Transforming into a sustainable society: connecting conservatives and tree huggers

The recent IPCC report and many other related articles are drawing out different reactions. Some recognize the problem and see the urgency. They choose to buy sustainable products, eat organic and reduce their travels. Part of this group views the report as ‘too safe’. According to them the risk estimates are way off.

Others have been shocked, but want to keep living their life ‘having fun and being able to barbecue’. They do see the problem, but that’s where it ends. They hope next year brings double digit growth again.

The first group is often still seen as tree huggers and idealists. The second group is the conservatives, currently the majority.

If we want to mobilize conservatives to conserve the world ?, and accelerate the transformation into a sustainable society, we need two things:

  1. There must be a shared map to talk about. A frame of reference to discuss thoughts, that doesn’t judge, and helps people understand each other. That helps understand why an idea like ‘regenerative agriculture’ isn’t yet seen as a proper solution everywhere.
  2. There must be space between the conservative borders and the idealistic ambitions. As soon as ideas enter that space, we can get into action and start developing those ideas.

In the next parts we will go deeper into these two aspects.

A neutral frame of reference: longevity vs. potential

The frame of reference in which conservatives (⌚) and tree huggers (?) can find each other can be defined by differences in ‘longevity’ and ‘potential’. Those are the axes where their perspectives are significantly different. 


The two opposing perspectives in ‘longevity’ are Strategic management-thinking(⌚) and Generational-thinking(?). The fundamental difference is the horizon in which results need to be delivered.

Strategic management-thinking is focused on generating short term results. Their spreadsheets say €1000 tomorrow is worth more than €1200 in 10 years time. Sustainability in this type of thinking has to mainly make sense for the short term of an organisation. E.g., by building a portfolio of ideas from different market forces.

Generational thinking on the other hand is based on the high probability that there will be more humans after us than before us (10^31 people). We’re just a moment in the development of humanity. You should choose to improve life for 1200 people in 10 years time over 1000 people tomorrow. Here the emphasis is on maximum impact, separate from timing. Both styles of thinking are both valid and logical, yet are delivering different results.


The other opposite perspectives, on the ‘potential’ axis, are Limits-thinking (⌚) and Regeneration-thinking (?), These ways of thinking approach potential differently. 

Limits-thinking aims to minimize and contain damage. If we stay within the boundaries in which nature can survive (the planetary boundaries), we’re ‘safe’. The boundaries are focused on CO2, ocean acidification, pollution, fresh water use and more. The Donut Economy as a model adds social dimensions to this thinking style; you must also contribute to welfare on certain dimensions. Limits-thinking can sometimes feel as if you are trying to put a square through a round hole.

Regeneration-thinking is on the opposite side and is not oriented towards the limits, but on designing from natural principles (more can be found in a previous blog). Nature is the best producer and manager, and will create more than necessary. Regeneration-thinking is currently seen in sectors close to nature; agriculture, forestry, aquaculture. 

Both perspectives are valuable. Limits-thinking aims at conserving the system by bringing it back inside the limits. Regeneration-thinking looks for systemic redesign in an inclusive way (social and ecological).

With this frame of reference we can better understand that there are different viewpoints and therefore solutions. Key takeaway here is that Limits-thinking and Strategic management-thinking are both more selective; they give reasons to not do things. Regeneration-thinking and Generational-thinking are opposite and are aimed at creation and finding things that you should do.

Both perspectives are needed for action

The tree hugger thinking styles are aimed at creation and possibilities; the conservative thinking styles are selective and more limiting. This means that we need to find overlap. The creative ideas of tree huggers need to reach within the boundaries of the conservatives to be able to match the dominant logic in organisations. In addition, challenges that have unintentionally been created  by organisations can possibly be solved by using different thinking styles. To move the transformation forward, we need to look for the overlap between those thinking styles:

Why does this work? When you need to solve a problem you need creative thinking. You need a combination of generative, creative thinking styles and limiting selective thinking styles. Without both you get either drown in ideas or you don’t find ideas that are promising enough.

Start talking with each other as conservatives and as tree huggers. Explore each other’s perspectives and collect your ideas in the frame of reference. Try to collaborate on moving ideas into ‘the zone’ and then take the first actions.

What do you think? Do you want to exchange ideas over a coffee? Feel free to reach out to Pieter.

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