Director’s Corner: Healing the Heart of Democracy

“The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we be generous?  Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” – Terry Tempest Williams

In 2015 the nations of the world committed to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals at every scale of society, from local communities to international agreements and cooperation.  Goal 16 is Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

As I think of the current status of peace, justice, and strong institutions around the world and here in the United States, I find them worse in 2020 than they were in 2015, and they were not great then.

Climate change, political instability, racial and economic injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the factors creating significant upheaval in society.

Democracy around the world and here at home is in need of our tender, careful attention.  The title of this column is the title of Parker Palmer’s 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, and this is what his book is about. Here’s a PBS video broadcast of Palmer from 2015, giving an address on the ideas in the book.

Like Terry Tempest Williams, Palmer emphasizes the human heart as the “first home of democracy.”  He defines the heart as “…intellect, intuition, feeling, imagination, will – which taken together, constitute the core of self-hood called the human heart.”

Palmer writes that the human heart is capable of great cruelty, but it is also capable of generosity, kindness, compassion, and humanity, each case determined by which one of two ways our hearts have been broken.

One way to suffer heartbreak in times of loss, betrayal, injustice, and other painful experiences is for the heart to break apart and shatter.  It becomes cold, hard, brittle. Resentment breeds, horizons shrink, experiences narrow, and the other becomes an enemy.

Another way for a heart to break, according to Palmer, is to break open, to become more “grateful, alive, and loving” for what it has suffered.  The heart expands in service to others. He describes this heart as “an alchemical retort that can transform dross into gold.”

Palmer writes that when hearts break apart, “…fearmongers whip up what Henry Giroux has called a ‘culture of cruelty,’ working nonstop ‘to undo democratic values, compassion and any viable notion of justice and its accompanying social relations.’”  Ignited this way, these hearts lose the capacity to embrace the mind- and heart-set, which nurtures the skills of citizenship, the capacity to listen and speak with openness and respect across differences to achieve a shared outcome, a common future.

Palmer calls conflict over ideas, “an engine of a better social order.” He explains that this kind of conflict is designed into our democratic system, and the unwillingness or inability to embrace conflict over ideas is extremely dangerous to the American experiment in democracy.

But that is not the kind of conflict we are experiencing in the United States today.  American journalist and commentator Bill Moyers assessed our circumstances this way: “We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power….”

The frustrations many Americans feel toward government is understandable.  For most Americans, government no longer works for them, and research bears this out. This article in Journalist’s Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy provides a link to a 2014 study published in Perspective on Politics by researchers Marin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern.  The authors conclude their study this way: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence (emphasis added).”

As a result, many Americans have given up on government and disengaged from civic life.

This saddens and angers me, especially when I think about our power and potential as citizens to turn things around once we realize our agency and cultivate the skills of citizenship to deploy it.  Disengagement is exactly the wrong thing to do! Only by exercising our rights of citizenship will we grow into the capacity to regain our democracy for ourselves as one people.

Attacks on government anger me when I think about the fact that creating this form of government was what this nation’s founders spent all their time doing.  Yes, what they created was, in practice, exclusionary and discriminatory, but the institutions and systems they created maintain their capacity and promise for “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln described it.

Another danger to our democracy is the incessant elevation of individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of what it means to be an American.  In a democracy, individual freedoms dwell within our shared commitment to the common good.  Our responsibilities and obligations to each other, the world around us, and future generations are the context within which individual freedoms can thrive; anything less results in the oppression of the many.

Speaking specifically about the prevalence of individualism, Palmer made this sobering observation: “The greater our tendency toward individualism, the weaker our communal fabric; the weaker our communal fabric, the more vulnerable we are to despotic power.”

Statue of Responsibility Sketch

In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth…. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplanted by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”  A group of citizens has acted on Frankl’s vision. That statue has been designed and is expected to open to the public on the West Coast in 2023.

Palmer explains why some hearts break open to become supple and strong to embrace individual responsibility for our shared wellbeing.  For some, this outcome is the result of a spiritual practice. For others, “it is because life takes them to places where it is either ‘do or die.’”

Parker goes on to say: “We are now at such a place as a nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither…. If we cannot or will not open our hearts to each other, powers that diminish democracy will rush into the void created by the collapse of ‘We the People.’ But in the heart’s alchemy that community can be restored.”

That was certainly the choice for Viktor Frankl, who, while suffering the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust in concentration camps, opened his heart to others by comforting and reassuring them despite his own deprivations and suffering.  He spent the rest of his life helping others develop meaningful lives, showing how “the heart’s alchemy” restores individuals and communities.

As always, the future is up to us.  Frankel’s choice, Palmer’s choice, is ours: hearts broken apart, or hearts broken open?  Are we being manipulated by those Palmer calls “the hucksters of hate,” or led by “the better angels of our nature?”

As far as I am concerned, Palmer makes it clear:  we only have one choice. “Restore the heart to its rightful role as the integral core of our human capacities, and it gives us a place of power in which to stand, along with the kind of knowledge we need to rebuild democracy’s infrastructure from the inside out.”

Read More

Director’s Corner: Hunger – There is No Excuse

The international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were created by the nations of the world under the auspices of the United Nations. Tapping experts across the globe on a range of disciplines, seventeen goals were established with a deadline of 2030 for achieving each goal. The seventeen goal topics were identified as the essential priorities for meeting the needs of all people across the world.

Each goal is intended to be addressed at every scale, from local communities to planet-wide collaborations.

Goal 2 is Zero Hunger: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” So this goal is about a lot more than eliminating hunger. It is as much about the way we achieve that goal if we are committed to achieving sustainability: eliminating food waste and supporting local farmers; providing food for all in a way that restores rather than further degrades soils, air, water, landscapes, and the climate while providing for the health, safety, and financial return of farmworkers; and treating animals raised for food humanely, as the sentient (“finely sensitive in perception or feeling” – Merriam-Webster) beings that they are.

Graphic depicting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger.
The Office of Sustainability’s Zero Hunger graphic.

How is the world doing in making progress toward this goal? Here is the U.N.’s current assessment:

The world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.

After decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.

According to the World Food Programme, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change, and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020.

With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.

At the same time, a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are hungry today – and the additional 2 billion people the world will have by 2050. Increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger.

In the U.S. 40 million Americans face hunger on a daily basis. Here in Alabama, according to the Alabama Food Bank Association, nearly 20% of our population is food insecure, more than 900,000 people. In October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, an Alabama Political Reporter article stated that nearly one-third of children living in rural Alabama suffer food insecurity, which is the lack of sufficient household funds to provide reliable and ongoing supplies of nutritious food for a family. One in four children in Alabama struggles with hunger. A significant percentage of food insecure and hungry children come from minority communities.

These conditions are a moral failure on the part of society in the United States and around the world. There is no reason that hunger or food insecurity should exist. It is inexcusable because there is more than enough food to feed everyone.

Then what’s the problem? There are numerous factors. For one thing, a shocking amount of food is wasted. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced goes to waste. In the United States, it’s 40%.

The food sharing app OLIO exists to connect people with each other and local businesses so that surplus food can be shared and not wasted. OLIO describes food waste as a chronic market failure: “Between 33-50% of all food produced globally is never eaten, and the value of this wasted food is worth over $1 trillion. To put that in perspective, in the USA food waste represents 1.3% of the total GDP. Food waste is a massive market inefficiency, the kind of which does not persist in other industries.”

Furthermore, “All the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK, and Europe.”

According to research cited in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, we already grow enough food for 10 billion people.


So what is being done and what can we do to resolve this market and moral failing?

That’s a big question and in the interest of space and the reader’s patience, I will be brief and stay close to home.

Auburn University is a global leader in higher education efforts toward a food-secure world. The Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI) in the College of Human Sciences is in many ways spearheading these efforts. Check out HSI to learn about all their innovative and impactful programming. HSI’s website includes a page on Campus and Community Resources for access to food which includes a Share Meals food sharing app.

The Auburn University Campus Kitchens Project is one of the most outstanding and effective student organizations on campus. These students gather unused food from on campus and local restaurants and repackage it into individual meals. These students successfully provide thousands of meals every year to individuals on campus and from Tuskegee to Opelika.

A group of volunteers for the Campus Kitchens Project
A group of volunteers working for the Campus Kitchens Project

The Food Bank of East Alabama “ works to create a safety net of community partners, programs, and direct services to meet the needs of our neighbors who struggle with hunger across our seven-county service area.” The Food Bank is always in need of donations of time and money to meet the needs of the communities it serves, and those needs have only increased because of the coronavirus.

Our individual actions in the community are very important, however, they are not enough to create food security for all that is sustainable over the long term. A humane and morally driven transformation of the food system is necessary. That requires societal commitments, including government actions and policy and collaboration at national and international scales, to create needed change.

The book Food Security, Nutrition, and Sustainability, edited by Geoffrey Lawrence, Kirsten Lyons, and Tabatha Wallington, tapped 37 international scholars whose essays address many of the topics related to sustainable food security and nutrition over the long term. Among their concluding remarks:

“Sustainability has to be the basis on which the world produces food and ensures healthy consumption for all (UNEP 2009). Along with other voices, as many of the contributors to this book argue, food security can only be achieved if food systems become sustainable.”

And the book’s final words: “The discourse about food security symbolizes the need to integrate nutrition, environmental sustainability, and social justice. No other food-policy thinking passes the laugh test.”

Read More


“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wellbeing is one of the system conditions of a sustainable world, one of the four points of the Sustainability Compass.

Graphic of the Sustainability Compass
The Sustainability Compass

What is wellbeing anyway? Merriam-Webster defines wellbeing as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.”

The Gallup organization conducted a landmark study of people in more than 150 countries and identified five interdependent elements of wellbeing universally shared throughout humanity, and then reported them in the book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. The Five Essential Elements:

• Career Wellbeing
• Social Wellbeing
• Financial Wellbeing
• Physical Wellbeing
• Community Wellbeing

Gallup maintains a Wellbeing Index to monitor and report the status of wellbeing in individuals and communities in the United States and around the world.

Similarly, the Auburn University Office of Health Promotion and Wellness Services emphasizes Nine Dimensions of Wellness:

• Physical Wellness
• Emotional Wellness
• Intellectual Wellness
• Spiritual Wellness
• Social Wellness
• Environment Wellness
• Occupational Wellness
• Financial Wellness
• Cultural Wellness

Image of the icons for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

During the decade of the 2010s, the nations of the world joined together to create seventeen global goals “to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Every one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), relate to human wellbeing, and Goal 3 targets wellbeing specifically: “Good Health and Wellbeing: Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.”

It is obvious from these elements, dimensions, and goals that the wellbeing of each is the responsibility of all. Our life satisfaction is inextricably linked to others and dependent on our relationships with others. All others. None of us can achieve wellbeing on our own yet all of us can contribute to the wellbeing of ourselves and others.

Our shared responsibility to generate wellbeing for all is an important point right now given the drumbeat of toxicity that has come to dominate our national discourse and enflame uncivil, actively hostile words and actions within the United States and between the United States and others around the world, a negative energy that is shredding the fabric of our society.

Given this state of affairs, some questions come to mind. What is my responsibility to others? What are my intentions? What do I hope to achieve? Is life a zero-sum game? If I see the pie of wellbeing as limited (which it is not) do I take all I can get and leave whatever scraps remain to be fought over by the rest? How do I perceive others, especially those that seem different from me? Are they less worthy than me of a decent life? Are they enemies to be crushed?

Not contributing to the toxicity of the discourse is not enough.

The last essay written by the great moral leader and Congressman John Lewis was published in the New York Times on August 30, 2020, the day of his funeral. He titled it “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” In that column he reminds us that Dr. King “…said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.”

If the endpoint is not, as Dr. King says, “reconciliation…redemption…the Beloved Community” we are doomed to a cycle of misery, oppression, injustice, inequality, prejudice, antagonism, racism, bitterness, illness, and death. If we sow hatred and division, that is what we reap. There are no winners in that cycle. Everyone loses.

What’s frustrating is that evidence tells me that, almost without exception, we humans desire wellbeing for ourselves and it is in our nature to desire for and contribute to the wellbeing of others. Plenty of examples come to mind if we think about it. As Americans, we are constitutionally committed to shared meaning, shared effort, shared prosperity. Commitment to the general welfare is found among our most cherished aspirations and in our founding documents.

I am always inspired when I think about how the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution bookend this very point.

The very last statement in the Declaration of Independence, right before John Hancock wrote his signature large enough for King George to read it without his spectacles, is this: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquilty, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If that’s not enough, the de facto national motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, which was originally intended to convey the 13 colonies joining together as states within a national union, and more recently has come to mean “out of many people, one American people.”

The intentions wrought out of the struggle for freedom in the late 1700s continue to inspire Americans and people all over the world. For these words to be more than sentiments each generation must embrace them anew, and “pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” so that we may progress along the path toward “a more perfect Union…Justice…domestic Tranquilty…the common defense… the general Welfare, and secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”

We are fully capable of achieving the wellbeing for all that arises within the Beloved Community that these commitments represent, if we accept our shared responsibilities and opportunities, if we collectively decide that this remains a goal worth pursuing.

Congressman John LewisThe official photo of Congressman John Lewis from his website whose content constitutes a work of the Federal government under sections 105 and 403 of title 17 of the U.S. Code.
Congressman John Lewis gets the last word. From his essay:

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Read More

Director’s Corner: Solar Power & Climate Change–Closing the Emissions Gap

“We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind, and tide.”  Thomas Edison in 1931, as quoted by James D. Newton

On November 26th, 2019, the United Nations Environment Program released its Emissions Gap Report 2019.  The gap the report describes is the one between where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are, where they are headed, and where they need to be to maintain a stable and safe climate.

In a nutshell, the gap is way too big and it is growing.  According to the report, global temperatures could rise as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century.  The internationally stated goal for global temperature rise is 1.5 degrees C, or 2.7 degrees F.  The stated absolute upper limit of temperature increase that we can reasonably tolerate is 2.0 degrees C, or 3.6 degrees F.

Areas in the northern latitudes have already seen temperature increases above 2.0 degrees C.

Accompanying the report was a statement released by Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. In part, that statement reads: “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions.  We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

So now what? I have written before about Project Drawdown, which identifies the top 100 solutions to global warming.  Project Drawdown’s research discovered that humanity is already doing – on a small scale – everything we need to do to reverse global warming and draw down GHG concentrations to a safe level.  We just have to dramatically and quickly scale up what we already know how to do.  Viewed through this lens, Project Drawdown sees the climate crisis to be an opportunity to do things differently and in the process restore a safe and stable climate while creating millions of new and sustainable jobs.

Several ready-made solutions identified by Project Drawdown relate to solar energy.  At least three of them present great opportunities here in Alabama.

One is building more large-scale, or utility-scale, solar farms for large-scale energy users like Auburn University.   According to Drawdown: “When their entire life cycle is taken into account, solar farms curtail 94 percent of the carbon emissions that coal plants emit and completely eliminate emissions of sulfur and nitrous oxides, mercury, and particulates….Currently .4 percent of global electricity generation, utility-scale solar PV grows to 10 percent (by 2050)  in our analysis…. That increase could avoid 36.9 gigatons (36.9 billion tons) of carbon dioxide emissions, while saving $5 trillion in operational costs…—the financial impact of producing energy without fuel.”  And solar energy has become very inexpensive.  Wow!

Another solar solution is rooftop solar for homes and small businesses. If rooftop solar deployment can grow to 7 percent of global electricity generation by 2050, a reasonable expectation, that would reduce GHG emissions by 24.6 gigatons.  It would cost $453.14 billion to implement and save $3.46 trillion net operational savings.  Wow!

Solar thermal, or solar water heating, is a third solution.  According to Drawdown, heating water consumes 25 percent of home energy use and 12 percent of energy use in commercial buildings.  This simple technology has been around for a long time and can be easily installed.  Drawdown’s impact assessment: “If solar water heating grows from 5.5 percent of the addressable market to 25 percent, the technology can deliver emissions reductions of 6.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide and save households $774 billion in energy costs by 2050. In our calculations of up-front costs, we assume solar water heaters supplement and do not replace electric and gas boilers.” Wow!

The Southern Environmental Law Center reports that Alabama ranks 13th nationally in raw solar energy potential, and 8th in potential economic benefit from solar generation of electricity.

What are we waiting for?  Thomas Edison saw the future nearly 90 years ago.

By developing state policies that facilitate the rapid development of unlimited, pollution-free solar energy we can do our part as Alabamians to reduce emissions now, and in the process reap significant economic benefits in terms of lower energy costs and substantial job growth.

One important step is for Alabama to establish renewable energy portfolio standards, something a majority of states have already done. From a November 1, 2019 post at the National Conference of State Legislatures website:

States have been very active in the past year revising their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require that a specified percentage of the electricity that utilities sell comes from renewable resources. States have created these standards to diversify their energy resources, promote domestic energy production and encourage economic development. Renewable energy policies help drive the nation’s $64 billion market for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. These policies can play an integral role in state efforts to diversify their energy mix, promote economic development and reduce emissions. Roughly half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since 2000 can be attributed to state renewable energy requirements.

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have established RPS.  Eight states have established voluntary renewable energy goals.  Alabama is one of only twelve states that have neither renewable standards nor voluntary goals.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication conducts opinion surveys on climate change and renewable energy and maps the results.  The September 19, 2019, Climate Opinion Map for Alabama reveals that at least half of Alabamians want the governor and local officials to do more to address global warming and a majority of Alabamians support the state requiring utilities to produce 20% of the electricity they generate from renewable sources.

Again I ask, what are we waiting for?  As climate science makes clear, we need to act quickly and on a large scale.  Making the transition to utility-scale and rooftop solar energy will help us do what we must to address the climate crisis while, as the National Conference on State Legislatures says, diversifying our energy resources, promoting domestic energy production, and encouraging economic development.


Read More

Director’s Corner: The Necessary & Inevitable Transportation Transformation

“The industrial age of energy and transportation will be over by 2030.  Maybe before.”  Tony Seba, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation

Is it possible that a transformation to sustainable energy and transportation systems is right around the corner?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017 the transportation sector accounted for the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at 29%.  Electricity generation was a close second at 28%.

Internationally, transport accounts for about 20% of global GHG emissions however globally emissions are on the rise as increases in passenger and freight volumes are growing and are expected to continue to grow through 2050.

So transportation is a significant contributing source of GHG and is projected to grow at a time when the world must do all we can to stop GHG emissions and reduce atmospheric concentrations well below current levels.  In October 2018, the Washington Post published a story on a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that humanity has about a decade to make drastic changes to reduce GHG emissions before the climate reaches cascading tipping points beyond which our current way of life would not be possible.

Something has to happen.

Enter Tony Seba, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program. He is convinced we are on the cusp of what he calls a “clean disruption of energy and transportation,” which is the title of the book he wrote in 2014.  You can watch a talk Seba gave on this subject in 2018 in Boulder, CO.

He presents a compelling case.  Regarding automobile transportation specifically here are just a few of his observations and predictions:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs), ride-sharing, and autonomous vehicles mean that the world of everyday auto transportation will look entirely different in ten years.
  • Electric vehicles are 5x more energy efficient than those powered by internal combustion engines (ICE); 10x cheaper to “fill up”; 10x cheaper to maintain.
  • EVs will contribute to grid storage of electricity.
  • Individual ownership of autos will plummet.
  • By 2025, ICE vehicles will no longer be competitive with EVs.

Seba explains that cell phones, personal computers, and the Internet started as distinct products serving different markets. Their unforeseen complementary natures became interwoven and accelerated mutual adoption in society and together they transformed the world.  Mostly for the better.

In the same way, according to Seba, solar energy, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars are disruptive technologies that will interweave to exponentially amplify each other and completely change auto transportation – and energy production – to be much more sustainable across society, including making transportation more affordable for everyone. Within the next ten years.

Of course, Seba has much more to say and goes into significantly more interesting and promising detail in his book and lectures.  And because this column is about transportation I am not going to address what he has to say about the near-term transformation of the energy market away from coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, and nuclear, and the rapid widespread adoption of solar, wind, and other renewables.

All of this is driven by market forces, not government regulation.

Seba’s book leaves unaddressed long-haul trucking, ocean freight, and air travel, which have significant GHG impacts.  But the prospects he does describe are credible, exciting, and heartening, some much-needed positive forecasting during a particularly dark time on the sustainability front when so many trends are headed the wrong way, and amplified by wrong-headed policies at the federal level.

And let’s be clear: market forces alone will not save us.

We need thoughtful policies and programs coordinated at every level of government, nationally and internationally on our interconnected world, to solve the planetary emergency of climate change and the social, economic, and environmental crises related to it.  Which means we need policy makers who represent the public interest and the common good.  Which means electing policy makers who serve the common good.

We need a social contract with each other to act from our common humanity and our shared values, working across difference using the processes of deliberative democracy to envision our desired future and commit to creating it.

Change can happen quickly, for better or for worse.  If change emerges from our shared values and commitment to the common good then the future holds great promise.  Which is why it is essential that we stay engaged over the long term, inspired by our “better angels,” laser-focused on achieving the outcomes we want, and nothing less.

Read More

Director’s Corner: Waste: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”

– Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

Envision a world where human civilization, including everything we build and use, has a regenerative and restorative impact on the planet, where what we make and how we use things creates abundance and health for all life on Earth. It’s possible, but first we have to get rid of the idea of waste.

A lot can be said about the design and manufacture of material goods and our way of life that generates so much waste, and the innumerable negative consequences of that waste. Contributing to global warming and climate change is just one of those impacts.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017, municipal and industrial waste landfills, industrial wastewater treatment, and incineration of solid waste generated more than 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (C02e) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. CO2e accounts for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.

That’s just the emissions reported from waste management facilities. It does not include fossil fuel burning at those facilities, or other emissions-related waste of the products we use. EPA reports that “Every stage of a product’s life cycle—extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal—indirectly or directly contributes to the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere and affects the global climate.”

A lot can be said about what we can do to mitigate the negative impacts of waste generation. The three Rs are very familiar: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, in that order of priority. There is a fourth R: Regulate. Waste generation requires regulation to manage so much material and limit negative impacts. Given the omnipresent and growing negative impacts of waste – plastics for example: plastic is falling from the sky when it snows! – regulation is woefully inadequate to the task of mitigating, much less eliminating, impacts of waste.

Plastic is getting a lot of attention these days for its ubiquity and impact. The more we look the more we see and the more frightening it is. For a comprehensive explanation of plastics and climate change, check out this just-published post from Yale Climate Connections, How plastics contribute to climate change: They generate heat-trapping gases every stage of their life cycle.

To really tackle the problem of waste we need to think much bigger and much differently. We need to redesign the way we make things, and we have to reconsider the concept of waste. Think about it. Waste is, well, a waste. It’s a market failure. Waste is the result of fundamentally flawed thinking that there is an “away” somewhere, and that there is space somewhere in the air, water, or land to receive what we throw “away,” without negative consequences.

Drawdown Book Cover

Consider food waste. Globally, one third of the food we grow is wasted. In the U.S. it’s 40%. According to Project Drawdown, wasted food generates about 8% of global GHG emissions, and eliminating food waste is ranked as the #3 most potent solution for reversing global warming.

In landfills, rotting food and other organic materials like paper, cardboard, and yard waste, generate methane, a greenhouse gas that is 85 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. A white paper by the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) titled “Waste and Climate Change” reports that “Landfill methane emissions are the largest source of global GHG emissions from waste sector activities.”

For a while, the concept of “away” worked, when the Earth was “empty,” as economist Herman Daly likes to describe it. When there were few people and the waste they generated was organic and could be absorbed by the planet, there was no noticeable global problem. But now, the Earth is full. We are rapidly approaching a global human population of 8 billion. In 1950, population was 2.5 billion. Plus, we are generating so much more waste, and so much more dangerous waste. Away, which never really existed at all, has demonstrably gone away.

Then there’s the fact that waste is a human invention. It is the result of the way we design and make things. Waste does not exist in nature. In their paradigm-shifting book Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart write, “Nature operates according to a system of nutrients and metabolisms in which there is no such thing as waste.”

If the first rule of sustainability is to live in accord with the laws of nature, then to live sustainably the concept of waste needs to go away.

At least as early as 1992, McDonough and his colleagues declared as much. They wrote The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, prepared for EXPO 2000, The World’s Fair in Hannover, Germany. Hannover Principle 6 (of 9): “Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.”

ISWA agrees. The ISWA white paper concludes that “Potential savings from eliminating waste and minimizing waste is far greater than managing waste after it has been created.” The first sentence of the organization’s vision statement is “ISWA’s vision is an Earth where no waste exists.”

Is it really possible to achieve this, to be industrious and productive and prosperous without generating waste and doing so much other damage to the Earth? It’s a heavy cultural and political lift and we won’t get there overnight. But we can do it, and ultimately we have no choice.

McDonough and Braungart are confident it’s possible, and are proving it. In 2005, their company, MBDC, created The Cradle to Cradle Design Framework, “a design framework inspired by nature, in which products are created according to the principles of an ideal circular economy.” Companies began using this framework to design and manufacture products according to nature’s principles.

Cradle to Cradle LogoIn 2010, McDonough and Braungart established the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, “…a global non-profit dedicated to transforming the safety, health, and sustainability of products through the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard.” The Institute manages the Cradle to Cradle certification program. Check out Cradle to Cradle certified products.

The Introduction in Cradle to Cradle concludes with a vision of what the world can look like when we use nature-based design principles to create things, and contrasts the impact of one industrious species that operates according to nature’s design principles with human industriousness as practiced so far:

We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?
Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals, and soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.

Here is one small example of what a change in design thinking could accomplish. What if we took to scale something that has been practiced for generations? Composting.

What if we managed organic materials as an invaluable nutrient source as nature does and stopped sending food, paper, cardboard, tree and yard waste to landfills? What if, to start, at home we each keep paper and cardboard out of landfills by recycling, minimize food and yard waste and find ways to compost what remains, and then join together to demand that policymakers take this practice to scale in our communities?

Taking composting to scale brings significant benefits: To the extent we eliminate organics from landfills, to that extent we eliminate methane production from landfills. We create an all-natural soil enrichment for gardens and farms. With naturally replenished soils we reduce the need for expensive and problematic chemical fertilizers.

Albert Einstein observed that “A clever man solves a problem, a wise man avoids it.” Surely humans are wise enough to make the concept of waste go away and avoid its problems altogether.

Read More

Director’s Corner: Trees, Forests, & Reversing Global Warming

 “… in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”        – President John F. Kennedy, 1963

Human activity since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has caused planetary warming on a global scale, mostly from burning fossil fuels which release greenhouse gasses (GHG) such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  In the last thirty years, emissions and warming have spiked.

Graph showing atmospheric CO2 concentrations for last 800,000 years.
Concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to climb to unprecedented levels.

Climate science makes it crystal clear that a business-as-usual approach is unacceptable.  We are already seeing the impacts of global warming from local to planetary scales.  To continue burning fossil fuels is to continue adding global warming pollution to the atmosphere, which is already supersaturated with GHG.  Currently, human activities annually add 35+ gigatons (1 gigaton = 1 billion tons) more GHG pollution into the atmosphere than the planet can absorb.  The planetary response is driven by physics: the planet is warming, and the climate is shifting away from what human beings have ever known.  This has consequences for every living organism and every living system on Earth.

As Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann explains, “There’s a race between two tipping points. The tipping point of the public consciousness, which we want to see, and the tipping point in the climate system that we don’t want to see and that we’re coming perilously close to…. It’s a race between our ability to mobilize the public and policymakers to action and the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change we will see the further we go down this road of fossil fuel burning. That’s really the challenge, to turn this ship around as quickly as possible.”

So, what will it take “to turn this ship around as quickly as possible?”

During the 2019 – 2020 academic year, Director’s Corner posts will partially answer that question by highlighting a few of the strategies that will, if we will act on them, stop and reverse global warming and create hundreds of millions of restorative and regenerative jobs.  Dozens of viable solutions already exist.  As Paul Hawken puts it, “Humanity is already on the case,” and all we have to do is take to scale many things we know how to do and are already doing.

The challenges of climate change are actually opportunities.  The warning signs are a heads up that there are ways of doing things that create much better outcomes for humanity and all life.  All we have to do is understand our predicament, acknowledge how we got here, and do something about it.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson puts it: “There are no scientific or technical obstacles to protecting our world and the precious life it supports.  It all depends on what we truly value, and that we can summon the will to act.”

What do we truly value?  If we each take the time to think about it, I am confident we all end up at the same place.  We want to ensure wellbeing and quality of life for our loved ones.   And that is what drives humanity to do all that is necessary to reverse global warming.

This month, we highlight the climate-friendly contributions that trees and forests make, and how trees can play an even larger role in preserving a livable climate.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, is a global initiative to identify the top 100 solutions to reversing global warming.  More than 70 researchers crunched and validated the numbers that resulted in Drawdown’s findings and rankings.  Several tree-related global warming solutions are included in the findings because, among many other essential ecological values and functions, trees are great at doing two things that can help reverse global warming: First, existing forests are carbon sinks, they store significant amounts of carbon and keep it from being released into the atmosphere.  Second, through photosynthesis, existing, new, and growing forests capture atmospheric carbon and remove it from the atmosphere, with the added benefit of releasing oxygen in return.  Below are some of the tree-specific solutions listed in Drawdown that we know how to do and that, to some degree, are already happening.

  • Primary (old-growth) Forest Protection. Primary forests are those that have existed for a long time in a fundamentally undisturbed state, meaning their ecology is rich, complex, and resilient. Drawdown describes primary forests as “the most critical of all forest types… the greatest repositories of biodiversity on the planet.” There is not very much left to save, so we need to save what remains.    In many countries, more than 90% of primary forests have already been cut.  In the United States, less than 10% remains of the old-growth forests that were here when Europeans first arrived, and much of that, incomprehensively, continues to be threatened by logging.  For many reasons, remaining old-growth forests must be protected.
  • Afforestation. Afforestation means planting new forests where none existed before, or in areas that have been treeless for at least 50 years.  It is important that new forests are planted in areas that avoid farmland, natural grasslands, and other vital ecosystems, as well as avoiding forced relocation and other violations of human rights.
  • Protection and restoration of tropical forests. When it comes to tropical forests there is good news and bad. The bad news: Tropical forests have suffered devastating losses.  Once covering 12% of the planet, they now occupy just 5%.  For 15 years Brazil took aggressive measures to curb deforestation, however, newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has reversed course and deforestation of the Amazon has increased alarmingly.  The good news: efforts are underway elsewhere to regrow tropical forests.  According to Drawdown, reforestation efforts have sequestered as much as 6 gigatons of CO2, the equivalent of 11% of annual GHG emissions worldwide.   More good news is that tropical forests are far more resilient than originally thought.  Left alone, denuded land will regenerate and in a median time of 66 years recover 90% of their original, if less complex, biomass.
  • Protection and restoration of temperate forests.. In general, temperate forests grow between the tropics and the Arctic Circle, and that includes the vast majority of North America.  Throughout history, 99% of temperate forests have been altered by human behavior.  Temperate forests do not face the same pressures as tropical forests, however, they continue to be fragmented, and fragmentation combined with a warming planet makes forests more vulnerable to heat, drought, wildfires, insects, and pathogens.  Temperate forests are also resilient.  In fact, across the globe, including in the eastern United States, temperate forests are expanding and currently comprise 1.9 billion acres worldwide.  According to the World Atlas, the largest contiguous temperate forest in the world is New York’s Adirondack Park, covering about six million acres.  Drawdown points out that many places in temperate climates are prime locations for reforestation.  For example, 84% of Ireland (which was once heavily forested but is now mostly pasture) is ripe for wide-scale or patchwork reforestation.
Photo of a person walking through a temperate forest.
Photo by Zach Reiner – Creative Commons No known copyright restrictions

As promising and important as afforestation and restoration are, forest protection must be prioritized. Stanford University professor Rob Jackson chairs the Earth System Science Department and Global Carbon Project and says “I do think eliminating deforestation is more important than planting new forest. Forests provide many benefits beyond storing carbon. They store and recycle our water, they prevent erosion, they harbor biodiversity…. When we plant forests, we gain some of those benefits, but it takes years to decades to grow a healthy forest.”

There was evidence this month that “humanity is on the case” when it comes to reforestation.  The citizens of Ethiopia planted an astounding 350 million trees, and did so in 12 hours!  The Ethiopian government has committed to planting 4 billion mostly indigenous trees, about 40 per citizen.  According to the Associated Press, 2.6 billion trees have been planted so far. Wow!

In the U.S. there are initiatives underway and opportunities for individuals and groups to plant and protect trees.  The National Forest Foundation has a goal of planting 50 million trees in National Forests.  The Arbor Day Foundation is committed to planting 100 million trees in forests and communities, and engage 5 million new tree planters by 2022.

The Earth Day Network’s Canopy Project has the ambitious goal of planting 7.8 billion trees, one for every person on Earth, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020.

Earth Day originated through citizen action, and every Earth Day since has honored and called for citizen action.  As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches the need has never been greater for our active engagement in restoration, protection, education, and advocacy efforts on behalf of those we care about and life on Earth.

The Office of Sustainability is organizing a tree planting event for later this winter.  If you are interested in participating complete this form and you will be contacted at a later date.

Trees and forests have an irreplaceable role to play in global ecological health and reversing global warming. Forest preservation and tree planting are necessary steps.  We know what to do.  People are already doing it at a variety of scales around the world.  We know why forest protection and restoration are necessary, and what these efforts will accomplish.

All that remains is to “summon the will to act.”

Read More

Director’s Corner: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are ‘No Little Plans’

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work….” — Daniel Hudson Burnham

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” is a paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In other words, without a vision, a goal, or a plan we have no idea where we want to go or what we want to achieve. Having no desired outcome against which to judge our journey or destination, any road we take is as good as another.

Recognizing the ill-advised nature of this approach to achieving anything meaningful, Steven Covey includes as one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.” A vision and a clear goal enable a plan to emerge.

We set goals to achieve what we aspire to create, something different and better than the current state. Goals can be catalyzed by the need to reverse negative conditions and trends, and goals can be sparked by an inspiring vision. Usually, both factors are at play.

Take for example the fact that one in nine people on the planet are undernourished. A majority of them live in developing countries, but right here in Alabama and at Auburn University are food-insecure people. Being aware of that problem, we want to fix it; we need to eliminate hunger worldwide. That’s a goal, but in my view, as big as it seems, it is an insufficient one. The solution cannot be just about hunger. It would be like filling a pothole in a road. The hole is eliminated but the road could be made so much better, and it doesn’t address the underlying conditions that created the hole in the first place.

When it comes to ending hunger and creating food security, an aspirational goal, a big goal, is: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

That goal happens to be one of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the nations of the world under the auspices of the United Nations.

The SDGs were initiated in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro as a follow up to the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in September 2000. While the MDGs were not fully achieved by 2015, they had produced significant progress by that self-determined deadline.

Between 2012 and 2015, a global delegation of experts developed, debated, and introduced the seventeen SDGs and they were adopted by the UN in August of 2015. The SDGs emerged from rigorous research into global conditions and trends, and their achievement will result from innovative research collaborations that create new possibilities. Through creative and open-minded innovations and collaborations, new possibilities will be transformed into realities of a more sustainable world.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Internationally, the SDGs are a big deal. They are at the forefront of international development conversations and initiatives. The SDGs have been less visible in the United States and less a part of the conversation, but momentum here is rapidly building.

With the intention of ensuring that the SDGs are acted upon and achieved, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was established in 2012 and overseen by the U.N. Secretary-General. From the SDSN website: “SDSN mobilizes global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development, including the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

An exciting, and relevant to Auburn University, SDSN development occurred in December: “On December 4, 2018 the US chapter of SDSN was launched at Columbia University in New York. The chapter is co-directed by academic centers at Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of California San Diego. The SDSN USA joins 29 existing SDSN networks that are creating new online courses, educating their students and the general public, working with governments, engaging and empowering young people, and offering innovative solutions for the SDGs.”

Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati was invited by Jeffrey Sachs, SDSN Director and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, to attend the December 4th meeting to establish the US chapter. As a result, and with the support of Provost Bill Hardgrave, Auburn University has joined SDSN.

As a member of SDSN Auburn University joins an organized international community of experts in academia, business, government, and civil society, collaborating to resolve the sustainability grand challenges of our time. Auburn has experts already working in areas addressed by all seventeen SDGs, and SDSN membership can only amplify their impact. SDSN membership will also help Auburn University achieve the ambitious and substantive goals of our new 2019-2024 University Strategic Plan.

The SDGs are “big plans,” and Auburn’s membership in SDSN is significant. Auburn University’s new Strategic Plan includes high aspirations and “big plans.” I cannot help but notice the timely convergence of these two important commitments.

AU Strategic Plan and SDG quotesFrom the SDGs website: “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)…are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”

From the new Strategic Plan, Auburn’s revised Mission Statement: “As a land-grant institution, Auburn University is dedicated to improving the lives of the people of Alabama, the nation, and the world through forward-thinking education, life-enhancing research and scholarship, and selfless service.”

Meaningfully addressing the sustainability grand challenges of our time serves to fulfill our Strategic Plan, and fulfilling commitments and aspirations in the Strategic Plan enhances our efforts on behalf of the SDGs.

For anyone wanting to make a difference in the world, it’s an especially great time to be an Auburn Tiger.

Read More

Director’s Corner: The Sustainability Movement is a Social Justice Movement

“[T]he environmental movement can be seen as humanity’s response to contagious policies killing the earth, while the social justice movement addresses economic and legislated pathogens that destroy families, bodies, cultures, and communities.  They are two sides of the same coin, because when you harm one you harm the other.”

-Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest

One of the biggest misconceptions of sustainability is it is mostly about nature, about restoring and protecting the natural world.

It is about that.  At the same time, sustainability is just as much about social justice, ensuring every human being lives with dignity, freedom, and opportunity, in full possession of their rights as members of the species Homo sapiens.

In his great book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken explains that creating a socially just world is the only way sustainability is achievable.  He defines social justice this way: “…the implementation and realization of human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, with the addition of the right to a productive, safe, and clean environment; the right to security from political tyranny; and the right to live and express one’s own culture.”

Blessed Unrest exposes the large gap between the social justice conditions required to achieve sustainability and what we see in the world today.  The litany of failures is as long as it is familiar: the disparities of wealth and power between the small few who have wealth and power and access to them and the vast majorities who do not; great inequities of opportunity, access to health care, adequate housing and education, nutritious food to eat, clean air and water, civic participation and political voice, and decent housing; political corruption; autocratic and oligarchic trends that undercut democratic governance; the destruction of the planet’s life support systems and elimination of its resources for short-term, narrowly distributed economic gain.

While acknowledging humanity’s failings, the main message of this book is inspiring, empowering, and a call to action.  Its subtitle is How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.  Hawken argues there is a large, unseen movement comprised of millions of organizations – from small neighborhood groups to large international nonprofits – working in their own ways to create a safe, just, livable world.

He thinks this unrecognized and disparate movement is operating like a global immune system, fighting off the pathogens of toxic ideologies, greed, ignorance, and hate that are destroying the earth and harming people, families, and communities: “The ultimate purpose of a global immune system is to identify what is not life-affirming and to contain, neutralize, or eliminate it.”

Since social justice is life-affirming and essential for a livable, flourishing world, and since social justice is about relationships between individuals, groups, organizations, and governments, each of us has ongoing daily opportunities to be part of this global immune system.  We can intentionally choose to interact with individuals, groups, organizations, and governments in ways that protect the human rights of all, that are life-affirming, and that contain, neutralize, and eliminate that which is not.

No matter where our focus leads us, to restoring the environment, protecting indigenous cultures, or fighting for social justice in our communities, we are all in this together.  We have tended to perceive issue-focused movements as separate and disconnected, with groups even arguing among themselves over whose issue should come first. The environmental movement specifically has long been criticized for focusing almost exclusively on the state of the natural world while ignoring civil rights, poverty, and in general the vulnerable condition of too much of humanity.  This is changing, but we must do better.

Blessed Unrest’s last call is for us to understand and embrace the oneness of this movement: “There can be no green movement unless there is also a black, brown, and copper movement…. There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival.  Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social justice movement to get on the environmental bus.  But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end there is only one bus.”

Read More

Director’s Corner: The Essence of Leadership

“Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society.  They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together.  Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.

 ~ John W. Gardner, No Easy Victories

John Gardner’s description of what real leaders do strikes me as an indictment of what appears in the guise of leadership on the world stage today.  A failure of leadership is the big reason why we face so many social, economic, and ecological crises.  If ever there was a time we need great leaders it is now.

This problem has existed for decades.  In the 1960s and ‘70s Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about the “crisis in leadership” he saw all around him: “Rarely does conceptual and inspired leadership come from government.  Although we wish for it, we have learned not to expect it.”  While Greenleaf cited and described examples of great leadership in his writings, he bemoaned the rarity of inspired leadership he found in all sectors of society.

In 1985, leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote: “A chronic crisis of governance…is now an overwhelming factor worldwide….  If there was ever a moment in history when a comprehensive strategic view of leadership was needed, not just by a few leaders in high office but by large numbers of leaders in every job…this is certainly it.”

I think we are in this situation because of a lack of understanding and appreciation for what leadership is and what leaders do.

The frustrating thing is, there is no reason for this.  The essence of leadership is no mystery.   It is an open secret.  Great leadership has been defined and described in action. The “comprehensive strategic view of leadership” Warren Bennis called for exists, and he helped create it through his teaching, consulting for presidents and chief executives, and in his more than 30 books on the subject.

It has been defined and described in a mosaic of work by the likes of Greenleaf, Bennis, Daniel Goleman, Peter Senge, Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, John Kotter, Jim Collins, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, Gordon MacKenzie, Ray Anderson, and many others.  They write eloquently and with authority using their own words and frameworks, yet their works all align with and amplify each other. In so many ways they are all saying the same things, which I find tremendously heartening.

What are they saying?   Uh-oh, I knew you’d ask. It is impossible to distill it all down to one or two concepts, but here is a smattering of part of the picture.

In his seminal book Servant Leadership, Greenleaf writes that “The servant-leader is servant first.” I like Steven Covey’s succinct description of a servant leader: “…one who seeks to draw out, inspire, and develop the best and highest within people from the inside out,”

Warren Bennis (Leaders; On Becoming a Leader) and Peter Block (The Answer to How is Yes) write, in part, that leaders must be social architects, creating physical, mental, and emotional environments where people can thrive.  Bennis writes, “we’re less concerned about structure than about what leaders do to motivate and create a culture of respect, caring, and trust.”

Daniel Goleman writes about the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) to leaders in the book Primal Leadership.  Research shows EQ to be a far more powerful determinant of success than IQ.  EQ is about our capacity for self-awareness and managing our emotions constructively, and our capacity for awareness of the social environment around us and our ability to constructively manage relationships in the context of that social environment.  “The fundamental task of leaders… is to prime good feeling in those they lead.  That occurs when a leader creates resonance – a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people.”

In The End of Management and the Rise of Organizational Democracy, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith argue that for too long management has been mistaken for leadership, with people and performance suffering as a result.  “Organizations of all kinds can dramatically improve by empowering those who work inside them to manage themselves and take responsibility for their own development and performance.”

Do you sense a theme?  Leaders have faith in people and cultivate the best in them.  Greenleaf: “It is part of the enigma of human nature that the ‘typical’ person…is capable of great dedication and heroism if wisely led….  The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.”

Of course, these authors write about other aspects of leaders and leadership. Among them are the essential personal attributes of leaders: character, integrity, trustworthiness, empathy, humor, passion, compassion, humility, courage, and vision.

Leaders set standards and expectations of excellence and establish mutual accountability for achieving the group’s objectives. In the research conducted for writing Good to Great, and the subsequent monograph Good to Great for the Social Sector, Jim Collins discovered that great leaders have both personal humility and unshakable professional will to achieve organizational goals, creating conditions where people are aligned and committed around a common cause and have freedom and responsibility within a framework of discipline.

I have to mention one more book, which gets at another important attribute of leaders: their openness to new learning.  Openness is necessary if one hopes to embrace the lessons of Margaret Wheatley’s mind-blowing book, Leadership and the New Science.  I think it is one of the most important leadership books ever written, a work of unimaginable insight and originality.  She argues that in spite of the discoveries of 20th century physics, we remain stuck in a 17th century, mechanistic view of the world, including the way we design, operate, and lead our organizations: “…each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe,” which explains why most organizations are dysfunctional and less successful than they could be.  “[W]e need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work.  We must learn to see the world anew.” If our organizations were designed, operated, and led according to our best understanding of the way the universe – including life on Earth – actually works, we would transform our organizations and societies.

Because of the great need for genuine leadership, we can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and be what Greenleaf calls mere “critics and experts.”  As Warren Bennis makes clear in On Becoming a Leader, leaders are made, not born.

Many of us have the capacity within us to be great leaders if we will cultivate our inherent talents and apply them, serving a cause greater than ourselves.  That is how we will create true leaders, leaders like those John W. Gardner describes.

Read More