GoGreen ’11 Portland: Dick Roy on Culture Change and the Sustainability Movement

Dick Roy, Center For Earth Leadership

Dick Roy and his wife, Jeanne (co-founders of Northwest Earth Institute, the Oregon Natural Step Network and the Center for Earth Leadership), have been full-time champions for the environment for nearly two decades. In that time, Dick has amassed a wealth of experience on driving systemic cultural change and made valuable observations on how to use our past and human nature to help shape our future. In today’s post, we talk with Dick about how things have changed since he began “working for the Earth” and what we need to do to achieve much needed results on the sustainability front.

GoGreen Conference: What was the impetus to change career directions after a very successful run as an attorney at Stoel Rives? Did you have an epiphany or did the motivation to work full-time for the environment evolve over time?
Dick Roy: It was something that evolved over time. Jeanne (my wife) and I were influenced by the culture of the 1960s when there was a lot of idealism floating around. That was the time when President Kennedy made his famous statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

By the time I graduated from law school in 1970, we were becoming aware that the Earth was in trouble. And when we came back to Oregon from Boston, we had Governor McCall in place. It was a great time because the legislature was doing a lot of interesting things to address these issues. We got involved right away in the “environmental movement”—I was on the board of 1000 Friends of Oregon, Quiet Trails and the Oregon Environmental Council, and Jeanne was involved in some interesting programs on food, waste reduction and recycling.

In 1987, we took three months off and went down to the Oregon Coast. By then, the context had changed. When I worked with Quiet Trails, I was trying to do local things like keep off-road vehicles off of public land. By 1987 it was clear that global warming and broader issues were making impact, and that the ecological systems of the Earth were in great danger. We decided we’d like to work as full-time volunteers and then in 1991 we took another four months off to develop the programs to do that.

It was not a single epiphany of any sort, but rather a progressive understanding of the condition of the earth and coming to the conclusion that our highest purpose would be to try and fix some of the bad things happening.

GG: Have you experienced any daunting challenges that were particularly rewarding to conquer?
DR: If you look at the ultimate challenges we face as people—which permeate everything we do—there is one I call the double disconnect that is pretty daunting. The first disconnect is that on the economic side. We have capital markets and investors of the world driving the system, but there is no connection between their goals and the goal of a sustainable future. Additionally, on the individual level, we haven’t evolved well to respond to threats that are remote in time and space. That’s the second fundamental disconnect we are trying to address. We view those as our fundamental obstacles to overcome.

In a personal sense, I’ve gone through some pretty intense changes. One day I was in a corner office as senior partner at a law firm, and the next day I was in an empty room at the Galleria. The challenges at that level were daunting as well. A big one was losing a technical support system. Another was moving from a situation where what you do is the highest priority of anyone you’re interfacing with to something that is much lower on the priority scale.

In terms of the greatest triumphs, it’s rewarding is to see how the culture in Portland is so vastly different than it was in 1993. It’s exciting to see change occur. Some of it is very visible—for instance with all the bikes you see on the road today, it’s practically dangerous to drive a car around now. But we also work towards ideas that will spread like wildfire. If you can start the process of a culture change, then all sorts of innovative things will start to bubble up. And that’s occurring as well. There seems to be no end to the interesting programs and initiatives going on here.

GG: Portland lives in a bit of a early adopter bubble when it comes to sustainability. How would you say the mainstream environmental movement has changed since you started working in this field full-time?
DR: There are two big things that have happened. In the beginning of the movement, in the 1960s, things were principally about advocacy. The major activities were filing lawsuits, holding protests and legislative lobbying. Those things peaked in the mid-1970s and then Reagan went into office in the 1980s. That, coupled with the economic downturn, created a bit of a dark time. But parallel to that in the late 1980s and early 1990s were all sorts of interesting ideas perking up. The Natural Step process was one. With that burst of energy in 1990, what came to pass was the birth of the sustainability movement.

The sustainability movement is about voluntary efforts, as opposed to advocacy. You can still see the two threads working in conjunction, but independently of one another. Columbia Riverkeeper is a straight up environmental group. They protect the river through advocacy. Then you have a number of groups working in the sustainability movement, like Northwest Earth Institute, Sustainable Northwest and Ecotrust.

Of course anything that hits the mainstream and becomes popular becomes co-opted at some point, so there is a lot of greenwashing going on—people trying to find and exploit business opportunities in this authentic interest that the public has developed in a different way of living.

GG: After disappointments over the results of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, people’s optimism seemed to fall from the earlier spike leading up to the event. Would you say you are more or less optimistic about meeting sustainability goals than when you began this work in 1993?
DR: We promote the practice of hope. We remain hopeful, despite feeling optimism and pessimism at any given time. We treat them both as distractions. If you talk about probabilities—which we don’t spend all that much time on—looking at the science now, the data is certainly far more negative than it was 20 years ago and we’ve lost a lot of time.

Paul Hawken summed up the situation in his recent talk at the University of Portland very nicely—if you look at the science and aren’t pessimistic, then you’re probably looking at the wrong data. But if you meet the kind of people who are working to restore the Earth and you aren’t optimistic, then you haven’t got a pulse. That’s how he described it and that’s how we see it too. We don’t focus on probabilities. We focus on having a vision of the highest possible achievements possible and then aligning our conduct to that reach that standard.

The other part of the answer is that we clearly have not gotten ourselves ahead of the curve. You can see in the current economic and political climate that in terms of priorities, jobs are first, social needs are second and the environment doesn’t even come into the equation until much further down the list. And as long as that’s the case, the natural systems of the world will continue to decline. That being said, we still prefer to think in terms of hope instead of optimism and pessimism.

GG: Does that hope come from meeting and working with the people rather than viewing the solution as a technical one? Is that why your organizations have focused on education?
DR: When we decided we wanted to work on changing culture, we figured we could work in public policy, advocacy, motivation or public education. And although the work we’ve done is educational, its primary focus is on motivation. The reason for that is because when you are highly motivated, you can generally get all the information you need to make decisions that align with your values.

On the other hand, many highly educated people are not motivated. We believe that’s because of this disconnect we have with issues that happen over time. It’s difficult to feel a sense of urgency when tomorrow life will still be good in Oregon. In the immediate sense, life is great, but in an ultimate sense, there is an incredible urgency not being addressed. That’s why we focus on motivation. We always work with small groups of people and we always work with groups of people who share their ideas, because we believe that people own things with more intensity through self-discovery as opposed to a traditional teacher-student model. That’s why everything, including materials for the Center for Earth Leadership, is organized around motivation.

GG: Making excuses seems to be a part of human nature. In working with groups and people, have you observed any common “crutch” excuses people use to avoid adopting a more sustainable life practice?
DR: We all have crutches as individuals and in organizations, but our goal is to get people to understand more deeply within a context where they are motivated to do something about it. We attempt to pull people together and create a sense of purpose. For instance, in our Agent of Change course, we get people to consider the possibilities they have in affecting change themselves and then help them get motivated to get the information they need to take action.

GG: What do you see as the private sector’s role in helping to drive culture change?
DR: If you look at business organizations, there is kind of a line in their situation—is the company privately held or publically traded? Once a company becomes publically traded, then at one level it is really beholden to financial analysts, because it has to increase sales and profits, so that its value of stock goes up. But whether a company is privately held—which creates an environment where you have a lot more latitude—or publically traded, there are still so many things that can be done.

In Portland, we’ve had some very progressive business leaders in our history and a lot of those folks formed a progressive business association, the Oregon Business Association. Now there are many associations that have been formed around similar issues. And there are also many companies that have staked their interests in a issue by joining alliances for various aspects of conservation, like trees/forests and renewable energy.

You have others that have simply set a very high bar—InterfaceFlor for example—and are creating models for how companies should operate with these ideals in mind. They sponsor and support non-profit initiatives, and some have engaged in what I call authentic certifications. These are the companies that were the first to have organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council certify a forest.

Another big thing that many of these companies are doing is educating their employees, not only about internal practices, but also about lifestyle choices. My wife, Jeanne, has done over 40 presentations for businesses about moving to Zero Waste. And she focuses on your lifestyle in addition to ways management can encourage innovation and support progressive legislation.

Here in Oregon, if we go all the back to the original bottle bill, Fred Meyer was a champion of that legislation when the other major grocery chains were opposed to it. His support helped enact that legislation. So you can see that it’s very helpful for businesses to support progressive legislation. There is a vast array of things that can be done so long as the internal climate of the business is conducive to it.

GG: How can we, as individuals, help create internal climates that are supportive of green initiatives at our companies?
DR: “Earth leadership” is what we can do to promote sustainability. There are four quadrants of that concept. The first is what we do in our paid work. The second is how we shape our lifestyle—including our buying habits. The third is advocacy and the fourth is creating change in a circle of influence.

If you take those four areas and look at what it means to drive systemic change, one obvious problem is that as buyers—I don’t like to call us consumers—you can’t go out and regiment people en masse. Most of us can’t tell everyone to buy these products as opposed to those products. There is too much independence built into our culture. But when working with individuals, we can talk to people about the fact that every time we spend a dollar, we are voting for a particular culture. And if enough people start using their dollars to vote differently, then that activity will drive systemic change.

One rule of thumb for your home life or business life could be to shop local. Another is to simply realize that our dollars are very powerful cultural drivers. Understanding that helps us bridge the disconnect between ideals and action. Someone might say they really don’t like big box store, but on the other hand, things are often less expensive there so they shop at them anyway.

To give you an example of a cultural disconnect, back in the 1990s, Coke and Pepsi were systematically going into schools and developing exclusive contracts. The school or school district could only sell Coke or Pepsi—depending on which provider they chose. And they would get a bonus, depending on how much product they sold to the children at their schools. So there was an actual financial incentive to get kids to drink more sugar water, which we already knew was unhealthy for them.

We weren’t paying attention, so we couldn’t solve the issue. It’s important to be alert throughout your day, so that if you see something that’s not right, you can protest in some way. If you go into a store and have to get this hard, plastic shell around a few screws, you can complain or go somewhere you can buy screws without packaging. Stepping it up a level, you could join an advocacy group. It’s difficult to regiment individuals, and yet it’s incredible how much we can do when we align forces. When we act collectively, we can drive very broad cultural change.

Dick Roy is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at the Center for Earth Leadership. He is also a speaker at GoGreen ’11 Portland. You can see Dick and over 50 additional leaders in green business live in Portland, Tuesday, October 4, 2011. Register at: http://portland.gogreenconference.net/registration.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest green news and event updates at @GoGreenConf. Our official hashtag for GoGreen Portland is #GoGreenPDX.

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