Bridging the divide

By President & CEO, David Hughes and Chief Innovation Officer, Chad Park

Divided in the face of incredible challenges

You’ve been hearing about it for weeks, if not months. At the end of 2016, we find ourselves in a highly polarized, “post-truth” world. Forget about working together; based on what the media is telling us, people aren't even interested in hearing what the ‘other side’ has to say.

We are also closing the hottest year on record. NASA was able to lock this in as early as October. 2016 beat the previous record set by 2015 and that means that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century.

Stephen Hawking summed up our situation perfectly in last week’s much-shared article for the Guardian, This is the most dangerous time for our planet [1]

“The really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.”

We’re running out of time to navigate a number of crucial transitions that the future of our species, let alone Canada, requires. We simply do not have the luxury to be this divided.

Puzzlingly, most of our disagreements are between people with the best of intentions. On one hand, we hear arguments that we need to be building a strong, prosperous economy in which people are employed, productive, and fulfilled. On the other hand, we hear that we need to safeguard the health of the planet for our children and our children’s children.

These are both noble aspirations, and nobody starts their day planning to ruin the economy or worsen climate change. But somehow the perceived incompatibility of these two visions has forced a wedge between segments of our society that need to be working together now on building the truly sustainable systems of tomorrow.

We need bridges, not walls

Bridges between sides—rational spaces where opposing viewpoints can find common ground and common goals—have never been more important, but building them is becoming trickier than ever in a world where the middle ground seems to be vanishing.

And we should know, because spanning divides is exactly what our Sustainability Transition Labs are built to do. In order to attract a genuine diversity of unlikely collaborators and to not collapse under the weight of those diverging viewpoints, the Circular Economy Innovation Lab, the Natural Capital Lab, and especially the Energy Futures Lab must be as carefully designed as physical bridges. In today’s political and media landscape, even the most well-intentioned efforts can inadvertently feed polarization through the smallest mistakes in language or tone.

To be effective in our role as a bridge we’ve learned to avoid narratives that pit "good guys versus bad guys" or even "clean versus dirty". We have to start from an assumption that there are people in all industries who want to participate in the transition to sustainability—and give them every chance to rise to the occasion. We can do this with confidence that an effort will not be watered down, as long as we are guided by a clear understanding of our goal (sustainability) and are open to the possibility that there could be multiple paths to get there.

We stand for science and social process

So, if TNS refuses to adhere to the “dirty oil” narrative that is both so obvious to some and so offensive to others, what do we stand for? First, we stand for the science. The science says that we have a carbon budget  [2]. We need to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees, and in order to do that, we need to keep parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere well below 450. Even our politicians (at least north of the border) recognize this, and this is what we and 196 other countries signed onto in Paris [3].

Nature does not negotiate, so the goal is what it is. But there are any number of ways that we can reach it. It is an open question to what extent today’s industries will help bridge the gap to where we need to go or what role hydrocarbons may play in a low-carbon future. Finding new uses for hydrocarbons that don’t involve burning them at a rate that causes their emissions to accumulate in the atmosphere could present enormous innovation opportunities of global consequence, as suggested by the CarbonXPrize.

The level of precision offered by the science of The Natural Step is important because for our work to be successful we need to bring together people who embody radically different perspectives. Not to battle, but to find ways of working together productively.

We also believe in the art of robust group processes that aren’t about compromise but fostering the trust that enables genuine collaboration. This combination of scientific boundary conditions with cutting edge social processes is what makes Sustainability Transition Labs unique. The power of this approach has been driven home for us again and again in labs where participants truly span the political spectrum. Through the bridge that the labs represent, these people are nevertheless finding enough common ground to innovate in spectacular fashion.

Help us build our bridges

Strong bridges don’t spring up out of nowhere. The bridges we’ve begun to build are the product of our community. It is the connection between the individuals and organizations involved that gives our work its strength. Individual pieces of a bridge serve no function and lead nowhere, but when you connect them in the right way they can take us to places that would not otherwise be possible.

Re-engaging and reactivating our community is a top priority for TNS over the coming months and years. We need you to help us build the next stage in TNS’ evolution. Increasingly companies and governments will need to turn to leaders and experts such as yourselves, who approach their work using the framework and tools that we have been cultivating in TNS for over 25 years. We want to strengthen and expand our network, helping equip you to forge the future our country needs. We've got a number of ideas on how we can do this, and want to hear your thoughts as well. Please stay tuned and keep in touch.

For now, there are a number of ways you can help. Get involved with our work through one of the labs. Speak with your friends, family, and coworkers about what we’re doing and why it is important. Tell young people about the three upcoming IMPACT! Youth Sustainability Leadership sessions.  Donate via our CanadaHelps page. We are also a charity and require resources to do this work. Finally, we want to hear from you. Tell us what The Natural Step means to you and where you believe we need to go in the future. Please fill out this short survey.

However you choose to support, you are a part of your community. You are a part of the bridge to a sustainable society. Until you hear from us again, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.