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A Sustainability Hall Pass

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hawken.jpgSustainability starts with framing our thoughts differently, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken told a crowd of several hundred at the Solutions Summit on May 22. The event brought together people from the private sector, government and academia to explore strategies that advance sustainability. To those who attended, Hawken's address gave a platform off which to think. No matter what organization was represented, the ideas generated by the summit and his address can be applied anywhere.

Hawken mentioned that "sustainability" is now part of our vocabulary while it has never been defined. But sustainability is not a single solution where we meet a goal that marks us as sustainable or unsustainable. It is action toward a state in which a system is connected to much of itself. For example, imagine a supply chain that models an ecosystem, where all its "waste" is used in another process. A human system trying to mimic this is one that is moving toward sustainability. With so many perceptions and new technologies, there is consistent room for improvement or change. 

In our attempts to connect things to themselves, we have the opportunity to change our thinking in a way that might unlock greater solutions. Hawken noted that if environmental issues happen for us instead of to us, the opportunities we have to solve them become a gift. Great innovations can emerge when we think of ourselves as a system.  We've gotten a "fantastic hall pass from the Creator saying 'go change.'" The fact that many of our vital environmental systems have not shut down after years of human-induced stress seems to confirm that we have an opportunity, instead of the mess, facing us. 

The best part is that Hawken's message speaks to each audience member's situation. The Solutions Summit's goal was to "bring sustainability practitioners and researchers from business, industry, the nonprofit sector and academia together to identify and advance strategies for collaboratively solving sustainability challenges." Everyone can bring a new perspective of thinking back to their workplace or their personal lives to improve sustainability in specific ways that work for their place in the system. As examples, Hawken cited his own entrepreneurial work with a company called OneSun and HBO's look at the sustainability of our food system in "The Weight of the Nation."

Hawken emphasized the importance of approaching sustainability with systematic thinking. He said we're "truly alive" when we act for those that we don't know and will never meet, because they're part of life, too. "There is no failure, there is only action" should become an unchanging motto if we would like sustainability to move forward.  

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.