Moving Sustainability from Thought to Action

Every age has a story. Today, our story has become unsustainable. Sandra Waddock shows us how to use the power of storytelling to develop a new way of living.
Sandra Waddock November 15, 2017

The Power of Story

This year, I traveled to sustainability events from Amsterdam to Cleveland, from Dundee, Scotland, to Nancy, France.[i] I met managers, academics, entrepreneurs, NGO and government leaders, activists, and artists. All wanted to move today’s system from its orientation toward constant growth, materialism, and consumption toward a world where humans all experience dignified lives of wellbeing in harmony with Nature. 

How do we achieve that goal? Two messages came through clearly:

Stories Matter — and Ours is Wrong

Every age has a story: a dominant narrative of who we are and why we act. Stories matter — they drive attitudes, actions, practices, and, ultimately, the way businesses and other institutions operate. 

Indigenous cultures know the power of stories. Their stories create cultural myths that frame beliefs and how people live their lives. When the story is wrong, they believe that people get sick. Their medicine men or women, their shamans, heal in part by telling a new story and healing the myth that is disordered.

Developed countries have powerful stories as well, though sometimes they aren’t acknowledged. These stories also tell people who they are and how they should act. They shape practices, policies, and institutions through a set of “memes” (or basic units of culture like ideas, phrases, and images).

Today, the dominant “story” is largely economic. It tells us that responsibilities are individual (or company-based), that companies exist to maximize shareholder wealth, that markets are ‘free’ and can solve humanity’s problems, and that endless growth is necessary. The story emphasizes improving lives through economic and material growth and scientific or technological advances. 

Today’s story overlooks important realities. It doesn’t consider ecological or inequality consequences. It fails to recognize that humans cannot exist apart from nature and that issues are interconnected and need to be considered holistically. Problems aren’t necessarily best solved by breaking things into their component parts and investigating the pieces. 

Unending growth simply isn’t possible. Human population now strains the ability of many ecosystems to provide sufficient resources. Today’s production system is largely linear, going from raw materials to production to consumption to the landfill or incinerator. The sustainable alternative is circular growth, where “waste equals food,” i.e., a system where everything is fully used and recirculated. 

Science and technology alone cannot improve our lives; deeper connections and activities make life worthwhile. Some of these connections are with other people; others, with Nature or to particular places, institutions, and communities. Still others are artistic or spiritual. All are vital to producing a sense of wellbeing

Creating the New Story

We know enough about what is wrong to come together collectively and form a vision of a better future. Groups interested in this problem will likely need to provide their visions and find out what they share. Then, I believe, they need to agree on a shared set of memes — ideas, phrases, images — that each can use in their own ways to communicate. 

Thus, the new story will likely have many authors — there are already many efforts to change the story in one way or another. Everyone has something to contribute, particularly in the telling — and retelling — that is necessary to move new “memes,” for example, of dignity, wellbeing, flourishing, working together, and shared responsibility, into everyday talk. 

The Story Content

The new story somehow places humans in relationship with each other and nature. It matches human enterprise to the resources available. In shifting away from today’s “human dominance of nature” story, we must recognize that we humans are intimately connected to and a part of Nature: everything we have, do, eat, consume, and desire is a product of Nature, as are we ourselves.  

The new story needs to describe a world of greater equity, within societies, as well as between the developed and developing world, the North and South. It needs to ensure that people’s needs are met and their voices are heard, that they are treated with dignity no matter what their station in life. With the guidance of a new story, we can more readily take actions that bring it to life. 

Living the Story

How do we act on these new ideas and encourage others to act? Whatever new story frames the future, it needs to be, in a sense, “lived” or embodied. 

All over the world, people are starting initiatives to bring such thinking to life and to create the system change needed. This process requires us to ‘feel’ the new ideas: to grapple emotionally and instinctually with them. We can do this best collaboratively, through co-creation and mutual engagement with multiple stakeholders, and by using multiple different ways of learning and knowing. 

For example, Sue Moffat, a researcher and theater director, has people engage in theater around challenging issues, or build a structure that represents the system to be changed. Imagine a group of adults playing with buttons to illustrate a dystopian — or utopian — future. That future comes alive in ways that simply talking about it cannot realize. In that moment, we begin to see new pathways for taking actions to make the new story real. 

Ultimately, acting means different things for different people. For me ‘action’ means writing, speaking, and collaboratively thinking. For others, it is starting projects from wherever they sit in the world, doing something to bring about greater equity or more sustainable practices, for example. For business leaders, it can mean working towards products and services that deliver value in harmony with nature’s resources and constraints. For some people, acting means bringing people together to see how they can collaborate to deal with issues they are facing. Others can first create frameworks for action. Some may create art that inspires, provokes, or transforms the way we see the world. 

The knowledge to bring about the necessary transition to a sustainable enterprise economy already exists. It is past time to simply study the problems we face. It is time to act, even if we make mistakes in doing so. If we can connect the dots across the different disciplines and practices that have generated this knowledge, we can begin to move the system. 

We know these things. Now is the time to act on them. 

Related Resources

Groups working for change

How to achieve change

Aspects of sustainability

[i] Conferences I attended include MIT’s Urban Planning Studies group’s workshop on Finance, Geography & Sustainability, 2017; The 1st Annual Regenerative Business Summit in Boulder, CO; the Fourth Global Forum on Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western University, Cleveland; Transformations 2017 at the University of Dundee, Dundee, Scotland; ARTEM-Organizational Creativity and Sustainability International Conference, at ICN, Nancy, France; the International Association of Business in Society annual meeting held in Amsterdam in 2017; and the Academy of Management annual meeting in Atlanta, GA, in 2017.

About the Author

Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.  Widely published, Dr. Waddock's research interests are in the area of large system change, intellectual shamanism, stewardship of the future, wisdom, corporate responsibility, management education, and multi-sector collaboration. Author or editor of thirteen books, her most recent books are Healing the World (Routledge/Greenleaf, 2017), Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference (Cambridge, 2015), Building the Responsible Enterprise: Where Vision and Values Meet Value (with Andreas Rasche, Stanford, 2012), and SEE Change: Making the Change to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy (with Malcolm McIntosh, Greenleaf, 2011). Dr. Waddock has published over 140 articles on corporate citizenship, sustainable enterprise, difference making, wisdom, stewardship of the future, responsibility management systems, corporate responsibility, management education, and related topics.
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