Reflections on a Theory of Change

By December 18, 2013Blog

About the Author

Remarks at the 2013 Erb Institute Holiday Gathering

What is our theory of change? It is an important question, and one that I have been pondering over the past few months. We all have a theory of change. When we ask our partner to change dinner plans for the evening; when we approach our professor to change the grade for a class; when we go into a company and try to change its sustainability strategy, we are all working from a personal theory of change. That theory reflects how we see the world and how we engage with it. It defines who we are and how we accomplish our life’s work. And in many ways it defines what we will become. How we engage with the world, and ultimately how we enact that world, shapes who we will become. As Heraclitus said, “character is destiny.” So, in these remarks, I want to offer two reflections on the question of “what is our theory of change?”

The first reflection begins with a quote from E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. He wrote, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” This represents a tension that I know I feel, and perhaps you do too. We are part of the world, and yet we are unsatisfied and want to change it. We live within the world and are the product of it, and yet we want to push it in new directions. This is a hard balance to strike. This is not a contest of us versus them. We are all in this together.

Yet people often think about environmental problems with an us-versus-them framework. One example is the use of the metaphor of alcohol or drug addiction. I have often heard it stated that we are addicted to fossil fuels. But I have trouble with that metaphor. Addiction is an illness that is an aberration from healthy living. We know what is healthy and we know what is not. We know this because some people are addicts and some people are not. Some people are doctors and know how to cure them, and what it looks like when the cure has worked. And there is a measure of judgment when calling someone an addict.

But on the issues of sustainability and climate change, we are all faced with the same challenge. In a sense, we are all addicts with the same malady, and there are no healthy people to gauge our behavior or doctors to cure us. So, the metaphor breaks down for me. Instead I think of the proper metaphor as one of a collective of people who are lost on a terrain they thought they knew but has now somehow changed. We may have had bad maps all along, but now we really don’t know where to go. Unlike addiction, we don’t know what it looks like when we are cured. So, in defining a theory of change, what we need are leaders who have a vision of the direction we might go, but all the while recognizing that they are part of the world that it is lost.

And that leads me to my second refection. The notion of theory of change is more than a single question about just how we wish to effect change. It must also reflect what we are changing and where we wish to go. So, a theory of change has three parts: A statement of the current reality, a desired future, and a path to get from one to the other. Let me take each of them in turn.

First, what is your statement of reality? In other words, what kind of world do you see? As an example, over the past months the stock market has been reaching new heights. Is that the world you see? Or do you also recognize that unemployment remains frustratingly static and income inequality is widening? Do you see that sustainability is going mainstream, as evidenced by the proliferation of sustainable annual reports, Chief Sustainability Officers, sustainability strategies and any number of sustainable products? Or do you recognize that many of our sustainability concerns these efforts are supposed to solve continue to get worse? Carbon dioxide levels are at nearly 400 ppm and will certainly pass that critical threshold. Man-made chemicals permeate our environment. A research scientist recently told me in matter of fact fashion that there are measurable levels of ibuprofen in the Mediterranean Sea. Think about that for a second. What kind of world do you see?

I see a world in which we have now entered the Anthropocene. We have entered a geological epoch in which humans act as a force within the natural environment. Whether we like it or not, we have taken a role in the operation of many of the Earth’s systems. From now forward, we are forever linked. This is a fundamental shift in how we think about ourselves and the world of which we are a part. This is also a fundamental shift in how we think about the role of business in today’s world and how we think about business education. I challenge you all to deepen and immerse yourself in your education, both in business and in sustainability. Learn the science, understand the issues, ground your ideas and opinions on solid foundations. Is climate change real? Are GMOs safe? Is nuclear power feasible? Should we geo-engineer the ecosystem? These are profound questions which require sober thought. Be sober. Heed the warning of John F. Kennedy that we live in times where “All too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Second, what is your desired future? What kind of future do you see and what kind of world do you want to create? Where do you want to take us? I would hope that in seeing the present reality, you also see the possibilities and opportunities for a bright future. I would rather you not just lament the environmental and social imbalances we presently see. Instead, I challenge you to see a future that is optimistic, attractive, and one that we all want; one that includes a life of meaning, security, prosperity and happiness for ourselves, our children, and all of humankind and nature. That is a future vision that people will want to join you in striving for. We have no shortage of cynics in today’s world; that is not a resource that we need more of. And environmentalism tends to have this resource in abundance. In their essay The Death of Environmentalism, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus point out that environmentalists tend to focus to much on the negative, and that the negative does not motivate people to follow a leader. They point out that Martin Luther King, Jr., did not give a speech called “I Have a Nightmare,” but rather “A Have a Dream.” Leaders inspire people to action by creating a vision of a desirable future that they want, not by scaring them away from a past they don’t. We need more visionaries who can see a way forward. What future do you see? I want you to think about that, and think about it hard. This will be the goal of your life’s work.

Third, what is the path that will take you from one to the other? This is where our theory of change starts to become clear. My hope is that we will reject all black and white, binary statements of the problems that we now face. This kind of lazy thinking is too much in vogue today. It is far too easy to proclaim that we have the truth and that others are not only wrong but perhaps even evil. Thirteenth-century Muslim Mystic and philosopher Ibn al-Arabi wrote, “Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter.” While he was talking about religion, I think his words can be applied to the topic of my remarks. The answers to today’s sustainability problems do not reside in one discipline – business, science, religion – nor do they reside in one worldview – Democrat, Republican, libertarian, moderate. We need to work for the elusive middle way by understanding all sides and views of the issues we care about; not passing judgment easily, but instead seeing the complex fabric – and therefore the complex solutions – with a tolerance and a compassion to understand the text and subtext of seemingly simple ideas. When I say climate change, what do you hear? Some hear scientific consensus and the need for a carbon price. Others hear more government, extreme environmentalists, restrictions on our freedom, restraints on the free market, and even a challenge to their notion of God. These are real concerns and they may all be triggered by this one idea, climate change. Solutions will only be found by recognizing this complex fabric and being able to speak to its full scope. Don’t forget that! We need to be able to speak to and work with all kinds of people, even people whose worldviews we do not share to find a common solution to our common problems. There is no other way. Dogmatism and absolutism will not get us there. Tolerance, compassion, and understanding will. That is my theory of change. What is yours?

E B WhiteBefore I close, let me add just one more reflection. To really lead people to a place they need to go, and may be rightly afraid to go, you can’t just know the right thing to do. You need to feel it; and really feel it deeply enough to care and devote your life to it. You have to feel it to believe it. If you don’t believe it, you will never get where you seek to go, and you certainly won’t convince others to go there. That is a profound notion that brings us back to who we are as a community and what we are doing here at this Institute. Look around; you are all engaged in a common quest. In the three years that you are here, you will draw your energy and your vision from this community. And I hope, for the decades after you leave, you will continue to draw strength from this community. You can’t do it alone. You all share a similar calling or vocation: to lead towards a vision of a sustainable world. You are not above the world; you are not superior; you are leaders who feel the same pains, fears and foibles of those you are leading. We are all one, enjoined in a common challenge.

So, let me close where I started: with the quote by E.B. White. “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” But let me add the next line from that quote for you to ponder. “But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way savoring must come first.” Let that be my holiday thought to leave with you. As you strive to change the world and make it more sustainable, also love, cherish and savor it. Happy holidays to you all.

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