Positive Impact Blog

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The “Zero Decade” and the Zero-Impact Feeling

NOTE: This post by Dr Katrin Muff is a continuation of ‘The Transatlantic Debate Blog, a series of articles published in 2014 forming a conversation between Katrin Muff and Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Activists have come to call our current decade the “zero decade” – the decade in which we have the power to decide if we take action to keep human-made global warming within the relatively safe two degrees, or if we let the climate head off into spheres where the only certainty is that life will dramatically change for the generations after us. Is there anything we can do? Is there anything I can do?

I recently spent 40 hours on a train across India and took the time to read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything book on climate change and what it will take for us to remain within the required two-degree temperature limit. Well, nothing short of getting rid of the capitalist system as we have come to know it! How? Nothing short of a revolution and global social unrest, she says. I don’t like social unrest – for many reasons – and I am sure I am not alone. The alternative? What if there is none?

Sitting back home in snow-white Switzerland, wearing a woolen hat and gloves while typing at home due to a furnace failure, I wonder. Indians, in line with most Eastern philosophies, believe that all transformation starts with personal, or individual, change. How does that work in a “zero decade”? Are there enough individuals with the desire to deep-change themselves so that we can miraculously get to a point where we figure out a path within the two-degree boundary, thus avoiding major global social unrest? I am wishful, but not convinced.

We talk about the three levels of global responsibility: the individual, the collective and the societal, or otherwise put: “I – we – all of us”. Is it enough that we count on the “awakened” or “cultural-creative” among us (estimated at nearly 10% in Western Europe) to self-transform? What about systemic change? Pablo Freire, who enabled the underprivileged in South America to free themselves from slavery in the sixties, has developed an educational approach that focuses on helping those suffering within a system to understand that they are an active part of the system and thus able to change it. It sounds like the 99% will need to find a way to learn that they are a part of the system the 1% are keen to defend, given that they are benefitting more than proportionately from things staying as they are. But this brings us back to what might end up being the beginning of the unwanted social unrest.

If there is a middle ground it might be the “we”, in the middle of the “I – we – all of us”. What is the “we” in today’s “zero decade”? It is any grouping to which we feel we belong. The company or institution we work for or with. The club we belong to, the group of friends we connect and hang out with, the readership of the news outlet we contribute to. The people we touch, directly and indirectly. Avaaz has become a “we”. Social media has given “we” an entirely new meaning. And recently, “we” all became “Charlie” for a few days.

Recently, we all became “Charlie” for a few days.

How can we thus occupy that middle ground in an effective way? How can we become the change we would like to see? How can I embrace my organizational role in such a way that my organization becomes a positive force in this transformative process? These are questions that are burning. Burning as it is snowing and cold outside. I recently watched a German documentary called “climate makes history”: a fascinating account that shed an entirely new light on human history and what influenced our development across times, including the impact of climate on who wins wars, how cities and culture developed, which people flourished and perished, and why. What two degrees more or less can do, or how three simultaneous volcano eruptions in Italy, Indonesia and Iceland created an 18-month winter on the entire planet in the 16th century, and the terrible effects this had. So far, we have been victims of climate change through the ages, recently we have started to impact the climate and right now, in the “zero decade”, we have a possibly unique chance in our history to decide if future generations will be able to enjoy a stable climate and live well or not. If only there was a way to ensure that we had an actual REAL chance of being involved in such a decision. There is no government large or small enough to press such an issue, no institution powerful enough to convene such talks and so far no collective force smart enough to force the issue on top of everything else that is so imminently important.

I want to do more than simply transforming myself. Some days I feel that I can’t do more and must learn to be satisfied with focusing on my own transformation – which, after all, is more challenging that I am able to understand. But what if this is not enough?

How about you? How about us? And what about all of us? Kathy, what is your perspective from the other side of the Atlantic?

Author: Katrin Muff PhD

Dr. Katrin Muff is Director of the Institute for Business Sustainability in Lucerne, Switzerland and Professor of Practice at the LUISS Business School in Rome, Italy. She consults leaders and boards in business sustainability and strategic transformation, and runs an executive program together with Thomas Dyllick. Her book “Five Superpowers for Co-creators” provides insights about issue-centered multi-stakeholder processes. She brings 20 years of international strategic and general management experience in Europe, Australia, North America and Russia and a decade of leadership in business education. www.KatrinMuff.com

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