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A Third Way

  • Pablo Baxter

Posted: 10:00PM December 1st, 2014 | Comments

"A Third Way"
Written and delivered by Jessie Lerner, Exeuctive Director, Sustain Dane at Badger Bioneers, November 18th, 2014

A year ago we gathered at Badger Bioneers and through a workshop on design thinking we learned to fail fast and fail often. I was also introduced for the first time as Sustain Dane’s Executive Director and despite hearing from our presenter Tracy that failing ultimately helps us succeed, I was terrified of failing in my new role.

I stand before you today with a year of both failures and successes behind me. While still green, pun intended, the failures have taught me fast and I am more confident than ever that there is a third way of being – a sustainable way- and that each of us has the capacity to re-imagine what is possible and guide a wave of positive disruption that puts us on a trajectory to living more sustainably. 

I am not scared of disruption. Indeed disruption - change, is the only constant. 

Instead of living in fear of that inevitable change, instead of using mental energy and our earth’s finite resources to try to convince ourselves that our current systems are working, lets use the abundance of human creativity to embrace change, to shape the disruptive forces to create new systems, new policies, new products and new social norms and create the world we want. 

So, what do we want? We asked you what kind of world you envisioned and you told us…

  •       Neighbors that look out for one another
  •       Chemical free food for all 
  •       Public transportation and electric cars in the driveways of solar powered homes 
  •       Locally owned businesses 
  •       People accessing essentially everything they need within a few miles of their home
  •       A shared economy
  •       Everyone, regardless of income, affording to live sustainably 
  •       Maternity/paternity and vacation time ala Europe 
  •       Urban gardens and community composting 

In brief, we want respect, abundance, safety and joy for all of us

This isn’t our current world. At least not for all life around the globe. Certainly not for everyone here in Dane County.

Knowing this can make my head and my heart hurt. One could feel despair. But I don’t. I look into the room and am inspired that there are nearly 250 people who will take a day to gather and imagine a future that allows everyone to thrive. 

So yes, this isn’t our world - YET. 

I’m still buzzing off the amount of creative energy that was released this morning just by talking about disruption. This afternoon we’ll hear from six individuals who embody the sentiment of Terry Tempest William “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find”. 

But there is a space between imagining and getting results that is really, really hard. The moment when struggle is staring you in the face.  Last year, during the interactive afternoon workshop, we experienced “the groan zone” between brainstorming and deciding on a path. When Darin called this out, noting that the groan zone is an inevitable part of the process, we laughed. The room was lighter after acknowledging it because we realized we were not alone in our experience. 

I want to recognize how important it is for all of us – for sustainability champions - to accept and persevere through the difficult times. As someone who has been criticized for being too positive, I want to make clear that maintaining hope does not come from disregarding the shadow side, from ignoring the gravity of our current situation. It’s choosing to keep working for change when the other option is stagnation from fear.  

I imagine some of you, like me, struggle with our current reality - that a sustainable lifestyle and one that is materially comfortable and convenient are on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

They don’t have to be. 

Sustainability and a comfortable lifestyle don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  They can even be the same thing! If we re-imagine and re-create. 

So for all of you that have times when you struggle to maintain a positive, optimistic vision for the future in the face of the today’s reality I’d like to share the first time I remember being really, really challenged about sustainability, way back when I was just 8 years old.

It was book fair time, and tucked in my backpack next to the latest edition in the Sweet Valley Twins series was a thin blue paperback with ten powerful words in bold yellow lettering “50 simple things you can do to save the earth”.  

It doesn’t take much time to read 50 simple things.  By the time dinner was ready I was an expert. Turn off the lights when I leave the room. Done! Turn the water off while I brush my teeth. Check! Snip six pack rings so the seals and seagulls don’t strangle to death. Good thing I just got a pair of big girl scissors, I could keep them in my backpack! The list goes on. 

My analytical skills were developing and I noticed a pattern.  Many of the actions revolved around minimizing the use of and counteracting the impact of plastic on the environment. Eight-year-old Jessie concluded that plastic was evil and was killing all the magical sea creatures that didn’t know the difference between a bag and a tasty jellyfish. At dinner my parents asked the daily question of, “What did you learn today?” and I responded with gusto “We need to get rid of plastic!” 

I don’t remember their follow up questions, but I do distinctly remember my mom saying with compassion, “Jessie, you do know that your Dad and Grandpa make plastic bags for a living”.  

What? My Dad and Grandpa Bernie go to work every day and make plastic bags? This couldn’t be. How could people I love and who love me be causing harm to the earth? How could the same people who caught fireflies and climbed trees with me create a product that threatened the health of the environment? How could it be that money from making plastic bought my family’s food and my toys? 

Like many of you, I’ve had more than just one moment where the world doesn’t make sense. Where the intersection of two truths, of two worlds, of two systems collide. While it can feel like a shrinking world, it’s these moments of intersection where the magic and mystery is. We don’t have to choose either plastic money or changing the world. We can discover a third way amongst the chaos and confusion.  A third way of being. When the world tries to tell you that there are just two truths – like plastic money puts food on our table & I don’t want to harm animals – it’s not simply an either or. 

But growing up in an either-or-world and not fitting into either absolute means there has to be a third way. There has to be a way in which we ALL can thrive. Just because we rarely experienced it, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And that is what positive disruption is all about. That is why we are gathered here. To explore and wrestle with this exciting alterative – that all people can thrive. And this thriving is at the intersection of economy, community and environment. These systems have to reinforce each other instead of tear each other apart. And if they are not working – which they are clearly not – let’s follow the words of Terry, “it’s not enough to love the world; you must dive in”. 

Let’s dive. 

As we will hear from our Badger Bioneers and our afternoon speakers, the process of changing ourselves, the organizations we belong to and our systems can be bumpy, it can be frustrating, and it can take a lot longer than we want it to. And it can also be fun and tremendously rewarding.

And we ARE doing it, together we are making positive changes in our community- for the health and wellbeing of our families, our neighbors and for people living across the globe. Through individual actions and organizational projects, to disruptions that create wide scale system changes, together we will create the world we want. 

Sustain Dane is with you on this journey. 

Through our programs, workings within our existing systems to do less bad and at the same time create the conditions to do differently. We bring more people into a mind-set of taking action. We provide opportunities and structure to take your passions – or frustrations - and turn them into action. In so doing, we increase and strengthen the social fabric of our community. And this is where I believe the magic happens. 

We recognize that everyone has a unique sphere of influence. It is through our diverse programs that we help people be more effective in their own spheres - be it at home, at school, at work or in the neighborhood. 

I will briefly highlight two significant developments since our last conference:  

First – I’m proud to announce that the MPower Champion Business Program is being replicated in Lacrosse Wisconsin. Through a partnership with Western Tech’s Sustainability Institute, we will kick off the first MPower program for businesses in Lacrosse in 2015! 

And second, the creation of a new program smART [sustainability +madison+art]. By using art as the medium, we are getting more people to think about what sustainability could look like in their neighborhoods. Our first pilot is in progress in the Darbo Worthington Neighborhood. We partnered with neighbors, to host a large community conversation in July where over 50 adults and dozens of kids gathered to talk about what the neighborhood wants for a vibrant future. And now the lead artist, Sharon Kilofy, is guiding artist form the neighborhood and they are painting. A mural representing the neighborhoods vision for the future will be hung outside the Salvation Army this spring. 

Our other four programs: the MPower Champion Business Program, The Sustainable Business Network, The Growing Outdoor Classrooms Program, offered in collaboration with the GROW Coalition, and Badger Bioneers continue making change happen here in our community and create connections between individuals, reminding us that no one is alone and that together we can accomplish great things. 

One of my favorite aspects of our work at Sustain Dane is that it’s at the intersection of so many important issues, from conservation to social justice to public health. Through our programs and networks of people like you, who value a better tomorrow, we are shifting Madison’s culture – making sustainability the default, the norm. 

The five staff at Sustain Dane, we can do a lot, and are. But we can’t do it without you. We need you and invite you to join us. 

Continue to participate in our programs. 

Talk to others about sustainability and invite them to Sustain Dane events. 

Renew your Sustainable Business Network Membership. 

Donate. A little, or a lot. Your financial support is critical. 

Let us know how we can better support you – Madison’s Sustainability Champions. 

And most importantly, keep moving in the face of struggle.  Find the third way. Don’t be limited by either/or thinking. Embrace disruption. It’s where the magic is.

Let’s make a sustainably society- where the environment is healthy, where human communities thrive, where the economy supports everyone’s wellbeing- let’s make that our reality. 

The time for disruption is now. Let’s dive in. 


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