At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.
As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.
I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.
What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.
Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:
- Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
- Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
- Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
- Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
- Get visible leadership buy-in;
- Demonstrate progress;
- Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
- Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.
But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.