When I came to MIT as a student in 2005, I joined a group of graduate student advocates for sustainability. We wanted to bring sustainability concerns front and center in the life of “the Institute.” After many hours spent commenting to ourselves about what “others should do”, we focused on the emerging MIT Energy Initiative, which was open for comment at the time. We put together a little manifesto about how sustainability “should” be the foundation of their initiative. We emphasized conservation, efficiency, and renewables, as well as “walking our talk” through a greener campus. We collected signatures from faculty, and handed them off to the administration. We asked for a meeting with the president of MIT so we could pose our demands in person. We felt pretty cool, albeit a little righteous. When we heard back, however, they didn’t know what to do with our proposal. We thought we made it clear that they should do something about sustainability. But the feedback was that we had no clear “asks,” and they didn’t know how to interpret what we were requesting. Honestly, we didn’t either… but instead of addressing that, it was easier to stew in frustration. Despite the apparent willing participation of students, faculty, and administrators alike, we retreated back to griping within our trusted circle of critics and created a counter narrative that “they” weren’t taking us seriously and “they” didn’t really want to do what “they should do.”
How often have we found ourselves saying some variant of “someone should?” Think about conversations about climate change. Growing deserts, loss of staple crops, famines. Sea level rise, flooding, forced migration. Storms, fires, floods, and other whacky weather. Someone should do something! The government – they should do something, pass regulation, stop subsidizing dirty energy! The media – they should do something, stop making science look like a debate and focus on the policy choices! The corporations – they should do something, cut their carbon footprint, stop lobbying against legislation, use their marketing power to get the message out! China and India should stop growing. USA should stop consuming. My neighbor should stop driving his SUV, watering his lawn during the day, and leaving his lights on all night.
“Someone should” is such a tempting pitfall in conversations about sustainability. Complex issues, lots of relevant actors, each with some role to play – “They’ve got to do their part” and even more so, “someone should make them.” But like any pitfall, what gets peddled as a way forward is actually a trap we fall into, and then we’re stuck. Claiming “someone should” looks just enough like a way forward that we allow ourselves and each-other to pretend we’re making a contribution while in effect, we’re merely judging and criticizing others. We become stuck, because we trade away our own responsibility or commitments for the short term payoff we get peddling “shoulds” and identifying what’s wrong with everyone else. That’s a lousy place to start a conversation – “you’re the root of all evil, let’s chat.”
So what’s the alternative? What’s the pathway around this one? In my case at MIT, this was a big learning process. Eventually, I recognized that my criticism wasn’t moving the world and furthermore, our graduate students around campus were quietly doing some very cool stuff (maps of campus energy use, campaigns in laboratories to get people closing their fume hoods, etc). My friend Elsa Olivetti helped me shift my way of being – from “we want someone to do something” to “we’re here to help.” So we shifted gears and organized the MIT Generator – a way for students to do hands on projects on campus sustainability, and tie their endeavors into courses, research, and other parts of MIT. And the response was great. Soon, I was asked to serve on a task force with senior faculty and administrators that funded student campus energy projects, and more recently I was asked to become the director of MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative. If I were to distill this down, perhaps the pathway is acknowledging existing contribution, and making authentic commitments. But that only came for me after shifting my basic stance and way of being.
Here’s the invitation – let’s share our stories.