Looking Toward 2011 with Trepidation or Hope?

I feel good about the sustainability and leadership work that I was able to do this year: organizing a Sustainable Cities conference and a Value-based Sustainability conference  for the Executive Council, co-authoring the HBR case study, “Should the C-Suite Have a Green Seat?” with Rupert Davis of MontaRosa, and a completing a white paper on the Pillar Trends with MontaRosa (to be released by the end of the year). Overall, however, 2010 will not go down as a good year.

Late in 2009 world leaders met for COP15 in Copenhagen and came away empty-handed. Hopes were incredibly high — too high to ever have been fully fulfilled — and the hangover from that disappointment bled into 2010. Carbon legislation stalled in the U.S. and will not be helped by the more conservative Congress that will convene in January. A Conservative government was elected in the U.K. and will likely scale back investment in alternative energy and other green measures as part of its overall austerity plan. Europe is teetering on the brink of a major Euro crisis that will distract from its leadership in sustainability. China continues to invest in green technologies but any discussion of the social justice aspects of sustainability would likely be met with a blank stare if not outright hostility. It also continues to build massively using old technologies and old standards in parallel to its efforts to be clean.

2011 may well be the year of full-blown backlash against climate change: the choir will continue to sing but increasingly to itself. The challenge will be to turn a time of retrenchment into an opportunity for recharging our batteries, refocusing our arguments, and frankly better understanding the concerns of those who are not on the bandwagon.

This is a challenge of leadership. As I have long maintained, technical knowledge is not what is holding us back: it is a lack of broadly persuasive, transformational meta-leadership that brings together disparate parties and engages both individuals and organizations in a cause bigger than their own self interests.

The financial crisis of the past two years has done much to pull us apart and cause people to focus on their own situations. This is natural given that many found themselves without a job, lacking health care, and losing their homes. Even those doing relatively well see themselves at risk. It is definitely a time of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Forecasts are that unemployment will not get better for some time and efforts to repeal the Health Care Reform act in the U.S. will make health care even more precarious for many.

I also think that the analytics of sustainability will become increasingly refined and more broadly accepted. It will become harder to argue against evidence with half-truths and ideological statements. If we who believe in the threat of climate change are smart, we will concentrate on making those analytics easily understandable by the lay public and relevant to their lives.

In all of this I find hope. My enthusiasm is undiminished. I’ll be starting a self-designed Master’s program at Lesley University focused on leadership of meta-system scale challenges (like climate change) and co-authoring a book on meta-leadership. I also am increasingly convinced that the leadership we need on climate change and sustainability (and health care for that matter) will come from the bottom and the middle rather than the top. There are hundred, thousands of grass roots efforts to address these issues. From these will emerge meta-leaders who can unite those working toward similar goals into an energized army of change. I plan to march among them and hope to see you in our ranks.

2011 may be the year of backlash but I think that it can lead to a year of resurgence in 2012.

What are your thoughts for 2011?

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