weather friend. I know your question about burnout was addressed to Coert. But it has made me think as well.

When Julio Olalla spoke about the modern tendency to either denial or depression, he suggested that we fix this by moving from a posture of fear to a posture of gratitude. (For a 10-minute clip of Julio speaking, scroll down on http://www.newfieldnetwork.com/Public/Home/index.cfm )

What might this mean in your situation? Here are some possibilities that I put forth in full humility because I don’t know the full difficulty of your situation.

Being grateful that these children are in a place where people like you have a chance to influence and help them.

Being grateful for every small advance because you know how hard it is for these kids.

Being grateful for any teachers who touched your life in a positive way. I suspect there were some since you have become a teacher yourself.

Being grateful for the successes and strengths of your peers because you are more together than you are apart.

When my kids were teenagers, they both went through periods of being quite nasty to me. My whole attitude changed when I started thinking of myself as the safe person in their lives where they could express all the negative emotion they accumulated in school each day. Same behavior on their part, different interpretation on mine, but it made a big difference. I know my kids grew out of it, and you get a fresh crop each year. But don’t you provide a relatively safe environment for them to make mistakes?

All you can do is the best you can do — and then not own the outcome. For some kids, the things you do will bear delayed fruit that you will never see.

Once again, in humility. I haven’t faced this difficult challenge, but I have faced others. There is usually some degree of choice in my responses.


Coert Visser 11 November 2007 - 5:15 pm

Dear Jeff,
thank you for your question and sorry for my late reply (I was away for the weekend). With admiration for your work (and in humility) I have some suggestions. I tried to publish them here, but there were too many links and my reply was rejected. That is why I put them here: http://tinyurl.com/2xxl2x
Thanks again,

Jeff Dustin 11 November 2007 - 9:29 pm

Let me get specific about one problem for which we could brainstorm solutions.

At my workplace we do not get any breaks. As in zero. The company is policy is perceived as: we are paying you, we need a certain minimum number of bodies watching the children, so that’s the way it is. Even lunch is eaten with the children. This contributes mightily to the burnout I mentioned. To tell you how intensive the behavior problems get, I was urinated on by a child, punched, scratched, spit upon and bit within the span of about half an hour. Then we put the child into a safety hold to prevent his molestation of the younger children nearby.

Another major factor is the staff have not yet learned how to groove as a team. Everyone wants to be the leader and officially there is no leader. There are few written policies about how to approach the children because our leadership doesn’t have education or experience with children but in an entirely different field.

I’d love to jump in feet first and be the big hero fixing everything, but I suspect that I’ll be told to go jump off a cliff and besides where do you start?

What are some good ideas from PP that might help prevent burnout & promote good teamwork? I love education, but the conditions at this workplace are trying my patience.

Kathryn Britton 12 November 2007 - 10:18 am


OK so I’ll just throw out some ideas in the manner of brainstorming.

So you don’t have teamwork because you have no time apart from dealing with children to be together. Are there ways you could communicate asynchronously? Exchange ideas on a bulletin board – electronic or paper? Brainstorm by mail? What if each person who wants to be the leader contributed a description of what he or she would do differently? What zen step he or she would take toward making things better? What if you took turns being the leader — each leader getting a chance to propose one change in behavior or practice which others would carry out — being aware that they’d get their own chances later to lead.

Could you create a staff strengths map? A place where people could post information about what they are individually really good at or things that they’ve done that have worked out well? Their VIA strengths or StrengthsFinder strengths? A place where you could look if you needed help of a particular sort?

Could you collect stories of things going well. There’s probably a tendency when you are together to talk about the kids who urinate on you rather than anything that goes well. The negative is more salient … People have to have a sense of possibility to keep going.

How does your employer measure success? Could you help your employer see the negative impact of burnout on that measure? There must be financial impacts — that tired staff are less productive, less likely to deal effectively with situations, and are more likely to quit, which brings about the costs of recruiting and training new people who become less productive and more likely to quit. Are there any customer satisfaction metrics? Performance metrics?

Could you do some of the Appreciative Inquiry exercises asynchronously — that is without getting everybody together at once? Who knows, there might be some of the experts in the AI field who would help — maybe even pro bono — because of the interesting challenge of starting transformational change in such a challenging environment. It is certainly the case that pairwise AI interviews for the Discovery step could be conducted with just two people at a time. It might be that you could talk people into talking an hour of their free time for such an interview, given that half of that time they get to talk about what they are really good at and when they’ve been most effective.

As you said, brainstorming. You need to write down at least a few of your ideas stimulated by mine — before you you start shooting mine down :-}


Jeff Dustin 12 November 2007 - 3:44 pm

No problem Kat,

I just LOVE criticism! (and sharpshooting others’ good ideas).

I liked the idea of convincing management to make changes. After all, they have positional power to actually mandate structural changes, if not to persuade the rank-and-file (me) to actually commit to an initiative.

As for metrics…hmm. I don’t really know what they are in this context. The children are safe? They are making progress academically? Maybe that’s a great place to start: Coming up with measures to say, yeah this kid is becoming more social, less violent, is peeing only in toilets, not on staff. That would be a fun metric to share at a meeting. Maybe there could be (thank you Coert v.) a SCALE of appropriate bathroom behavior. 0 is going whenever and whereever he wants. 10 would be only in the restroom. We could analyze trends to see if his bathroom business was becoming more appropriate or less so. We could keep developing Likert type scales to measure all kinds of progress from personal hygiene to academics like math and reading which we already have, to positive behavioral measures: less hitting more sharing feelings, taking breaks, etc.

The challenge is how do we ‘triage the wounded’. What should we start with? Staff behavior? Student Behavior? Metrics? Managerial attitudes?

I like your stuff, Kathryn. Keep on writing.


Jeff Dustin 12 November 2007 - 3:47 pm


I’ll keep you posted on positive developments at my job!


Kathryn Britton 13 November 2007 - 11:24 am


One quick thought:

People are better off creating success metrics for themselves that depend on their own actions, not on someone else’s response.

So you might be doing the absolute best job that you possibly can, but child X still doesn’t move up in the bathroom behavior scale. After all your intervention is only one of many things going on in that child’s life.

Is there a way that you can measure your own success in terms of doing the best you can and then not owning the outcome???


Jeff Dustin 13 November 2007 - 4:21 pm

I think you are right. Owning the outcome drains energy and resources, like my limited patience. What is the grit in my oyster is that the children’s actions are reflections upon my ability to control and shape the classroom environment.

In other words, I am measured by these externals, not by how much effort I put in…does that make sense? I might feel like I was somehow unplugging from my job and that kind of act may detract from my vigilance if I measured myself on effort.

I will endeavor to measure myself on effort and see what happens.
Thanks for the idea.

Kathryn Britton 13 November 2007 - 4:35 pm

Effort can include ingenuity, patience, collaboration with peers, vigilance, foresight, heading off problems before they occur, empathy .. and many other skills you bring to bear. They just need to be things that are under your control.

I really like the slogan, “Don’t own the outcome.” It is a very useful reminder.

Wayne Jencke 10 February 2008 - 1:32 pm


I have been looking for some research on appreciative inquiry in research journals – it seems rather thin.

Any ideas?

Kathryn Britton 10 February 2008 - 4:14 pm

Here are a couple of places to look:

Appreciative Inquiry commons — Research bibliography http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/research/default.cfm

Reed, J. (2006). Appreciative Inquiry: Research for Change.
Sage Publications. ISBN: 1412927471

Wayne Jencke 13 February 2008 - 2:37 pm

Thanx Kathryn,

I have had a look. Much of it appears to be opinion pieces or case studies without controls.

Can you tell me what the definitive piece of research that you cite to support appreciative inquiry.

I run positive psychology workshops and have had numerous people mention AI to me.

I have been unable to find any quality research that supports its efficacy.

Kathryn Britton 14 February 2008 - 9:30 am


Why don’t you contact the principals — David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney, Ronald Fry or others — Case Western Reserve is a good place to start.

I am not sure how one runs control studies of organizations making transformative changes. Your question reminds me of Martin Seligman talking about how hard it is to test new programs used in schools. Even if you can get the school to agree, how do you create control groups? If the intervention is thought to be effective, parents want their children in the study group. And there’s no real want to double-blind it. Schools, it seems to me, would be far easier to study than businesses.

I think there’s a rhythm between creating new ways to proceed constructively and finding ways to evaluate efficacy of these new ways. If I could put a picture in a comment, I’d include a diagram that I use for this tension between application and evaluation. It’s quite likely that we’re ahead on the application creation side.

Anyway, if you do learn something from the principals, please come back and let us know. If I learn something more, I’ll do the same.


Jeff Dustin 14 February 2008 - 1:10 pm


I like the idea behind the application & evaluation. Maybe there’s a rider/elephant (chicken/egg, insert favorite/folksy image here) metaphor here, too? People love to latch on to metaphors & pics. 🙂

Editor K.H.B. 20 May 2008 - 9:18 pm

Here’s an online clip — The Story of Stuff — that certainly shows the need for changes in our practices with respect to producing, consuming, and disposing of stuff — and a passing mention of the relationship between stuff and happiness. There’s also a page with suggested actions.



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