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Digging in: a metaphor for sustainable action

Between my academic and work lives, I’ve spent a lot of time researching various environmental issues. I’ve also spent a lot of time preparing presentations on these issues, and there’s no better way to grab the audience’s attention than a good graph. Especially a logarithmic graph. You know, the ones that start off slow and then hit a tipping point and explode.  Graphs of the human population, or greenhouse gas emissions over time are the best examples.  They’re all scary, they’re mostly all accurate, and they usually leave you feeling like this.

Figure 1: Human Population over time (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population)

I have two problems with graphs like these.  First, I don’t think they’re very effective at motivating people to grab some shovels and do some work.  Second, the upward trajectories of graphs like these make for terrible metaphors.  We’re not building and improving, we’re digging ourselves into a giant hole!  Fixing the metaphor is pretty simple though: just invert the graph.  Now, instead of build up over time, we’re crashing down. To further set the stage for the metaphor, visualize these graphs as physical paths and trajectories (you start at the top of a hill and end up crashing down towards… something).  Then add in Newton’s Laws of Motion (you know, stuff about acceleration, force, and inertia).  If you put a ball at the start of the path to represent “us”, just give it a push and set it in motion.  The trajectory of the ball is down, and it’s picking up steam.

What we’re trying to do at MSC is to find new ways to come together and push back against that decline. To flatten out our global trajectory.   But it’s hard.  Really hard.  Societal norms are entrenched, and the systems that need to change have incredible inertia. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act.  In fact, it means that we should ALL act.  The trouble is that on our own we feel like this thing will flatten us, like we’re throwing a pebble at a charging bull.  But if we all push together and dig our heels in, our cumulative action will have a big impact.  The more we push, the more we can flatten out that trajectory, and the closer we’ll get to halting our decline.  At MSC, we want to find ways to bring people and organizations together, to dig in and make changes.

Brendan Wylie-Toal

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