Monthly Archives: August 2012

Resist ‘realistic’. Be visionary. A story from environmental planning.

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.


It’s not ‘unrealistic’ — it’s visionary

Recently I was in my home town visiting family, and after responding to a question about my work including community-based conversations about envisioning a world without weapons (Elise Boulding) or a world without hunger (Donella Meadows), a friend of the family said “that seems unrealistic and idealistic”.  The word ‘unrealistic’ is often attached to ‘idealist’ or ‘idealistic’, in my experience, as a way of dismissing visionary ideas or actions. But has anything really spectacular or meaningful ever been done without envisioning it first? (Well, okay… babies).

And yet, discussions about sustainability rarely include visions of what communities or individuals want their ecological futures to be.  The majority of discussions of ecological or community futures are based on an extrapolation of present trends, they are predictions of the future, usually of situations of loss (species, community, jobs) or hardship (food or water shortages) — not preferred futures or visions that we could work towards that would allow us to avoid projecting harmful present-day trends into the future.

Perhaps we do not see many examples of preferred ecological futures because creating a positive vision of the future might be considered foolhardy when the chance of success is not guaranteed.  Or it may seem too risky for us to create our own vision of a sustainable and just world because others might label it as idealistic or unrealistic.  But Donella Meadows urges us to “occasionally take the social risk of displaying not our skepticism but our deepest desire. We could declare ourselves in favor of a sustainable, just, secure, efficient, sufficient world… even at the expense of being called idealistic”.

We could create ecological visions that will inspire and motivate action.

Once we identify a detailed image of what a sustainable and just community would look like, we can more actively begin to address the hard reality, through critical analysis, of exploring what is not working or the barriers to reaching our vision, identify what is working, and then create strategies and plans for action, including where each individual can contribute their talents and experience.