How to Walk the Talk

Categories: Culture
The Power of Sustainable Thinking book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca The Power of Sustainable Thinking \ Fostering Sustainable Behaviour \ Choosing a Sustainable Future

Interested in convincing yourself and those around you to live sustainably? Here are three books that can help you try.

In The Power of Sustainable Thinking, Bob Doppelt emphasizes the change process that he believes will lead us to sustainability. Although he sees this book as a complement to his 2003 effort, Leading Change Toward Sustainability: A Change-Management Guide for Business, Government and Civil Society, his new volume is less effective.

Doppelt presents us with his family’s dilemmas. They make the right choices, take the sustainable steps and everything works out for the better. But does it really? Life is seldom simple, and it becomes less so as one goes from the individual to family, business or organization.

The best parts of Doppelt’s book deal with choices between two good options. Should you purchase local food or food from an organic farm in a developing country? Doppelt cautions, “the global-versus-local ethical dilemma obviously does not lend itself to easy answers,” but his conclusion that “a thoughtful assessment of the pros and cons of this dilemma helps to prioritize and weigh the most important considerations” is simplistic.

In comparison, Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne’s Paths to a Green World gets closer to many people’s experience by focusing on broader political and economic issues instead of individual choices. In the absence of this wider perspective, they suggest, the outcome for the thoughtful­ and objective observer may be dismay and confusion.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a psychology professor in Fredericton, advocates “community-based social marketing.” To promote sustainability, he wants governments, corporations and non-governmental­ organizations to: 

  • target unsustainable behaviours and identify the barriers to change,
  • understand various commitment strategies,
  • communicate effective messages that focus­ on sustainable options for society, and,
  • enhance motivation and invite participation.

The book treats each of these steps in ways that are understandable both to marketing specialists and laypeople. It backs them up with short case studies to indicate how and why some form of social marketing did or did not work. Though theory is not neglected, McKenzie-Mohr’s principal aim is to be practical. The book opens with a guide suggesting how it can be used, and closes with suggestions of what to do when one encounters resistance. It is a useful addition to the activist’s bookshelf.

Ithaca, New York was in ferment at the end of the 1960s. African-American students, returned Peace Corps volunteers and those involved in the anti-Vietnam movement were challenging Cornell University, the city’s largest employer. Graduates of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, or Ag School, wrote a hard-hitting critique of how the school served mostly industrial agriculture. Many of these activists stayed on to live and work in Ithaca and Tompkins County, contributing to the sustainability efforts Liz Walker describes in her book, Choosing a Sustainable Future.

Besides being home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, this pleasant corner of upstate New York is favoured with good agricultural land, beautiful gorges, waterfalls, parks and the hottest spot in New York State for geothermal energy. The university and college provide an economically secure and well-informed cadre of potentially engaged community leaders. But 25 per cent of Ithaca’s population is without health insurance. African-Americans face subtle and less-than-subtle racism. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing and the cost of housing, pushed up by students, is 50 per cent higher than in surrounding counties, yet wages have not kept up.

Walker describes key initiatives, organizations and leaders (many of them women) who are making Ithaca and Tompkins County more sustainable: a local farmers’ market, buy-local campaigns, sustainable-job-creation programs, a community-housing trust, seed funds from a foundation and an “alternative” credit union, sustainability education in schools, engaged alternative media, and the Ag School’s co-operative extension services.

Readers will find similar initiatives elsewhere, but there are also new ones that could be adapted to other communities. Rich in detail and diversity, Choosing a Sustainable Future identifies building blocks for achieving critical mass. We finish reading it in hope, but without certainty, that critical mass has been achieved.

As useful as they may be, none of these books recognizes adequately the limitations of individual and local approaches. After you’ve convinced yourself and those around you to live as sustainably as you can, how do you work on the unsustainable constraints of our economy? How can these local efforts be aggregated to a larger scale? As Mark Jaccard has observed (“Let’s Get Serious,” Alternatives, 37.4, 2011), focusing on behavioural change gives politicians an easy excuse to avoid the difficult but essential challenge of passing and implementing laws.

The Power of Sustainable Thinking, Bob Doppelt, New York: Routledge, 2010, 240 pages

Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2011, 192 pages

Choosing a Sustainable Future, Liz Walker, Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2011, 288 pages

This review originally appeared in Green Buildings, Issue 38.2. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

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