How to create a healthier planet: Be willing to be wrong

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Having the courage to look hard at the validity of the core values and beliefs on which we have built our lives could be the key to reshaping the future, writes Chris Oestereich.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it might take to recast our businesses in a way that allows them to fit into, rather than work against, the ecosystems they are part of. A lot of good has been done in recent years, but the changes we make tend to take that which exists, and tweak it in the direction of less harm. This is a good thing, but I don’t think it’s enough to get us where we need to go.

Where do we need to go?

I think it’s time to take our efforts to the next level. We have to move from the current model, to one of living within the physical planetary boundaries which we’re currently running roughshod over. I like to think of this in terms of Kate Raworth’s idea of ‘Donut Economics’, as it not only accounts for the planetary boundaries, but also the basic needs required for all of humanity to subsist and have the opportunity to thrive.

The planetary boundaries on the outer ring, Raworth’s ‘environmental ceiling’, include: climate change, chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, freshwater use, land use change, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, ocean acidification, and ozone depletion. These are the common issues which those engaged with environmental concerns will be well familiar.

The inner ring of Raworth’s donut sets the “social foundation”. It provides thresholds for basic necessities of human welfare. These include: food, water, income, health, gender equality, education, social equity, energy, jobs, resilience, and voice. At this lower bound, some of us are afforded great extravagances, while many others are left needing. We have to get this back in balance. As Mahatma Gandhi famously stated, “earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed”.

We could argue about which items to include in each ring, as well as the desired levels for each metric, but I think that at least from a conceptual standpoint, this donut is more of a Danish, as the logic holding the idea up doesn’t appear to have any holes. Further, I think there’s little doubt that we’re crossing these boundaries on multiple fronts. So, if we can agree that working within these boundaries is critical for all to have the opportunity to self-actualise, while avoiding the curtailment of our long- term viability, then we must either agree to make the necessary adjustment, or we will live with the consequences.

How do we do that?

This is a daunting prospect. Our business systems, and the societies they support, have evolved over millennia. The unique point in history at which we stand seems a crumbling precipice to some, but to many others it’s a solid foundation that has been repeatedly tested and fortified. One’s house of cards is another’s coliseum.

The question that naturally springs forth from this is, “who’s right?” We tend to try to settle that question by winning arguments, but I don’t think that approach tends to get us very far.

Instead, I think a better route is through intentional introspection. We can’t peek behind the curtain to see what our interlocutors are thinking, but we have the benefit of being able to do so with our own thoughts. The goal shifts from trying to win the argument of “Who’s right?” to a question of “How might I be wrong?”

As such, I’ve been working to foster awareness of ideas that are bedrock for me. I think these are the ones which are the most difficult to challenge, but I find it incredibly interesting, and often enlightening, to do so. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “in all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted”. Challenging our foundations is a scary prospect. You don’t know what the outcome might be, and in a sense you’re risking it all. To go down this path, you have to have a willingness to become unmoored, but in the interest of getting back inside the aforementioned boundaries this is a risk that I think we have to learn to accept. As Einstein famously claimed: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Shifting perspective

I think my shift in perspective around the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture makes for a good example. As a deeply rooted climate hawk, I tend to agree with most of the ideas that are broadly held in environmental camps, and a lot of those folks are dead set against the use of GMOs in agriculture.

I have to admit that I fell in with this line of thinking somewhat uncritically. In retrospect, I think I should have heeded Mark Twain’s warning of, “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.

I had my position challenged by scientists, which forced me to look inward at my justification. What was my primary concern? For lack of a better term, my gut reaction to this technology was that we were using it to “play God” with nature. I was afraid of the potential for unintended consequences in the form of negative externalities. But in confronting this thinking head on, I realised that this was no different than what we’ve been doing since the outset of farming. Conventional agriculture has radically altered the biosphere. Selecting for traits and cross-breeding begets changes to the kind and prevalence of plants in existence, which in turn begets changes to the kind and prevalence of species existing in those ecosystems.

With this in mind, I set myself to learning more about the technology. I took a deep dive on both the scientific literature, as well as popular articles on the topic, and I came away with a very different perspective. I now think that GMOs offer new and interesting possibilities for agriculture, as well as some potential dangers; but I found no credible evidence of issues that had been caused by their use. As such, I now think that collectively labelling them as dangerous is an ill-considered approach at best.

My experience with GMOs fits the questioning mold that I’m advocating, but it wasn’t a foundation-shaking experience. My take on a scientific matter lacked the appropriate level of consideration and nuance, but availing myself to information from a broad array of sources helped me quickly and easily move off of my prior beliefs. In doing so, I didn’t have to question the core values of my existence. I just had to admit to being wrong, and take the opportunity to learn from it. But what do we do when the belief in question is a pillar on which our life rests upon? For such an experience, I had to phone a friend.

That friend, Jason Eden, is someone I met in school. (He’s an affable guy, but I think we may have hit it off because we were both the kind of students for whom the pain of not knowing tended to outweigh the fear of asking “stupid” questions.) Jason recently went through a very personal trial, and he was kind enough to share.

A former Baptist minister, Jason left the faith after a long process of testing his beliefs. I reached out to him to discuss this as I think it exemplifies the kind of open-minded questioning that we need to learn to pursue. We discussed the tension between his tendency to question things, and the church’s authoritarian dogma. He impressed me both with his willingness to be wrong, as well as through his desire to actively seek arguments that counter his beliefs, stating that he’s “more interested in knowing what is true than being right”.

I think this outlook is critical. If we’re not willing to accept and seek out ways in which we are wrong, we’re denying ourselves opportunities for growth. I view this as being essential to our ability to evolve business in a better direction. If we allow “sacred cows” to exist without examination then we’re constraining our options from the start. In doing so, we might be excluding the keys to our success. As Jason put it, he was more interested in knowing the truth, than having “the satisfaction that comes from successfully defending one’s position”.

Can we foster such an outlook in ourselves?

I believe we should all look to pull up our anchors frequently. Pour over them. Do they rest on a solid foundation, or are they sitting on a false bottom? Did you accept parts of it (worse yet, the whole) uncritically, or did you fully test the belief ’s validity? Is it an idea that can be validated, or must it be take on faith? If it’s the latter, why do you believe it? Are there related ideas that it’s tied to which can be tested, or is it a free-standing belief?

If the anchor passes the test, drop it back in the water and move on to the next one. If it doesn’t, leave it on the deck for a while and see if it can earn its place again with a bit more thinking.

We owe it to ourselves to challenge the notions which are most closely held. For if we build our houses on foundations of sand, no manner of workmanship will save them.

You might be wondering how you can determine whether your ideas are on solid foundations? I wish there was an easy answer to this. What I can suggest is that you commit to testing them rigorously, and do whatever you can to maintain this vigilance going forward. I do think that sharing your efforts with others who are willing to do the same helps. They can help keep you on track if you lose sight of the goal, as well as being a sounding board for the ideas you’re working through.

Distant intellectual shores may harbour dangers, but avoiding them out of fear robs us fully of their splendors. As Erich Fromm writes, “creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties”. I’ll add that safe harbours are for the timid. They’re places where Steve Jobs’ “crazy ones” won’t be found. As John A. Shedd wrote long ago: “A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Chris Oestereich is a freelance Zero Waste consultant who develops programmes that redirect waste to productive uses, with the goal of creating financial benefits. He is also the founder of the Wicked Problems Collaborative, a loose affiliation of thinkers and doers that are addressing some of humanity’s biggest issues. Chris is a regular contributor to multiple business publications, and he maintains a personal site where he writes about business and society from a sustainability perspective. He and his family are currently based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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 Photo credit: Massmo Relsig from Flickr
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In his day job Chris crafts and implements zero waste solutions that redirect waste to productive uses. He is also a regular contributor to multiple business publications, and maintains the Linear to Circular blog about sustainability. Chris and his wife enjoy raising their two rambunctious boys in Boise, Idaho, where he revels in his daily bicycle commute.