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Let’s Not Jump To Conclusions Too Quickly

January 22, 2010

Let’s say I am a coffee shop owner.  I want you to tell me what is better for the environment: using paper cups, hence increasing deforestation or, using ceramic cups, which I now have to wash using energy and lots of water?  (Of course, much energy and water were used to make the paper cups as well.)

Perhaps you know the answer to this question but more likely you are like me and you don’t.  Perhaps there are some experts out there who have done a comparative life cycle analysis of both solutions and who know the answer.  Perhaps the answer depends on where the coffee shop is located—I would suspect the answer would be different in India or Africa than it is in the U.S.  Perhaps ceramic cups are a better choice today while paper cups might be better in 5 or 10 years when we experience a major water shortage.  Perhaps in 20 years neither solution will be a good one because we won’t have enough water to make our coffee, anyway.  There may not be any coffee growing, by the way.

I may be over-dramatizing but you get the point.  We all mean well and we are all trying to do the right thing and we truly care.  Yet, driven by our mental models (yes, I know, I have been focusing quite a bit on them lately but they seem to me so critical if one wants to move to the next stage), we love to find easy technical answers to our complex problems and we love jumping to conclusions quickly.  We also love to point fingers and blame others for their unsustainable behaviors.  We bad-mouth our neighbors for not recycling; we complain about our employees who do not embrace our latest corporate sustainable initiative; we get upset with the grocery store that is raving about its sustainability strategy yet carries Chilean grapes in the winter; and while they may be making their baby steps toward transforming their business operation, we still blame large corporations for their unsustainable business models and for greenwashing.

Listen, I am not saying there is no greenwashing: it’s everywhere.  I am not saying there aren’t people who do not care: there are still too many.  I am not saying that all businesses getting involved with their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative are doing it for the sake of the environment, their local community and social justice: many are still doing it only for the bottom line and in many cases simply because they are forced to do so by stakeholders’ demand, regulatory constraints, and NGO pressures.

What I am trying to say is that we, the well-meaning people, have to rise above the pack and start asking the right and smart questions.  If we want to lead, then we must lead in such a way that the results of our actions are truly making a positive impact on the world.  We must acknowledge that problems are complex and that oversimplification is a very risky business.  We must be aware of our own filters and mental models and make them explicit and open to the scrutiny of others.  We must take a rigorous and scientific approach when investigating our problems and the strategies we are developing to solve them.  And, at the same time and in the same way that we are using our rational brains for analysis, we must also open our hearts, use our intuition, and practice love and compassion because the use of soft skills and our ability to connect to emotional intelligence are critical to our ability to adapt, transform ourselves and ultimately impact the world around us.

More than anything else, we should not jump to conclusions too quickly.  Is it difficult?  Hell, yes!  But by rolling up our sleeves and accepting the hard work; by acknowledging that we are both rational and emotional people and by honoring both reason and emotion as valuable human assets; and by learning how to mesh these in our personal and professional lives, all together we will be able to achieve our highest aspirations for a better world.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    January 22, 2010 7:46 pm

    Hi Beatrice, great article and thanks for posing this as a discussion point at the conference yesterday. We do not know the solutions to many issues and as you point out, what seems relevant and right today, maybe irrelevant or wrong in the future. Hopefully technology, spurred by the actions we take now, will enable new and better ways to co-exist with each other and our environment.

    • January 22, 2010 8:59 pm

      Hi John, I also enjoyed our group discussion last night.

      I believe that technologies and innovations that are based on new paradigms such as systems thinking, living systems, regenerative design, conscious business, etc. will play a critical role in helping us build a better world. But we must remember Einstein’s famous warning that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


  2. John D Brown permalink
    January 22, 2010 8:13 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. I was remembering a piece I got a few years ago – the footprint of a cheeseburger – in the context of a particular product.

    The amount of H2O required to wash the beans before they get dried and shipped to us is huge. Is that the water you were referring to?

    • January 22, 2010 9:09 pm

      John, I was referring to the amount of water that is used in the process of making a paper cup.

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