As a child of the 90’s, my mind conjures the very specific image of an anti-drug commercial whenever I am asked “What Do You Need?” Maybe you know the clip I am mentioning – a young boy is approached by someone looking to push drugs during a pick-up game of basketball. They ask him “Know what you need?” The boy promptly responds, “What do I need?! I need to graduate. I need to get a job when I grow up,” followed by a long list of other needs too. Here is a link to the commercial if you want some context or a trip down memory lane 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1xpMODVB9Q
Fast-forwarding to today, I think that our environment could be like the young boy in the commercial, who has a large list of crucial actions that need to happen for future success. As I think about how to boil this list down into something that is workable for the average person or community to tackle, I struggle. Refining, re-thinking, re-writing, and refining my thoughts once again, I believe that our shared environment needs this: leaders from the middle.
What do I mean by leaders from the middle? In most organizational structures today, there is someone at the top. For this discussion we will call them visionaries. These visionaries inspire and create businesses, lives, opportunities, and communities. They say important things and the world changes. Contrasting that we have followers. These are the people who are affected (willingly and unwillingly) by the decisions and actions of others. Followers consume and listen, acting as they are told or guided. In between those two groups is what I would call the middle. These are the people who are affected by visionaries and effect followers.
In regard to the environment, many people look to to both visionaries and followers to change the way that we as society operate and rid ourselves of enviro-wrongs. How many of us have heard the argument “CEOs, board members, council members, elected officials just need to…” and “We would love to do that if only our customers would be ok with…”? Changes enacted from the polar opposites of the spectrum rarely result in long term, positive changes for our environment. For example, the Sun Chips compostable bag was a great corporate idea, but consumers did not like the loud sounds the bag material made. On the other side, followers try to organize boycotts of environmentally harmful products or make their voices heard, usually to no avail.
The middle, in contrast, has the opportunity to create effective change. They understand what customers want when purchasing items and they hear the ideas and goals from visionaries. The middle is able to identify areas of environmental waste and inefficiency and make them better because they understand both sides of how their businesses and organizations work. In real life, our middle leaders look like architects who design beautiful and environmentally-responsible buildings or grocery store and restaurant managers who instruct their employees to ask if the customer needs a single-use plastic bag or straw rather than wasting them (giving them to everyone automatically). The middle looks like parents who turn up the thermostat one degree in the summer and down a degree in the winter or the office manager who starts a recycling program for the workplace. The middle is a farmer who plants cover crops and maintains wetlands to encourage and grow the long-term health of their land while still raising high-quality crops or a city planner that purposefully connects new developments to bike trails, walking paths, and green spaces. These leaders take these steps not just for economics, but because they are the right thing to do for our future. If we look closely, all of us are leaders from the middle in some capacity of our lives.
Harkening back to the commercial of my childhood, yes, there is a lot we need to do for our environment. But the first and most important thing we need is for leaders from the middle of our community to step forward and help guide us to a more healthy, responsible, and resilient environment.
I will be taking a short break from writing the Practical Environmentalist column this summer as my work life ramps up significantly. If you want to continue to read about environmental discussions in the community of Minot, please consider joining the Environmentally Minded People of Minot Facebook page. All are welcome. See you in September!!!