Here is how what we call leadership in the area of sustainability would look in another area.
Imagine you attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One person stands up in front and says, â€œI’ve read all about what alcohol does to the liver. I’m an expert. Here’s what you should do.â€ This person continues lecturing on the science of alcohol and the liver and what everyone should do.
This person also has a bottle of gin in hand, regularly taking a swig saying, â€œDon’t be distracted by what I do. What one person does doesn’t matter. We have to get governments and corporations to change. They want you to focus on me to keep the heat off them.â€
The rest of the group then follows, but not how the â€œleaderâ€ hoped. They all start reading and researching. They all declare themselves experts too and start lecturing others on what they should do, all while continuing to drink themselves.
The alcohol and twelve-step part is incidental. It could be any addiction—sugar, fat, gambling, cocaine, etc. It could be any group wanting to change their behaviorâ€”to exercise more, learn a new skill, etc. Anyone who has changed their behavior knows the physical behavior is a small part.
Not “leading by example”
To clarify, I’m not suggesting what people call leading by example. It rarely works for most lifestyle change. For an Alcoholics Anonymous facilitator to stop drinking won’t lead many others to stop. It doesn’t even create that much credibility. It just removes a major lack of credibility. As far as leadership goes, acting consistently with your values gives you a chance at being listened to. Then begins the task of leading, which requires leadership skills, experience, and practice.
I recently watched the first episode of the environmental series Years of Living Dangerously. The series features huge stars like Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Gisele Bundchen, and more, produced by James Cameron. The firepower behind it is amazing. Within the first few minutes, every major character gets on a flight, unnecessarily. They board multiple flights, seaplanes, helicopters, and so on. I’m glad they’re learning about a problem and care. I wish they recognized the examples they setâ€”like the AA facilitator drinking ginâ€”and the one they could set.
Why people drink and pollute
People don’t drink because they think alcohol is healthy to their livers. Lecturing about the science of alcohol and the liver sounds irrelevant and insensitive to their reasons, which are more like depression, insecurity, lack of understanding, and lack of support, which lecturing augments. It just makes you sound insensitive, leading them to spend more time with their drinking friends who understand them.
I haven’t been addicted to alcohol. I doubt even my decades of ice cream and pretzel habit would qualify as addiction, though I couldn’t stop despite wanting to and it hurt me. So before posting I looked up Alcoholics Anonymous. This video and the Wikipedia page is most of what I know now about the organization and its methods.
After months of people who told me they could never avoid flying loved not flying, watching this video while imagining it describing polluting behavior illuminated and augmented my seeing a lot of polluting behavior as addictions. It also suggested helping people stop pollution by just telling them science, “one little tip you can do to help the environment,” or even legislation won’t suffice.
I understand Alcoholics Anonymous helps with some people but not everyone miraculously. Nothing works across the board. I hope people can drop their polluting addiction more easily. Humans lived without plastic and other pollutants for hundreds of thousands of years.
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