Why is it that our culture seems to accept (even expect) passion and emotion in a CEO’s visioning work and leadership, but those who are working for social justice, peace or environmental well-being are expected to be ‘realistic’ within the structures and situations of today. On a number of occasions during my career as a strategic and environmental planner my visions for ecological change and community health were belittled and referred to as being naïve, idealistic or unrealistic and I was told to tone down my passion for protecting watersheds and community shared decision-making. Luckily, I don’t give in to such limiting direction (well, at least not for long, it is easy to get thrown off one’s vision temporarily). Whenever your ideas are challenged and you are told to be ‘realistic’ — resist! — we won’t create sustainable and just futures without vision and daring goals.
An example of how a daring and positive vision can directly affect ecological health can be found in a Canadian policy regarding toxic substances. For a brief time, years ago, Canada had an official government vision of the elimination of persistent toxic substances to aquatic ecosystems, including marine ecosystems, with a goal of “Zero Discharge of Persistent Toxic Substances” in the Strategic Plan for Inland Waters Directorate. I was part of the strategic planning team that was successful in a collaboration with senior management to support zero discharge and put this vision into our agency’s strategic plan. We envisioned this goal being supported by “the coordination of policy with state-of-the-art hydrological, scientific and technical knowledge… and research”. We knew the technical ability to reach zero discharge of persistent toxic substances was not yet in place, but we envisioned Canadian research and development teams leading the world in creating the non-polluting technologies that would be required to reach this vision. It was a BHAG (big hairy audacious goals – Collins and Porras, 1996). It didn’t have a guarantee of success; it required more than present capabilities; it would have required extraordinary effort; it was visionary. But shortly after this strategic plan was published, efforts began on Canada’s Green Plan (Environment Canada, 1992). As result of industry interference, and scientists who were “realistic”, our vision was compromised to a goal of “Virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances”. Wiggle words like virtual, consider, encourage are poison to innovation. Once the commitment to zero discharge was replaced, when elimination became virtual elimination, the government, industry, and academic institutions became distracted by, and focused on, just how much virtual meant. How much toxic discharge could they get away with – not how to end toxic discharges. As a result little new knowledge or innovative technology and processes have resulted, whereas the brave, visionary stance of zero discharge would have forced the creation of new, non-polluting methods of production.
So being visionary isn’t flakey. It is necessary to guide and motivate our actions towards a better world.