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The Beliefs and Emotions That Shape Our Sustainability Journey

The Beliefs and Emotions That Shape Our Sustainability Journey

How exploring our beliefs, emotions and identities can guide us and others towards a more sustainable future.

As the need to tackle pressing global challenges becomes increasingly apparent, a growing number of business leaders are placing sustainability at the forefront of their organisational priorities. However, they also recognise that sustainability is one of their most formidable challenges, as many companies struggle to successfully realise those aspirations.

To navigate this complex landscape, it helps to understand where we are on our sustainability journey. This involves reflecting on our convictions and experiences and examining our beliefs and emotions. We may learn we are going in circles and discover the key to advancing further along the path.

With such introspection, we enhance our understanding and experience and propel ourselves towards a more sustainable future. This does not only help us reach our full potential, but can also assist us in guiding stakeholders we encounter on our path who may not be at the same stage of their journey. 

From unaware to informed

Sustainability journeys begin with the belief that there is no problem. Take climate change for example: Individuals and companies were once blissfully unaware, believing that our Earth was in good health. We then began to move from a place of comfort to one of doubt as we became informed about the alarming environmental changes and realised there is indeed a problem that needs attention.

Believing we have the solution

In our quest for a culprit, we may believe that the solution is to identify and eliminate the “ultimate cause,” such as focusing on carbon dioxide and setting net-zero targets or moving away from combustion cars to electric vehicles. However, in doing so, we are staying in our comfort zone, assuming that humans are in control of nature and that we can solve the problem. Many are still stuck in this loop of searching for the elusive ultimate cause and a definitive solution. Reducing our CO2 emissions is only a tiny part of the solution to the polycrisis we are facing. Our entire relationship with nature is at stake. We need to review our understanding of human nature to effectively address these challenges.

Sustainability journey path

Acknowledging despair and rebounding for the battle ahead

The critical step occurs, or does not occur, precisely because we need to acknowledge that the solution is not to change nature, but to change ourselves. We need to adapt to the very problems that we have generated by believing that we were in control of nature. In this sense, “the solution” does not exist and recognising this is a challenge to our ego. It is also an emotional challenge because believing that there is no solution to the sustainability problem invokes despair. With the potential collapse of our ego, we may become depressed and even disenchanted. We will only start resolving these problems with a humbler encounter with nature.

The move out of despair is undoubtedly the most difficult phase, yet it is also the one closest to us, as it happens within ourselves. To take this step, we must first grasp the multitude of challenges at hand. Ecosystem collapse is just one example of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. Instead of focusing on one problem, we recognise that we are facing a systemic crisis where everything can be seen as a problem. Of course, this is frustrating and induces anxiety.

However, with the understanding that we cannot evade all these challenges, we become a fighter willing to engage, driven by a higher purpose and an overarching dream. While utopias may not always materialise, the journey can infuse our lives with meaning.

Embracing opportunities creates excitement

Once we are past the point of despair, we are able to recognise that the immense challenges we face present many opportunities. In a surprising and magical twist, our problems become ground for solutions, our vulnerabilities become competencies. We are excited by the prospects ahead and feel enlightened.

On the path towards sustainability, we come to terms with our beliefs, emotions and identities in relation to our journey. This helps us to assess the dynamics of our experiences and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. Through this process, we become more aware of where we were yesterday, where we are now and where we want to be in the future.

It also helps us become more respectful of others when we have a better understanding of where they are on their paths to sustainability. Instead of being defensive with stakeholders, we can become allies and collaborate to create new solutions, letting them emerge from something bigger than ourselves. This empowers us as wiser leaders.

We can listen to and learn from younger generations – many were born into a world where sustainability challenges were already abundantly clear. They are likely further ahead on their journey and can potentially show us the way forward.

It is also possible that we may be at multiple stages of our journey at the same time. We can embrace this multiplicity of selves – recognising there is space to be in a state of comfort, doubt, confidence, despair, anxiety or excitement – and have internal conversations between these multiple identities. By doing so, we can bring harmony to the most important conversation of all, the one with our conscience.

Edited by:

Katy Scott

About the author(s)

About the research

This article was adapted from a talk delivered by Marc Le Menestrel at the dinner of the Center of Nature and Climate of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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