Remarks by Former Faculty Director Andy Hoffman at the 2014 Erb Institute Holiday Gathering

I’d like to start with a vignette. I play in a casual summer golf league that is as much about beer drinking banter as it is about hitting a golf ball. We don’t generally talk about work. But one day Greg, a fellow golfer, asked me, “Hey Andy, what do you do for a living anyway?” I told him that I was a professor and that I studied environmental issues. He asked, “Do you mean like climate change? That’s not real, is it?” I told him that the science was quite compelling and that the issue was real. His next question was, “are you a Democrat or Republican?” I told him that I was an independent. He replied, “So what do you think about Al Gore?” I told him that I thought Al Gore had called needed attention to the issue but that he unfortunately also helped to polarize it as a partisan issue.

I think about that conversation often. Greg was not challenging my ideas, he was questioning my motives. He was trying to find out if he could trust me enough to listen to what I had to say, to figure out if I was part of his cultural community, his tribe. And I can imagine the hesitation he may have had in broaching this topic. Might I get condescending and give him a science lecture, challenging his lack of deep knowledge on the issue while asserting my own? Or, would I begin to judge him and his lifestyle, critiquing his choice of car, house, vacation habits or any one of the multitude of “unsustainable” activities that we all undertake? Or, might I begin to pontificate on the politics of the issue, complaining of the partisan split on the issue and the corporate influence on our political system? These are all plausible and unpleasant scenarios that lead people to avoid this topic.

These conversations come up enough—you’ve probably had one—that it is worth asking: What are we trying to get out of these discussions? Are we trying to change “heart and minds” or are we trying to make a point? Do we want to allow them a face saving way to come to their own conclusions or do we want to win, forcing them into acquiesce? In short, what is your theory of change?

This is a question we all have to ask ourselves.  While you are learning about the work that needs to be done to bring about a sustainable world, you also have to learn about how to help people to change the way they think.

Richard Nixon once said “It is not enough for a leader to know the right thing. He must be able to do the right thing.  The … leader without the judgment or perception to make the right decisions fails for lack of vision. The one who knows the right thing but cannot achieve it fails because he is ineffectual.  The great leader needs … the capacity to achieve.”

And that’s what I want you to focus on, how do you want to lead?  And how do you want to achieve? The answers will be as individual as the people in this room.   Look around the room, each one of you has a different way of convincing, of leading.  You have to find yours.

I, for example, have chosen the role of professor.  My avenues and channels are different than yours.  Mine has limitations and opportunities.  Every professor comes to a point in their lives when they ask what is my legacy?  What did I accomplish? We measure impact by citation counts, but that is not very satisfying.  How did we change the way people think?  And that resides in you, and I have no way to measure it.

To me, the role of the Erb Institute, and all of us in this room, is to become experts in the nature of the problems we face, understand the solutions that are available to us, and – this is very important – understand how to get other to follow.

We need to reject the 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. So, in defining a theory of change, we have to build the trust of those we are trying to influence, creating a vision for the direction we might go, and most importantly, understanding how to overcome people’s fears and convince them to follow.

This is not easy!  Recently, J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Once and Future World was arrested for protesting the pipeline in in British Columbia by energy company Kinder Morgan.  In an article about the experience, he described feeling a tremendous, almost overwhelming, sense of relief and delight after his arrest because, as he said, “it feels good to be true to your conscience, to stand up for what you believe in.” He said he was now sleeping well because he is taking action on what he calls, “not only a pipeline that will be snaking through British Colombia, but an ideology that is deepening our dependence on fossil fuels.”

And he wrote “I’m a writer, but writing another article, proposing another idea, seemed unlikely to make a difference. The problem at this point is not a shortage of words or ideas. The problem is a shortage of people on Burnaby Mountain, at New York State’s Seneca Lake, and in the many other places where local people are fighting a doomsday ideology playing out in their backyards.”

That should sting a little; it is a challenge to both reexamine what we are doing and consider whether we should be do doing something differently.  But this call to reexamination is something we should constantly do.  And, in so doing, we revitalize who we are and what we are trying to do with our lives.

But I find a funny irony in his essay. While he feels that writing will not change things, his writing touched me very deeply.

He wrote that he feels satisfaction in “stepping outside the enforced narrative, the daily farce of being asked—of being told—to submit to the absurdity of endless hearings already stacked against you, of being invited again and again to cast your voice into the void of foregone conclusions. A parody of democracy is being used as a weapon against democracy itself, and it feels good to finally let yourself in on the joke.”

His words have been sitting with me since I read them. And it reminds me of the awesome responsibility and opportunity we have for prompting change. I hope you will find yours.