I’m on my flight home from two amazing weeks in Europe. The first was on Lake Constanz about two hours east of Zurich where I facilitated a retreat for the Climate Breakthrough Project. I think of the Climate Breakthrough Project as the MacArthur Genius Award (and then some) for some of the most brilliant people working on climate change today. I have to tell you – after spending three days with these folks – both the awardees and the staff and board of CBP – I am feeling more optimistic than ever that we can make a difference on what is one of the greatest challenges of our time.
I met Bruce Nilles with the Rocky Mountain Institute. Previously he led the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign that played a significant role in preventing 90% of the new coal plants that had been proposed by Cheney’s secret energy task force back in the 00’s and is now well on it’s way to shutting down half of the coal plants in the country – and going for 100%. The bottom line is that coal is bad for everyone, especially the people who live downwind from the plant.
Now Bruce is working to accelerate our country’s transition off natural gas. We all know the dangers of fracking, but what I didn’t know is what a health hazard natural gas is in our own homes. It is not good for you. My takeaway is that we will be transitioning all of our appliances – hot water heater, stove/oven, dryer, and **gasp** our beloved firepit ASAP. We need a new hot water heater anyway, so that’s convenient. But when I asked Bruce how quickly we should prioritize the other appliances – which are rather new – Bruce said, “well, the world needed to be off fossil fuels yesterday, so now would be good.” All righty then. The good news is we went solar a few months ago so once we get off natural gas and get electric cars we will be off the grid minus my flights – which are by far the worst of everything combined.
Also there was a dear old friend, John Hepburn the co-founder of Unfriend Coal in Australia. He’s been working to strip away the social license of the big financial agencies who are insuring coal plants with tremendous success. Imagine you’re a coal company and you go to renew your business insurance – which I’m sure isn’t cheap – and the insurance company says, “oh, sorry, we don’t offer that any more.” That’s what John is up to. And he’s gotten through to all the major insurers in Europe and he’s coming to the US and Asia next. Watch out!
Then there’s May Mei, founder of GoalBlue, who is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of young people in China to eat less beef. Here’s the thing – in China as more and more people enter the middle class and become more affluent – eating beef is a status symbol. And China is doing a phenomenal job of elevating more and more people into the middle class – so watch out cows! But May is brilliantly tapping into social influencers and the youth and making it cool to eat less beef, and with more than a billion people living in China – it really adds up.
Then I met Tessa Khan who is a human rights lawyer from Bangladesh. She learned about a landmark case in Denmark where they successfully sued the government for not keeping faith with their human rights obligations by not adhering to what needs to be done to avert the worst effects of climate change. When Tessa learned about this case a couple of years ago, she decided to devote her entire life to using her expertise as a human rights lawyer to protect the people who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. When it comes to Tessa versus the government – any government- my money’s on Tessa!
Last but not least, I met Yang Fuqiang who is working with the government of China to design a consumption cap on oil, just like he helped them do a few years ago with coal. This is a really big deal and a really big bet. China’s fossil fuel emissions alone are significantly more than any other country on the planet, so their taking a voluntary step to cap it would make a big difference for all of us.
That’s just the awardees. The staff and board of the Climate Breakthrough Project were also each and every one of them extraordinary and brilliant and creative and committed unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re willing to make big bold bets and if their bets succeed, collectively it will account for about 10% of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that we need to realize as a planet by 2030. I mean – think about it – a small team of folks swinging for the fences to see to it that we’re 10% of the way there on averting the sixth mass extinction. What’s not to love about them? If you want to learn more check out their website.
So yeah, that was a good trip. And my takeaways were this:
(1) Get rid of our natural gas appliances asap.
(2) Try an impossible burger. Did you hear that Burger King has caused a worldwide shortage of these wonders of science? It’s happening.
(3) A question inspired by the people I met: is climate change a technical problem or a spiritual/moral problem? Or both? I think it’s both. Yes – you can look at maps and graphs and substitute this form of water/food supply/energy supply for another and the geopolitics can sort itself out and in some ways it’s almost a no-brainer. All that’s lacking is the will power to do it. It’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done or that the technology doesn’t exist. But it’s also a spiritual/moral problem because the people who need to change are not the people who are most affected by the problem – which means people like me need to really put myself in the shoes of someone from Bangladesh who with rising sea levels will probably not be met at the Indian border with rainbows and unicorns but most probably pitchforks and guns. I just read that the city of Chennai is running out of water. 5 million people. Where will they go? Without a fierce spiritual/moral grounding – a deeply internalized sense of connection to all of the web of life – it’s just way too easy for me to go back to business as usual. How can I embed this into my daily life more firmly?
On a personal note, my family flew to Europe to meet me and we spent a week vacationing in the Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany regions of Italy. I have to tell you – it was the most relaxed I have been eating a meal with our children in the five years since Huck was born. We found remote farmhouses that practice what they call agriturisimo. Everything is farm to table fresh from that farm, even the wine. The food is so ridiculously good I cannot even tell you. I ate my face off in pasta and didn’t feel bloated or gain a pound. Is that just because they don’t use pesticides in their wheat like we do? Whatever they’re doing – it’s magnificent. And the farmhouses had outdoor playgrounds so the adults could leisurely dine in peace for hours while the children played on the swings, merry-go-rounds, and see-saws, zooming back and forth for a bite when they felt hungry. I feel so grateful for a real vacation with my family and wanted to share a picture with you of happy children playing in the fields while we ate our most delicious dinner of our lives. I hope each of you is able to do something rejuvenating and relaxing this summer, too.
My wife Christine and I took last week off to play with our kids because it was their Spring Break. Oh my goodness – that was really fun and really tiring!! Whatever you are up to this spring, I hope this finds you well and thriving.
Guess what I have playing on my itunes on repeat right now? “What the World Needs Now is Love” from Broadway for Orlando. This was made by a bunch of broadway artists who came together after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. They wanted to bring a little love and light to us all back in 2016. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve belted out this song while I’m driving in our red station wagon to pick up our kids from pre-school. Please tell me I’m not the only one…and feel free to play the song and sing-along as you read along here.
We launched our Unleashing 101 workshop two weeks ago and we had 24 folks spend two days exploring the overlap between what the world needs and what they’re uniquely here to do. The photo up top is from the training: one stickie per person of what they discovered when they leaned into that question. It’s worth a closer look. This photo gives me hope for our future!
In the workshop we explored areas of genius, excellence, competence, and incompetence, using the Hendricks Institute’s framework around Genius largely captured in The Big Leap. Whenever I work with folks on this topic, I have to confess I am mostly concerned with genius. What’s the thing that lights you up – that doesn’t feel like work – that you’re really awesome at? Do more of THAT!
One of the people I was thrilled to meet at that workshop was Susan X Jane. Something she said profoundly impacted me and I wanted to share it with you. As we sat in a circle and de-briefed our discoveries, Susan said, “I realized my areas of incompetence are where I need community.”
**ding ding ding ding** OMG Yes!!
I had never thought about it that way. In fact, generally I try NOT to think about my zones of incompetence and mostly I just wish they’d go away. There’s a humility to saying, “this is what I can do, and this is where I need other people.” And my goodness do we need one another.
As a result of Susan’s question, I got curious about the places where I’m over my head and realized that I would like some more help in getting really good at seeing and interrupting oppression in any of the spaces where I show up. So I reached out for help to some folks who I know and trust in this area (including Susan). My life is richer already for having faced into my own limitations and reached out to my community and I intend to continue doing so. I am feeling humble and grateful for the gifts that others bring into my life and the power of community.
So my question for you is where could you benefit from the wisdom of others? Where do you need community? Where could you be a little more humble? Are you willing to ask for help?
p.s. What the world…needs now…is love…sweet love…
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I have this persistent nagging sense that I’m not doing enough to make the world a better place. Is it just me? Or do you feel that way too, sometimes?
I feel that way a lot.
I go into a spiral worried about of all the things that are happening with global warming and then I think when you add a history of systemic violence and racism on top of that, sheesh – things are bad and they’re gonna get worse! And I want to do so much but I don’t know where to start.
It’s not particularly helpful for me to be in this state of mind. I mean, I know better. I know that this is just a “flee-forward” taking me out the present moment.
And yet…I do this all. the. time.
Last Sunday I was unusually despondent and my wife, Christine, said, “You know…maybe what you’re doing that is most helpful is through the Billions Institute – the things you love to do the most?….Maybe?”
Me: Nah. That’s not enough…it’s just not. (continues complaining about the future).
Christine (wisely) goes about doing something else around the house while I wallow in my doom and gloom.
This week a dear friend from my 100,000 Homes Campaign days, Linda Kaufman, was our house guest. Linda is an Episcopalian Priest and she told us about a time when she, too, felt despair. Her mentor told her, “Linda, as a Christian, you don’t have the luxury of despair.” Basically her mentor told her this: get your butt back to work.
You don’t have the luxury of despair.
Today I visited my acupuncturist and told her about my concerns and how I want to do something but I don’t know what. I said I’m especially worried about refugees and building my “welcoming muscles.”
Oh, she says, a friend of mine has helped settle five Syrian refugee families into Claremont over the past couple of years. Want me to put you in touch with her?
Sometimes it’s not about large-scale change. Sometimes it’s about blooming where you’re planted. That’s true for me at least.
I’ll get to my point now! This afternoon I received an email from Willemijn Keizer at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She came through our Skid Row School over a year ago. They’ve been working around the clock to help immigrants know their rights especially given the increase in ICE arrests and raids. They came up with this brilliant, creative, dare I say subversive idea: why not embed their rights into a song? And why not have a Latin Grammy award winning band, Flor de Toloache, sing that song? And maybe we should pump that song into communities where there are a lot of improper and illegal arrests being made.
How awesome is that?
Southern Poverty Law Center tells the story best here. The song is El Corrido de David y Gloiat and available on spotify and itunes. Please spread it far and wide. And great big salute to Willemijn and her colleagues at SPLC for being so stinkin’ creative!!
We like to say at the Skid Row School that when it comes to large-scale change, there are “many ways to many.” Willemijn just dropped the mic on that one. And she wrote me a note to appreciate us for our (very small) role in provoking her and her friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center to think out of the box.
Which reminds me of the purpose of this letter: it’s never enough…but sometimes you get a high five. Willemijn – thank you for that high five! I needed that this week! Now that my heart is full with that high five (and tapping to the beat of El Corrido de David y Goliat) I want to offer to everyone who gets this newsletter this provocation: reach out to somebody who has encouraged or inspired you along the way and give them a high five before the day is done. Ready, go!
A couple years ago my wife, Christine and I went on a weekend getaway double-date with our good friends, Bob & Jane. I was so excited to see everyone and probably ate too much sugar that afternoon and Friday night I basically talked my face off to the three of them. Later that evening I realized that I had taken up more than my fair share of the air and I resolved to apologize to the group the next morning.
So there I was, sitting in the back of Bob and Jane’s mini-van, on our way to some fun destination, and I sheepishly said, “Hey there, I realize that I was talking a lot last night and I’m sorry.” I figured that’d be it. End of story. Folks would appreciate me for being so enlightened and apologizing.
Without even a hint of anger in his voice, Bob said, “When people tell me they’re sorry, I usually interpret that to mean that they’re going to do it again. I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry, I want to hear what you’re committing to going forward.”
Oh. ok. I wasn’t expecting that. felt my cheeks get hot and a wave of embarrassment come over me. And by the way, the whole situation was even more awkward because there I was sitting in the back of the mini-van, like I was a kid or something.
Then I realized Bob was right. The challenge he issued was an incredible gift for me.
So I took a minute and thought about it and came up with this, “I commit to creating space for everyone to share what’s on their minds and to listening deeply to what you all have to say.”
That seemed to satisfy my friends and we went on to enjoy a lovely weekend together.
That was about 6 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. The power of commitment and the emptiness of an apology. Fast forward to this past week and I had the tremendous privilege of spending three days with our Billions Institute Fellows in Atlanta. Our time together included a day-trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (The picture below is from the Memorial). First, let me just say this museum and memorial is a MUST VISIT for everyone who lives in the United States to begin to more fully grasp the terrorism inflicted on black people in this country that continues to this day. Especially for people who work to advance social change and/or social justice.
Second, I want to share one of my biggest learnings from my experience and the subsequent dialogues that we had in the fellowship. It builds upon the lesson I learned from my friend Bob all those years ago. Here’s my best understanding of what happens for me. When I as a person who identifies as white encounter the pain and suffering and trauma of Indigenous people or people of color, every instinct I have is to say, “I’m sorry” and obviously that is as deeply insufficient here as it was in the back of Bob’s mini-van. Then I want to leap to commitment – to action – to doing something – anything – to fix it and make it better. And absolutely yes, that is called for and appropriate. And yet – there’s something in the leaping to commitment and action in this case -for me- that represents a skipping over and a hurrying up and an “I don’t want to stay in this discomfort for another minute!!” that helps me know this is actually more about me relieving my discomfort than it is about anything else in that moment.
And this week one thing dialed in for me – that one thing I can do – one thing I can commit to, is to be with. To be fully with. To be fully present. To sit side-by-side and breathe with people I love and to acknowledge the pain and suffering and trauma. That this being with is doing something and whoo boy is it uncomfortable.
Kelsey Blackwell in her wonderful essay, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People” summarizes this well with this: “The only thing I want to hear from white people about race is, I’m sorry. I didn’t see. I didn’t listen. I’m working to see and listen now.
Listening deeply and being with are two of the most powerful transformation moves I can make. Period. That’s my biggest takeaway from last week and I re-commit to listening deeply and being with the people in my life.
One of my favorite things to do is speak with alumni of our Skid Row School a few months after they’ve graduated. The phone calls often go something like this:
Exchange of pleasantries.
So, Becky…the Skid Row School was great and all but…we’re kind of stuck.
Tell me more….
Having fielded dozens of these calls now I want to share with you the most common ways folks get stuck while leading large-scale change (and what you can do about them):
4. Your aim is off. Too big or too small. We recommend something in between a 5 to 10x expansion over a similar time-period from your last wave of expansion. So if it took you 3 years to get your intervention to 100 schools, in the next 3 years you could aim for being in 500 to 1,000 schools.
If this is you, you may want to proactively change your shared agreements about how much, by when. One thing that often helps is to ask for one more year. Kind of how you can buy a vowel on Wheel of Fortune. You can usually buy a year if that’s what you need.
3. Theory lock has set in. We see this all too often. You’ve chosen which “all teach, all learn” structure from our “Many Ways to Many” tool and it’s not getting you the results you’d like. Instead of getting curious that maybe there’s a better way, some people double-down on tactics that just aren’t working. Remember, the whole point to there being many ways to many is that there are…many ways to many. Not just one. For a refresher on this, check out this SSIR piece by the same name. And feel free to poke around the Many Ways to Many tool and see what it recommends for you!
2. A commitment is missing. Having a bold, quantifiable aim is one thing. Committing (and re-committing) to that aim is a whole other. It is in the committing that the aim comes to life. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way more times than I want to share. When things ain’t right, it’s at least work asking if somewhere a commitment is missing. While you cannot control objective reality, you can definitely control your decisions and actions. My mentor Katie Hendricks likes to say, “you know what you’re committed to by the results you’re getting.” Look at the results you are getting, and that will tell you what you’re committed to. If you don’t like it, time to make a new commitment. The sooner the better!
1. There’s a subconscious sabotage effort going on. This is the #1 most common challenge that I find when I’m working with our graduates and this is why we’re insistent on combining skills for personal transformation with skills for planetary transformation in all our workshops. It’s so easy to imagine that the problem is technical or “out there” but all too often it’s personal and “in here.” There’s a lot more to say about this but I’ll sum it up with four questions:
(1) what have you not faced?
(2) what have you not felt or acknowledged?
(3) What are you holding back from saying? and
(4) What are you holding back from doing?
Believe it or not, most of the time the answer that gets someone unstuck is in one of those four questions.
I hope this is helpful. Zip me a note and let me know if this struck a nerve. I wish you all the very best in your work to make this world a better place to live.