8 Steps Toward Sustainability


Andrew Revkin, playing a right-handed guitar left-handed.

Former New York Times environmental reporter, Andrew Revkin, spoke in my neighborhood yesterday. I meandered over to hear him because he’s an acquaintance of mine and because I just think he’s cool. Little did I know he would offer ideas for making our world more sustainable, plus end his talk with a song!

His talk was part of a Peace & Justice series put on by the Alworth Center at the College of St. Scholastica. Currently the senior environmental reporter at the independent investigative newsroom ProPublica, Andy specializes in the topics of climate change, the Amazon rainforest, and sustainable development.

I met Andy years ago when I took part in a week-long science writing workshop put on by the New York Times in Santa Fe. He was my small group leader. He offered critiques on our stories and gained inspiration from us for new topics to cover for his beat.

One morning, he was reading a copy of the Times and railing at some edits made to his story. I recall being so tickled that even reporters at a venerable institution like the Times are at the mercy of their editors.

At the end of the week, we gathered for an outdoor barbeque and Andy strummed his guitar and sang for us. (He has accompanied the likes of Pete Seeger.) I added to the mix, singing the only song I have memorized, an old revolutionary war folksong called Katy Cruel.

Andy even offered to write me a letter of recommendation for my journalism grad school application, so he has a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him again.

Many people don’t know that when Andy started his career, he wanted to be a marine biologist. I can’t recall the specifics, but he was working on a project about “Man and the Sea,” in a far-flung location like New Zealand, when he got distracted by an offer to crew a sailboat that was sailing the world. He joined the crew and spent a year-and-a-half at sea, broadening his literal and figurative horizons.

20170928_192357He explained all this during his talk (called “Ending Life as we Knew it”), and showed a photo that he took during his sailing travels of a modest shop in a small town that had piles of leopard skins stacked outside it for sale. This got him thinking about the sustainability of our species on the planet. In hopes of changing peoples’ attitudes toward the world in which they (we) live, he turned to journalism and started covering environmental issues.

Andy refers to climate change and sustainability as “super wicked” problems that will only be solved with multi-pronged approaches, including on the most difficult battlefield, which is inside peoples’ minds.

He offered eight strategies as a recipe for society to become more sustainable:

  • BEND. This deals with resilience. We need to learn how to live on the land in a way that takes current and future landscape changes in to account. Andy offered an example of an ocean island that is all built out. If the island had some undeveloped land around its edges, it would be less vulnerable and more adaptable to sea level changes.
  • STRETCH. We need to stretch our brains to think differently about things like land use planning and to think ahead to what conditions might be like in the future.
  • REACH. This deals with communication. We need to let people know what’s happening with their world in a way that reaches them. I thought Andy’s talk was a good example of this. He didn’t just present a bunch of facts/figures and scary graphs. He told his story and got the audience’s emotions involved.
  • TEACH our children and ourselves more sustainable ways of living.
  • REVEAL. This involves calling attention to hidden problems. Andy used the example of heat or gasses being emitted from a factory, which could only be seen with a special camera. This example reminded me of the underwater camera that was pointed at the BP oil spill gushing out of the pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. Things like that get people’s attention and lead to quicker action.
  • REFLECT. Get scientists together to cooperate on problems and give them time to reflect on solutions.
  • REJOICE. Relish the gift of life and our humanness.
  • REPEAT. Keep doing all these things over and over in a disciplined manner (like “lather, rinse, repeat”). Keep retesting systems and examining conventional ways of thought.

20170928_194201Andy said when he asked a prominent scientist what it would take to solve the issue of mankind’s sustainability, he was surprised when the man didn’t offer a lot of numbers and charts. Instead, the man said that sustainability will take “a miracle of love and unselfishness to solve” if we are to survive as a species.

Andy ended his speech by grabbing his guitar and singing a tongue-in-cheek song about how “liberating carbon” is the American way.

Let’s stop liberating that carbon people, and let’s keep thinking about how our actions affect the planet. And maybe, just maybe, things will get better.


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