Case Study – Leadership in Flint

The following article does a good job of illustrating facets of leading in an adaptive challenge. You’ll find people dancing on the edge of their authority for something they care passionately about. Can you name one person and what she or he did that was risky but purposeful?


(Photo courtesy of the

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has elements of a technical problem and an adaptive challenge.

Solving the technical problem is straightforward:

  • Collect water quality data
  • Determine required solutions and funds needed
  • Authority figures provide direction, protection and restore order:
    • immediate acts provide clean water and protect health
    • long-term acts provide clean water and mitigate health impacts

Unfortunately there’s resistance to the technical solution. This indicates adaptive work and requires:

  • Bringing all stakeholders to the table
  • Understanding the competing aspirations held
  • Staying in the game despite the frustration
  • Finding a collective purpose among all
  • Speaking to what has to be given up to make progress
  • Identifying and doing what needs to be done

As you reflect on what is happening in Flint, think about a tough issue you’re facing in conservation. Are you treating the issue like a technical problem or an adaptive challenge?

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To Lead, Understand Others

I love my children. Like most everyone, I want a healthy planet so our children might live healthy, fulfilling lives. And their children, their children’s children and so forth. This post is the 3rd in a series dedicated to exploring how we might close the gap between the current reality and our aspirations.

Adaptive challenges are issues that require people let go of something that has worked for them in order to make room for new, necessary ways of being. Our most common examples include slavery, voter and workers’ rights, and now environmental degradation or the Anthropocene. The first step in tackling an adaptive challenge is to diagnose the situation. In diagnosis we identify various players, factions, tribes, user groups, etc. involved in the issue. We strive to understand the status quo, cultural norms, default interpretations, and behaviors. We do so to understand what they value and fear losing.

In the Webinar, Leopold, Leadership and You, Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren touched on how Aldo Leopold attempted to diagnose adaptive conservation challenges in his time. They reflected upon his interactions with co-workers, supervisors, various scientists, native Americans, Anglo and Hispanic ranchers, farmers, hunters and anti-hunters as he sought to understand their hopes and fears. According to Meine, “…Leopold is always looking for common ground…where the overlaps of interest are…how to lift people up from their special interest to the common interest or the common good, the public interest.” On the issue of wilderness protection, Warren echoed that observation remarking, “…he would come up with ways to try and present the fact that these two interests actually shared this common ground, and that common ground was the land itself.”

Aldo Leopold visits with Wisconsin farmers. Image courtesy of Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold visits with Wisconsin farmers. Image courtesy of

We have an advantage Leopold would have appreciated. Decades of research, particularly supported by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (and summarized in The Principles of Adaptive Leadership) have identified patterns inherent in progress on adaptive challenges. Here are three common techniques to help us diagnose a complicated issue:

Get on the Balcony. During meetings and discussions among factions make careful observations about the players. Imagine being on a balcony and observing. Being on the balcony allows you to see how people are reacting to each other and to you. Are the players truly listening to each other? To you? What triggers excitement and anger for each player?

Identify Cultural Norms. Notice the default behaviors of the various players to understand how they may react to various proposed solutions. What is the folklore for the group? Do they hold up the words of someone who lived long ago to justify their position? What are their rituals when interacting with various players? Are there factions that have similar behaviors but different interests?

Listen to the Song Beneath the Words. Pay close attention to what is not being said. Watch for non-verbal clues given by the players when you and others are speaking. Do you detect insincerity? Is eye contact avoided when certain subjects surface? Is humor inserted quickly after a serious comment is made? Making note of what’s just under the surface can help us uncover the real sources of resistance.

In addition, we should earn enough trust and rapport that the players tolerate our questions (imagine Leopold kicking dirt with those Wisconsin farmers). Invest time in finding common ground and developing relationships. After awhile we might begin asking probing diagnostic questions. The Kansas Leadership Center offers some good diagnostic questions, and I’ve added my twist in parentheses:

  • What’s our (your) story about what’s going on?
  • What story do we (you) imagine others are telling?
  • What aspirations do we (you) have related to this issue?
  • What needs to change to reach those aspirations?
  • What values might be in conflict here?
  • What processes need to be created to address this challenge?
  • What factions are involved with this issue? What does each value?
  • For real change to happen, who has to work on this? Who else?

In adaptive challenges we need to grasp the positions and alliances of the groups involved. For each stakeholder we must understand their desired outcome; how might they be affected by proposed solutions; what degree of power do they hold; what thing do they fear losing; with whom do they share interests? If we slowly bring out each players’ piece of the mess, we can help them identify adaptation strategies.

Regarding the ultimate adaptive challenge Leopold described as, “…living on a piece of land without spoiling it,” how might we begin diagnosing the situation? Below I lay out some diagnostic questions and, searching the internet, provide possible responses or positions from just a few factions involved in this global adaptive challenge.

What’s the story members of the United Nations are telling? And what aspirations do they have for the Earth’s future?

From the United Nations Environment Programme:

The most dramatic and pervasive example of how we have come to dominate our planet is climate change, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally linked to CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In its latest report, the IPCC warns that failure to reduce emissions could exacerbate food insecurity and result in the flooding of major cities and entire island nations. This could cause further refugee crises, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a drastically altered climate that might change life as we know it today for hundreds of millions of people. All of these impacts are being propelled, to a large extent, by our current linear economic system: we extract, produce, consume, and discard. This has provided some with an opulent lifestyle, but continues to exact a great environmental toll on the planet.

Chinese youngster scavenges in a landfill.

Chinese youngster scavenges in a landfill. Image courtesy of

The aspirations for the United Nations Environment Programme might best be summarized in its mission statement: “To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.”

Conversely what is the story the Energy & Environment Legal Institute is telling? And what aspirations do they have for the Earth’s future?

According to their Web site:

The Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal) is a 501(c)(3) organization engaged in strategic litigation, policy research, and public education on important energy and environmental issues.  Primarily through its strategic litigation efforts, E&E Legal seeks to address and correct onerous federal and state governmental actions that negatively impact energy and the environment.  E&E Legal advocates responsible resource development, sound science, respect for property rights, and a commitment to markets as it holds accountable those who seek excessive and destructive government regulation that’s based on agenda-driven policy making, junk science, and hysteria.

What needs to change to reach those aspirations?

There is a lot of information related to change proposed by the UN and EELI that I encourage you to explore but here I provide just a glimpse.

Here’s what members of the UNEP have agreed to:

When addressing current and future social, economic, and environmental challenges that are facing the planet there is now an established consensus that these challenges are interlinked and must be addressed through an integrated approach. The environment, along with social and economic factors, must play an important role when aiming to achieve truly sustainable development on a global scale. Only through integration of the three dimensions will it be possible to achieve the transformative change required to secure long-term human and environmental well-being.

And here’s the change desired by E&E Legal:

E&E Legal was founded in 2010 under a different name [American Tradition Institute] to promote free market environmentalism, and it has enjoyed tremendous success for a small organization. Hard-core environmentalist activists like the Natural Resources Defense Council have been highly effective for years in utilizing the court system to enact policy, affect change, and generate significant exposure for their cause.  The same opportunities exist for those who advocate a free-market approach, and we have an impressive track record in the courts despite being significantly overmatched by those promoting more regulation, and government-based solutions.  In September 2013, E&E Legal’s Board of Directors voted to refine its focus primarily to the area of strategic litigation, and to change its name in order to reflect more accurately its work in the legal arena.

What current values might be in conflict?

Perhaps values that are in conflict include free market principles versus environmental sustainability and self-determination versus communal interests. With 7 billion of us living, collectively, an unsustainable lifestyle what kind of planet will we leave behind for the 9 billion anticipated to be alive in 2050? Can we fulfill our immediate desires for goods and services without jeopardizing our children’s basic needs? Or must we separate want from need?

Speaking directly to one possible conflict of values, on September 28, 2015 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that he and President Obama both value, “…an uncompromising commitment on climate change without affecting our ability to meet the development aspirations of humanity.” I wonder if the Prime Minister truly believes these two values can be pursued and accomplished without compromise?

Family in Juanga India. Image courtesy of

Family in Juanga India. Image courtesy of

What processes need to be created to address symptoms of the Anthropocene?

Governments have created international processes such as the United Nations Environment Programme with its goals and objectives but it seems they have failed to involve the people with the problem and encourage them be a part of the solution. What holding environments have been created to stimulate much-needed dialogue among the many factions? Are the world’s authority figures willing to tell us what we don’t want to hear? Have they placed the work where it belongs? Are they willing to admit they don’t have the answers but they will help us search for them together? Are they willing to protect voices of dissent? Without conducting their own diagnoses, it’s likely governments will fail to understand what they are asking people to give up and will fail to help them adapt.

What major players are involved and what do they value?

Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a major player in this adaptive challenge. He is a senior authority figure providing direction, protection and order for approximately 1.25 billion people or 1 out of 7 people on Earth. Here’s what he said on October 8, 2015:

As Christians we wish to offer our contribution towards overcoming the ecological crisis which humanity is living through.  Therefore, first of all we must draw from our rich spiritual heritage the reasons which feed our passion for the care of creation, always remembering that for believers in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man for us, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” (cfr Encylical Letter. Laudato Si, 216). The ecological crisis therefore calls us to a profound spiritual conversion: Christians are called to “an ecological conversion whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.” (ibid., 217). Thus, “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”(ibid)

Pope Francis' tablet on Creation Care. Image courtesy of

Pope Francis’ commandments for Creation Care. Image courtesy of

Who has to work on this? Who else?

Obviously the authority figures representing many of the global states believe they are working on this adaptive challenge. But who else should? Who else owns a piece of the mess? You and me. When Pope Francis’ recent call for creation care comes up in conversations with your friends what are their responses? What is not said? What probing questions could you ask? If you’ve never had a conversation about the future of the planet with others, why not? What would it take to get you to do so?

Thank you for following along. If something in this post resonates with you (or troubles you), weigh in and share your response with others. And as always I encourage comments, questions and observations.

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Anthropocene, Leadership, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Deeper Dive Into Economic Growth

Setting Things Straight for the Steady State

By Brian Czech

Editor’s Note: The forthcoming A Future Beyond Growth (Routledge, 2016), edited by Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey, explores the vision and process for moving toward a steady state economy. This edited volume stemmed from the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Haydn is the co-director of the New South Wales chapter of CASSE. The following is Brian Czech’s foreword to “A Future Beyond Growth.”

Extremely dangerous political rhetoric has proliferated over the past several decades, seducing the masses onto a path that leads to the destruction of nature and civilization. This rhetoric is centered on the claim that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Politicians are all about economic growth but, at the same time, none of them want to be seen as willful destroyers of the environment. Therefore they stretch, warp, and corrupt the truth with the win-win rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too.

Such is the world that CASSE—the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy—was born into on May 1, 2004. In fact, the win-win rhetoric about growing the economy while protecting the environment was the primary impetus for establishing CASSE. The CASSE position on economic growth sets the record straight that “there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” leading up to this fact with seven “whereas” clauses and following it with eight other “therefore” findings.

Rat_RaceThose having a counter-reaction that “there doesn’t have to be a conflict; it’s not a fundamental conflict” should read the full CASSE position. The fundamentality of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection stems from the first two laws of thermodynamics. “Laws of thermodynamics” might sound intimidating to the uninitiated, yet the first two laws can be summarized in such common-sensical terms as: Law 1) You can’t get something from nothing; Law 2) You can’t be 100% efficient in the production process. These laws set up a limit to economic growth, as well as the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, as evidenced most clearly by the erosion of biodiversity in lockstep with economic growth.

So read the CASSE position, and read this book. While the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection is not an overly simple matter, the key points are readily grasped by sober readers, with the benefit of a clearly written book such as A Future Beyond Growth.

Among the 13,000 signatories of the CASSE position are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including authors of A Future Beyond Growth. Over 200 organizations have endorsed the position. Despite growing support for its central position, CASSE has been David to the Goliaths of Wall Street, neoclassical economics, and mainstream politics worldwide. Economic growth remains the top domestic policy goal among nations and lesser states as well, even as it causes more problems than it solves in the 21st century.

Of course if you’re going to be a responsible critic of economic growth, much less a long-lasting one, you better have an alternative to offer. Fortunately it is easy to identify the basic alternatives to growth. There are but two: economic degrowth and the steady state economy. The best way to summarize the alternatives is with a reminder of what, precisely, is meant by “economic growth.”

Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails increasing population and/or per capita consumption. Economic growth is indicated by increasing gross domestic product, or GDP. It entails higher demand for materials and energy, because “you can’t get something from nothing.”


Economic growth should be distinguished from “economic development,” which refers to qualitative change regardless of quantitative growth. For example, economic development may refer to the attainment of a fairer distribution of wealth, or a different allocation of resources reflecting the evolution of consumer ethics.

Degrowth, then, is simply defined as decreasing production and consumption in the aggregate, as indicated by decreasing GDP. Decreasing population and/or per capita consumption is required. The word “degrowth” tends to have political connotations in addition to meaning a smaller economy, especially in Western Europe where the degrowth movement originated as “La Décroissance.” (Frankly, “economic growth” also has marked political connotations, but society has gotten numb to them.) As with economic growth, degrowth in the sense of a shrinking economy is ultimately unsustainable.

The sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth and degrowth is the steady state economy, which has stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. “Stabilized” in this context means mildly fluctuating. A steady state economy has stabilized population and per capita consumption. Energy and material demands are gradually stabilized—in the aggregate and per capita—as the limits to productive efficiency are reached. All else equal, a steady state economy is indicated by stabilized GDP. The “all else equal” (as I described in Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) includes level of technology, inflation, the propensity to use money relative to other means of exchange, and environmental conditions. But the bottom line, so to speak, is that GDP is a fine indicator of one thing: the pure size of the economy. Which makes it a good indicator of one other thing: environmental impact.

Obviously the pursuit of a steady state economy invokes a thousand devils in the details of political and cultural reforms. Macroeconomic goals, tax codes, budgets, interest rates, terms of trade: these are some of the aspects of statecraft to be dramatically overhauled with steady statesmanship. In the private sector, what about the sociology of consumption? Imagine the attitudes toward conspicuous consumption in a world that finally gets it about limits to growth.

A basic measure of justice, with an equally basic measure of logic, suggests that the place to start in moving toward a steady state economy on Earth is with the wealthiest nations. Impoverished nations need economic growth, almost by definition. We all know who the wealthiest nations are—look for example at nighttime lighting imagery—and concerned citizens from these countries have helped raise awareness of the perils of pursuing perpetual growth.

This NASA image from a composite shows the earth's city lights at night. (AP Photo/NASA)

This NASA image from a composite shows the earth’s city lights at night. (AP Photo/NASA)

Which brings us back to CASSE, the uphill-fighting, philanthropically disadvantaged, non-governmental organization with the mission of advancing the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support. CASSE is almost entirely a volunteer organization. Its “business model” should be referenced in quotes, as “business” tends to connote things like money, salaries, contracts, and related financial features that are rare in the context of CASSE. But CASSE has a volunteer model that includes international chapters unified by the CASSE position on economic growth.

CASSE’s New South Wales Chapter, led by Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke, has demonstrated the potential of this volunteer model. When they invited me to give the keynote address at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference (the AAS’s annual environmental conference), with the conference’s theme being the steady state economy, I had to check if it was April Fool’s Day. To convene a major academy on the steady state economy in the United States, where Big Money calls the shots even in “academic” affairs, would have been inconceivable. The fact that the CASSE New South Wales Chapter (and its partners) managed to deliver the goods on a national academy conference for the steady state economy says a lot about the New South Wales CASSE chapter, the Australian Academy of Science, and even Australia itself.

What exactly does it say? For starters, it says Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke are diligent scholars, determined organizers, and capable communicators. It says that the Australian Academy of Science is a faithful champion of its scientific communities. It suggests, too, that an inquisitive, open-minded spirit prevails at least in Australia, which offers hope to the international community. Open minds in Australia have gleaned crucial insights from CASSE’s tireless Australian National Director, Geoff Mosley (Melbourne), and from one of the world’s leading steady state economists, Philip Lawn (Adelaide), and other Australians who presented at the 2014 Fenner Conference.

A Future Beyond Growth grew out of the proceedings of the 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Not everything from the conference made it to print. My own talk, for example, stays mostly in the pages of Supply Shock, plus the current prefatory remarks. But much of the highly memorable Fenner Conference is presented herein, and I feel delighted to preface the chapters with one more thing:

The next time you hear the win-win spin that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment” or the equivalent in your regional culture, don’t just throw up your hands in resignation to the rhetoric. Think instead about a future beyond growth. That’s where there’s no conflict with protecting the environment, national security, and international stability.

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A Call for Leadership

I love my children, and like many of you I want a healthy planet so the next generation might live healthy, fulfilling lives – and their children, their children’s children and so forth. But that future is in doubt. This post is the 2nd in a series dedicated to exploring the current reality and how we might close the gap between that reality and our aspirations for a healthy planet. If you missed the 1st post, The Greatest Challenge of Our Time, I urge you to read it before reading this post further.

Logan and Audrey in their snow fort.

Logan and Audrey in their snow fort.

I admit my role in contributing to our current ecological footprint. I have a nice home, automobiles, and gadgets not essential for my survival. Like so many I use more resources than I need for a healthy, content life. Getting you, me and others to live on this planet without spoiling it is the greatest adaptive challenge of our time. Reducing our ecological footprint will need all of us to become aware and then to change – to let go of things and adopt different habits that are fun, rewarding, and healthy for us and the planet. We have to adapt but it’s unlikely we will without intervention. To address the greatest adaptive challenge of our time, we Nature professionals must learn to intervene skillfully to help others (and ourselves) close the gap between our hope for a healthy planet and the current reality.

I believe the framework for that work is the principles of adaptive leadership. According to its originators’ at Cambridge Leadership Associates, “Adaptive Leadership emerged from thirty plus years of research at Harvard University by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defining the frontier of leadership training and development. Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of adaptation. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real change to the status quo.”

Calling for social and economic change seems uncomfortable. As Nature professionals it’s perhaps easier to be what Leopold described as “land-doctors” busying ourselves with “alleviations of biotic pain.” And for many of us that is what we’re paid to do. But if we value Nature and humans we should follow Olaus Murie’s call to “look at the horizon,” and Leopold’s advice to shift cultural attitudes toward land health.

Leopold used prose and science to articulate the sustainable Nature relationship promoted by Native Americans like Chief Seattle. Leopold explained the why but he didn’t have the benefit of behavioral science research to help lead people to the solution – his proposed land ethic. However what Leopold lacked in access to today’s leadership philosophy he made up for with emotional intelligence. As demonstrated in the Management Assistance Team Webinar “Leopold, Leadership and You” Leopold scholars Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren shared that Leopold intuitively exhibited adaptive leadership in many ways. They described how he was adept at diagnosing the underlying values that landowners held. Rather than vilify, he developed relationships with farmers and others that were responsible for the land sickness he so much wanted to cure. He experimented with ways to mobilize others to help them keep things most important to them while doing away with practices that harmed Nature. He recognized and tried to address his biases while managing his personal life very well.

Increasing global footprint is our challenge.

Increasing global footprint is our challenge.

In the age of the Anthropocene the adaptive challenge is helping humanity address the conflict between an increasing human footprint and the health of the planet. We must help people plan for an existence that is sustainable – doing what is essential and letting go of what is not. In the age of the Anthropocene a Nature organization will have to adapt by changing priorities. Their focus must shift to the socio-ecological mixing zone where neuroscience is just as important as conservation biology. It is within that human-Nature interface where the Nature professions real work lies. Within that zone is conflict and that is where we find the adaptive challenge.

Addressing the adaptive challenge of the Anthropocene requires all hands on deck. Every Nature professional must become adept at exhibiting adaptive leadership: diagnosing the situation; energizing others; managing self; and intervening skillfully to guide the distribution of loss that will be required to make progress. Leopold got us started and together we can move humanity in the right direction. There are thousands of Nature professionals in thousands of communities. Just imagine how successful we would be if we joined together for the same purpose! How powerful would we be if we addressed the greatest challenge of our time together?

Ronald Heifetz et al, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership broke the act of leadership into four main components: diagnosing the system; mobilizing the system; seeing self as system; and deploying yourself. In upcoming posts I’ll explore these steps in greater detail. In the meantime watch this TEDx Presentation as Marty Linsky explains the fundamentals of adaptive leadership. Finally, in the next week chat with a few of your colleagues about the Anthropocene and take note of the stories they tell you. Have they heard of it? Together can you find personal connections to it?

Thank you for following along. If something in this post resonates with you, share it with others. And as always I encourage comments, questions and observations. Please join me in subsequent posts where I’ll explore how we can use the tools of adaptive leadership to close the gap between reality and our dream for a sustainable future.

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Aldo Leopold, Anthropocene, Conservation, Leadership, Olaus Murie, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Don’t Miss This Opportunity: Ending April 30th

If you care about conservation then you will want to see the free screening of this new film about the Anthropocene – it is very good. The film length is about an hour so plan accordingly but don’t delay!

Here’s the link:

Please spread the word.

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The Greatest Challenge of Our Time

In one of my favorite passages from A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold describes his aspirations for his children.

I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. As little tots, they spent their time playing with my decoys and scouring vacant lots with wooden guns. I hope to leave them good health, an education, and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these if there are no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? No more snipe whistling in the meadow, no more piping of widgeons and chattering of teal as darkness covers the marsh; no more whistling of swift wings when the morning star pales in the east? And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars – what if there be no more goose music?

Those words pluck at my heart strings. I hear a father laying out his responsibilities as a parent: keep the kids safe; make sure they get a good education; and help them learn to survive and thrive in the world. I also hear concern. It seems for Leopold, Nature was essential to living. And a healthy planet was essential for Nature. In other words, to take care of the kids, we must take care of the Earth.

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Nearly 70 years have passed since Leopold penned those words. As a father I too share similar hopes and dreams. I love Logan and Audrey more than anything. My dream is for them to live healthy, fulfilling lives – as well as their children, their children’s children and so forth. Like Leopold I believe Nature and a healthy planet are essential for present and future generations. Given emerging scientific evidence, I fear our hopes may not come true.

Many geologists agree humans have changed the Earth so much that it’s in a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2007). In our time human activities are dominating ecosystems with rippling consequences of global soil loss, mass extinction, climate change, and others. Many people including scientists and economists with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy believe these problems stem from our consumer culture. What causes or supports that culture? There are many. Perhaps it starts with governments and politicians encouraging economic growth. They believe economic growth is the only path forward. A path built upon growing consumption and waste production (Czech 2013).

Federal Reserve Board

Federal Reserve Board

The problem is Earth’s resources are finite. Like a bank account can’t support deficit spending forever the planet can’t support economic growth forever either. It’s a fact. Current production and consumption of energy and minerals (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly creates a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution to disorganizing the land community through introduction of exotic species and loss of species diversity (Steffen 2011). Essentially as humanity’s ecological footprint grows the planet’s ability to sustain us and Nature diminishes.

As I shared previously, experts at the Global Footprint Network, report that if every human on the planet lived the lifestyle of the average American, humanity would need four Earths’ worth of biocapacity each year (McLellan et al. 2014). This unsustainable consumption and wasting will stop eventually. It seems obvious that if we don’t change – if we don’t adapt – future generations of people and wildlife are in trouble. So really the question is do we want to manage for a better outcome?

In 1920, Aldo Leopold urged others to, “respect [Earth] collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space.” (Newton 2006) In A Sand County Almanac he would later suggest man not view himself as “conqueror of the land community but plain member and citizen of it.” The pivotal message from the book was the need for humanity to adopt a land ethic – a moral compass to guide us toward a sustainable relationship with our home. Today many use a more encompassing term – the Earth ethic.

Has his idea caught our attention? Today it’s clear Leopold was an innovator. The solution he presented created awareness, triggering a shift in modern society’s relationship with Nature – a needed social adaptation. But in the beginning his bright idea didn’t seem so bright to many – saving trees, saving soil, valuing predators, leaving areas roadless, living simply, and so on. In line with the Diffusion of Innovation theory (Rogers 1962), Leopold’s great idea had few early adopters. Published in 1949, sales of A Sand County Almanac didn’t really take off until the 1960s (Lane 2007).

Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of

Depiction of the Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of

One of the early adopters of Leopold’s theory was Jay “Ding” Darling. As depicted in an excellent documentary, America’s Darling, he was a champion for an Earth ethic in his own unique way. Unlike most of Leopold’s early followers, Darling was a nationally-celebrated character and held the highest position of authority in the Bureau of Biological Survey (later the US Fish and Wildlife Service). In political cartoons throughout his life, Darling called the nation’s attention to the destruction of Nature. In the 1930s, as the head of the Biological Survey he pushed hard for funds and legislation to restore and protect Nature, even if he had to go against the most powerful figure in the country. In a 1935 note to his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote:

The six million we got from Congress and which you think is enough, is mostly going to buy Okefenokee, the ranches on the winter elk range in Jackson Hole….I need $4,000,000 for duck lands this year and the same bill which gave us the $6,000,000 specifically state that at your discretion you could allocate from the $4,800,000,000 money for migratory waterfowl restoration. We did a good job last year. Why cut us off now? (Lendt 1989)

Another early adopter was former Biological Survey biologist Olaus Murie. As an ecologist he latched on to many of Leopold’s ideas particularly the notion of a guiding ethic. In a 1954 address to members of The Wildlife Society, he had the courage to challenge his peers, stating:

We are not only dealing with animals and plants and soil and water. We are dealing with people as well. Whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle. Thoughtful people are trying to understand our place in Nature, trying to build a proper social fabric, groping for a code of ethics toward each other and toward nature….As members of our profession we have a responsibility to contribute to the highest thinking in this field…..We need to look up from our technical study at times and look at the horizon (Journal of Wildlife Management 1954).

Rachel Carson, another Service scientist, was also an early adopter of Leopold’s philosophy. As we know now, she summoned the courage to publicly turn up the heat on politicians and the public when it came to questions of economic growth versus Nature. In a 1952 letter to the editor of the Washington Post she ripped into the new Eisenhower administration for replacing well-qualified agency directors with politicians who had no scientific training, stating:

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resource, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction. It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from within, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within (Lear 1998).

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Long ago Leopold introduced modern society to an idea. He described humanity’s greatest and most enduring challenge as living “on a piece of land without spoiling it,” in ways that enrich its “capacity for self-renewal” or, in other words, its health. Looking ahead, he wrote, “The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits” (Flader 1992). Clearly Leopold foresaw a huge problem if people didn’t change their relationship with the planet.

Today we have scientific evidence validating what he anticipated. The Anthropocene is likely the greatest challenge of our time (Steffen 2011). Solutions are available but the majority are not ready. If so, our governments and politicians would adopt limits to economic growth via a steady state economy. With such an approach we would use social and political mechanisms to make sure we’re not consuming resources faster than they can be produced. We’d reduce, reuse and recycle. We’d make sure we’re not depositing wastes faster than the planet can absorb them (Czech 2013). We’d live not as cave people but within our ecological means.

But social adaptation stands between us and the solutions. Are we mentally ready to adopt a steady state economy and the changes in lifestyle it will require? Are we ready to engage others and mobilize them to do the same? Actually it doesn’t matter if we’re ready. We have no choice but to lead. Leadership theory now recognizes solutions to complex problems are found through our interactions with each other. This new approach, grounded in neuroscience and organizational theory, abandons the long-held belief that we depend upon one person or “leader” to solve the problem (Lichenstein 2006). In short, we can’t wait for one charismatic person to lead the global community to an Earth ethic. We have to do this.

Logan and Audrey in Sequoia National Park

Logan and Audrey absorb the Nature preserved in Sequoia National Park

I believe we have reason to be hopeful. Adoption of an Earth ethic is likely in the stage of what Everett Rogers defined as the “early majority.” Millions of copies of the Almanac have been sold and it’s been printed in 12 different languages. By now it’s likely millions have adopted an Earth ethic. Recycling, reusing, and reducing our ecological footprint is becoming the norm. CEOs now speak of environmental sustainability (Harvard Business Review 2014). Ecological limits to economic growth is now taught in major universities like University of California, University of Oregon, Virginia Tech and Oslo University College. Adoption of an Earth ethic is growing. But how long before we reach the “tipping point” and can we afford the current pace?

In a prescient 1962 commencement address at Scripps College, Rachel Carson concluded:

Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny. ‘In today already walks tomorrow.’ (Scripps College Bulletin 1962)

Our kids need a healthy planet. Nature needs a healthy planet. And don’t forget we need a healthy planet too. So what are we doing about it? Are we “walking” in tomorrow? Would Rachel Carson be proud of us?

If we don’t lead, maybe everything will be OK. Maybe the Earth ethic will continue to grow. Maybe social adaptation will continue at a pace quick enough. But what if doesn’t? Can you imagine the costs and the conflicts? We already see the enormous sums of money spent in attempts to clean our air, restore land and fight for water. Imagine how badly it might get with a couple billion more people on the planet.

Yes, the challenge of our time is big and scary. But we have reason to be optimistic. Our understanding of human behaviors, economies and the planet is growing by leaps and bounds. With increasing access to information, I sense humans are adapting to new ideas and information at a faster rate than ever before. There is little doubt we’re in an amazing period of time.

I’m positive we will reach the Earth ethic tipping point before it’s too late. In upcoming posts I’ll describe ways experts suggest we close the gap between our aspirations and the current reality. I’ll share their suggestions on steps we can take together to speed up adoption of an Earth ethic. Steps developed and honed through the study of human behavior. To do so you, me and everyone else in the Nature profession will have to exhibit adaptive leadership.

Thank you for following along. If something here resonates please share it with others and start your own conversation. You might also make a reservation on your calendar in the next month to watch this TEDx presentation about the Anthropocene;  estimate your ecological footprint; watch this extremely popular TEDx presentation and learn more about the Diffusion of Innovation; or rent a copy of Green Fire, a documentary about Aldo Leopold or the film America’s Darling.

Note: I’d like to thank Drs. Brian Czech and Julianne Warren for exploring these thoughts with me over the past year. Certain phrases within this post originally appeared in a poster we presented in April 2014 to the Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society: Throwing Our Weight Around – Advancing a Steady State Economy for Earth Health.

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Leadership is About the Distribution of Loss

This piece appeared originally in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on January 24, 2015. Students of adaptive leadership may pick up on themes like “distribution of loss,” “disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate,” and “people with the problem have to be the people with the solution.” Those familiar with Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory may notice some themes from the book in the situation described. While the adaptive challenge I discuss is cleaning up air pollution, the story is applicable to other environmental or conservation issues. As you read this you may imagine similarities to issues in your own community or workplace where there isn’t a single charismatic person leading others but a small group of dedicated, courageous people.

For almost a decade our community has been in conflict over dangerous concentrations of wood smoke pollution in the winter. We are suffering from mental, financial and physical harm arising from big heating bills and smoke particles themselves. In this struggle three groups emerged early. The first group – the hands-on group – suffered from dirty air or wanted to prevent that harm. The second group – the hands-off group – sensed a threat to their financial well-being from efforts to clean the air. The third group – the sideline group – chose to focus on other things. Today as more members of the third group join the conversation the tension has eased.

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

They say the world is run by those who show up. Our community needs people that have been on the sideline to get involved. If you breathe air and heat your home, now is the time to get involved because the Assembly is considering changes to reduce air pollution. Recent examples from other states suggests clean air and harmony will eventually be restored. But with such terrible pollution we need to pick up the pace. We can if more people leave the sideline and engage in the conversation.

In Missoula Montana residents were in gridlock over dirty air. In the beginning there were few who saw the need to put burn rules in place. Hands-on advocates and the hands-off folks were bitterly divided. But over time members of the sideline group became involved. These folks identified with some of the values and biases held by the opposing groups. They accepted there was a problem and that solutions were needed. They helped early members of both groups accept the compromises that would be necessary to achieve harmony and cleaner air.

Kids have a voice too.

Kids have a voice too.

Our community’s reaction to dirty air has, thus far, been normal. In the beginning members of the hands-on group asked members of the hands-off group to adapt too quickly. Any quick and cheap remedy that involved sacrifice from them was off the table. Fear of loss drove the hands-off group to the ballot box. The clean air group was in disbelief. Their bright ideas to clean the air weren’t so bright to some. Predictably the pollution grew worse.

As the problem grew more people from the sideline group took notice. Less certain about the problem and possible solutions they sought to understand all perspectives. After listening and learning they had sympathy for the hands-off group but recognized change was needed. Over time comments from the hands-off group changed from refusal that wood smoke is harmful to what are the most fair ways to clean the air. Likewise, the hand-on group has shifted more to the middle recognizing there is a place for wood burning if done responsibly. The recent public meeting was evidence we’re coming together. Looking at how our community is adapting to the idea of cleaning the air one might surmise we’ve reached the tipping point. In fact after several years, voters decided the hands-off approach hadn’t worked. We’re at the point where a majority agree there is a problem and rules that are fair to burners and breathers are needed.

Messages painted from the heart... for the lungs.

Messages painted from the heart… for the lungs.

Soon, perhaps on January 29th, our local government representatives in the Borough Assembly will decide if and how we can clean the air. By adopting a plan they admit will not meet clean air standards, the State of Alaska has placed the ball in the Assembly’s court. The pressure is on us, through our representatives, to protect ourselves from dirty air, cold temperatures and financial burdens in a manner that the majority deems fair. If ever there was a time for members of the sideline group to get involved, it’s now. If you’ve not been involved I urge you to see yourself as a member of the majority for clean air and warm homes. Listen to all opinions. Ask questions. Study how other communities handled their air pollution problem. Be ready to change your mind. And then share your thoughts with your representatives in the Assembly.

History has shown that in the midst of conflict a majority of people finally do come together to clean up their air. Our moment has arrived. I hope you’ll join the conversation and become a part of our community’s history.

They say leadership is risky business. It requires mobilizing others for some purpose without getting yanked from the dance floor. What is your purpose and what do you dance on the edge of your formal…or informal…authority for? 

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