Why sustainability demands creativity

September 15, 2011 by Anna Clark

Georgia O'KeefeGeorgia O’Keefe once said, “To create one’s own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.”  I’m not an artist, but judging from my experience in sustainability consulting, changing the world takes at least as much courage as painting does.

I’ve been amazed to discover that the inability to adapt to change is the most significant stumbling block to implementing sustainability within any organization.  We continue to wrestle with the fact that we live on a planet of finite resources and that our actions are harming the earth.  Even though the scientific consensus has been clear for decades, the political will to change our ways has been less resolute. 

Forty years ago President Nixon declared a need for a comprehensive energy policy and we still don’t have one. Scientists have openly discussed the dangers of climate change since the 1970s, yet the debate continues.  This stalemate surrounding our energy use and its harmful effects reveals, above all things, a lack of courage.Princeton professors Socolow and Pacala have conceived a way out – at least on paper.  Their solution, called Stabilization Wedges, proposes using technologies that are already available to build a bridge to the future.  Recently reaffirming their 2004 research, Socolow explains:

Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century. A portfolio of technologies now exists to meet the world’s energy needs over the next 50 years and limit atmospheric CO to a trajectory that avoids a doubling of the preindustrial concentration. Every element in this portfolio has passed beyond the laboratory bench and demonstration project; many are already implemented somewhere at full industrial scale.

If we intentionally use some combination of these solutions, we could create a system of life with that would no longer imperil our planet.  Other pioneers in clean technology propose similarly compelling solutions.  (For a thought-provoking investigation into the pros and cons of some of these, check out BarryOnEnergy from Barry Stevens, PhD.)  There’s no shortage of answers, but lack of will and a lack of creativity remain obstacles.

Creativity is about opening up our minds – and the minds of others – to invisible possibilities.  Remember the true story of Apollo 13?  The spacecraft experienced a malfunction shortly after liftoff.  Among the NASA crew’s hardships in getting back to earth, they spontaneously began losing oxygen.  Creating a device to remove CO2 from the Command Module would require immediate coordination among the team on the ground. Everyone had to set aside his regular work and focus on solving the puzzle using only what was on board the ship, nothing new.

Working together urgently, the engineers designed a makeshift gadget they called “the mailbox.” Each piece on its own – a hose, some tape – was useless.  Yet, by teaching the astronauts to assemble the machine from inside their spacecraft, the group was able to accomplish the impossible.  “The mailbox” was one of several acts of creative genius that got astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise home safely.

Today we need another miracle, or at the very least another “mailbox.”  Not just a CO2 removal device, but also thousands of simpler solutions to make our neighborhoods, schools, and homes more sustainable.  Unleashing the creativity necessary to implement green ideas will require us to get some distance from the culture long enough to think. In reality, most of us are too steeped in busyness to conceive of new ways to use our talents for the greater good.

If you’re an artist, you may think that sustainability is somebody else’s concern. But to leave the task up to others is to ignore the power that artists can have over the public psyche. Who would dispute the influence of activist-artists such as Bono and Bob Dylan?  Sadly, it’s a stretch to name more than a handful of artists that have wielded their celebrity to raise consciousness about critical social issues. In fact, during the past three decades, lyrics from Billboard Hot 100 songs have steadily increased in self-centeredness and hostility toward others. This emphasis on “self” mirrors an upward trend in consumption, debt, and obesity. Our endless pursuit of comfort is making us sick.

Social scientists have a formula that charts the consequences of our consumption: I=PAT.  Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.  In brief, our impact on the earth is a function of how many of us there are, multiplied by how much we spend and how much gadgetry we continue to produce.  It’s little wonder that the American marketing machine has led 5 percent of the world’s population to consume over 25 percent of the resources.  Today the world of advertising continues to siphon off our creative capital and employ our best minds to perpetuate the consumption machine.

But I digress. Focusing on the negative is something environmentalists do too well. As a social entrepreneur, my job is to identify the opportunities that lie within our challenges. When we apply our creativity to meet the world’s needs (instead of just our own), we can’t help but create a positive ripple effect.

Nobody is too small to make a difference, but many are too fearful. Creativity takes courage, as legendary artist Henri Matisse once said.  Once you cross the point where your intention to do something becomes greater than your fear of failure, you will see a clear path toward your own unique contribution. In other words, where you find your courage, you will also find your creativity.

About the Author - Anna Clark

Anna Clark is the author of 'Green, American Style' and the president of EarthPeople. She lives in one of the first Platinum LEED-certified residences in Dallas.

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