Looking In: The Outside View

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SustainAbility has a broad network, but often we speak to, and gain insights from, a close circle of sustainability professionals.

The issues that encompass sustainable development cut across all aspects of society and as such, we were keen to understand views on environmental and social change from those who don’t work in the sustainability space. From a farmer in Massachusetts, to a commercial director of a football club and an archival producer, we share their thoughts on then, now and what’s next.

Reflections on an array of changes; from those in our natural environment to increased acceptance of progressive cultural and social norms. On the whole, the sentiment is positive, as there is a sense of increased understanding amongst society

“The one issue that sticks out (at the risk of being predictable) is climate change. Over the last three decades, climate change has gone from something a few scientists were talking about to most scientists agreeing with it to being something that businesses broadly accept and are trying to adapt to — and some are even trying to reverse. If only our political leaders would follow suit.”
David K, Financial Services, Berkeley

“Our cultural norms around gender, sexuality, and family have evolved dramatically in my lifetime. Now, in many contexts single parents receive well-deserved accolades for their sacrifices, and divorce and blended families are seen as a fact of life.”
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Founder & Former Executive Director, SumOfUs

Image © Dimitar Belchev via Unsplash

“It’s been wonderful to see us continue to progress in a more open-minded and accepting direction. Developments like the widespread acceptance of gay marriage or our first African-American President (elected twice!) give me hope for the future.”
John Slater, Creative Director, Tech Sector

“Thirty years ago, my high school dedicated an entire day to talking about discrimination: sexism, racism, ageism, etc. During the discussion, a student asked about homophobia and was told that it is not really discrimination. Now, same-sex marriage is legal and transsexual rights are at the forefront.”
Rich Proulx, Berkeley, CA

We’re seeing more recognition and integration of sustainability issues, particularly into business, but progress remains too slow and more needs to be done. Anxiety is still present today over reactions to a more accepting society.

“The financial benefits of technology benefit a small group, creating an increasingly larger concentration of wealth among a select few. I worry about the impact on our economy and our society of this increasing gap between the wealthiest and the rest.”
Rich Proulx, Berkeley, CA

“The world is becoming more progressive, but reactionary movements follow progressive change everywhere it happens.”
Darnell Witt, Former Head of Support & Community, Vimeo

“In terms of public health, I think environmental anxiety is much higher now than it was 40 years ago. Parents— across all demographics— worry significantly more than their parents before them about what they are putting in and on their children’s bodies… But I don’t know that this heightened anxiety is really paying off in terms of real changes to peoples’ health. Studies show we may be the first generation in a while to die ‘younger’ than our parents generation.”
Rachel Antell, Archival Producer, Berkeley

Image © rawpixel.com via Unsplash

“In Massachusetts, or any populated part of the US, most people now have no direct contact with what is involved with growing their food. This trend affects government policy, farm labor, availability, consumer relations, and a host of other issues.”
Paul Gove, owner of seventh-generation family operated Gove Farm, Leominster, MA, USA

“Progress has been too slow with with women in the workplace… we have far too few women on the boards of FTSE 500 companies – even SMEs. The Chelsea Commercial Team is working very hard to bring more women into football and sport in senior roles. Business also needs a different approach to a broader view of British culture – ethnicity and disability – represented on boards & management teams.”
Chris Townsend OBE, Commercial Director, Chelsea Football Club; Advisory Board, TUSK

“Unfortunately the trend lines right now look pretty bad. I sometimes tell myself that what’s happening now is a fever that has to break before true progress can happen, and I genuinely believe in humanity’s intellectual ability to solve our problems, but a lot has to change before any of that can happen.”
John Slater, Creative Director, Tech Sector

What’s Next:
We’re hearing simultaneous concerns and excitement about the rate of change of society. On the one hand, people are excited about the opportunities this offers, but concerns run high around the employment and impacts on our ecosystem.

“The most exciting thing to me is prevention – we can’t eliminate cancer so a greater understanding and education of prevention is a great opportunity – it needs to be a whole new part of medicine that now has a tremendous will behind it to understand how we’ve been poisoning ourselves.”
Cathy Pittham, Global CEO, Axicom Cohn & Wolfe

“I fear that shortening attention spans mixed with new forms of immersive media (VR) will make humans increasingly more detached from the experience of being animals responsible for “ruling” a diverse and fragile ecosystem.”
Darnell Witt, Former Head of Support & Community, Vimeo

Image © Drew Hays via Unsplash

“I think over the next 30 years, weather conditions are going to continue to get more extreme and our children won’t have a lot of the freedoms we used to take for granted— breathing the air without fear, being in the sun without fear, swimming in the waters without fear. A lot of that is already happening. I think we’re past the point of trying to head off these changes, and instead have to figure out how to adapt to them.”
Rachel Antell, Archival Producer, Berkeley

“We have a couple of decades to build resilience before the climate curves accelerate in the second half of the century. This is a great challenge, but it’s an opportunity to redesign our cities and surrounding landscapes to be greener, healthier, more equitable, and more resilient to climate change. I’m excited about the creativity and activity, the potential for a proactive, generative response to climate change.”
Robin Grossinger, Resilient Landscapes Program co-Director, SFEI

“The rate of change of society and dramatic shifts in social structures brought about by new technology [worries me]. Globalisation brought a move from manufacturing to services, which has happened slowly but wreaked a lot of social havoc. The next phase will impact low level professions – we didn’t respond well when we had decades to do it – now the hope of Governments to do anything about education or finding work for people is little… a universal wage is one of the options but work can be very intrinsic to peoples’ lives and identities, so what happens if you take that away?”
Judy Gibbons, Chair of Which? Ltd Board; Non-Exec Director, Virgin Money Giving

With many thanks to all those who generously gave their time to speak with us.

About the author

Franki Wiley
Franki Wiley

Junior Analyst in the London office. Creative mind with a drive to address society's challenges, particularly gender imbalances and the unsustainable nature of our lifestyles.