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.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.