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Everything I Know About Sustainability I Learned From Dr. Seuss

We do a good bit of teaching/training at Melaver & Associates. It’s one of our core services. Typically, we develop a sustainability manual crafted to the particular needs of the client and then spend two to four days on site working with somewhere between an dozen to four dozen employees to develop a specific action plan that they will be responsible for implementing. It’s a pretty intense experience. Rewarding, but intense. And we are always tweaking the curriculum to make the learning more engaging, more efficient, more enjoyable. If I could wave a magic wand and do a complete overhaul, however, I think I would just teach Dr. Seuss. Because everything we teach in our seminars can be learned here. Here are a few of the modules in my dream curriculum.

ENVIRONMENTAL OVER-SHOOT. We typically devote one of our early modules talking about the major environmental issues facing the planet: Energy, green house gases, water, waste, pollution and toxins, biodiversity, land-use/desertification, collapse of marine fisheries. It’s a necessary building block if we want to create subject-matter experts on sustainability. They need to know this stuff. But I think I’d rather go with The Lorax. An obvious choice I know: No more trees, no more thneeds, no more work to be done. All that was left ‘neath that bad-smelling sky, was a big empty factory, the Lorax, and I.

POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOPS. After discussing over-shoot, we shift into a discussion about systems and how all of the various aspects in a system are not only interconnected but reinforce one another. It’s a key learning take-away if you want to begin to develop ways of intervening in that system. In other words, reversing positive feedback loops. I think I’d rather just go with The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Everyone knows the story: The cat shows up on a snowy day at Sally and Dick’s house, eats a cake in their bathtub, and leaves a pink ring in the tub upon exiting. Each ensuing effort to remove the pink ring simply makes matters worse, amplifying the original problem, until a nuclear-like explosion makes things all white again. ‘nuff said.

BLUE-OCEAN THINKING. After our discussion of systems and feedback loops, we begin to look at our client’s particular business model and how the company is competing tooth-and-nail by trying to do things a little bit better than its competitors: The typical competitive bloodbath. The jumping-off point for an alternative business model is a quote I love from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: “I learned at an early age that it’s better to invent your own game; then you can always be a winner.”But Seuss got there way before Chouinard with his If I Ran the Circus. In the story, young Morris McGurk imagines taking the junked-up lot next to Mr. Sneelock’s ramshackle store and creating his incomparable Circus McGurkus.

CHANGE MANAGEMENT FROM THE GROUND UP. So far, so good. Our seminar participants latch on to this idea of shaping a new way of doing business. But doubts persist, primarily having to do with where they sit in the pecking order of the company and their (perceived) inability to effect real change. Sure, we can quote Margaret Mead about those who doubt that anything small can effect change have never slept with a mosquito. But here’s where Seuss comes in big time. There’s always Horton Hears a Who, with the catch-line I’ve always loved about “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” But even more to the point is Yertle the Turtle. Mack the turtle, sitting at the very bottom of a stack of his turtle friends so that the turtle king can be master of all he surveys, decides he’s had enough. I would, with a little poetic license like to re-work the phrasing of his epiphany as follows: “I know up on top you are having great rights, but down on the bottom we are seeing great sights.”

SUSTAINABILITY IS A BLAST. By the end of our multi-day seminar, participants are absolutely pumped up about being the change they want to see. We know because we get the results of the exit surveys, which indicate that over 90% of the participants are passionate about driving a sustainability program at their company. And that’s fantastic. But I worry that they leave us feeling even more anxious about how to manage it all in the time-constrained worlds in which they live. I wish I could leave them with Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” Yes, as Seuss notes, “You can get all hung up, in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.” Still nevertheless, “there’s fun to be done.”