How can we take decisive action towards living sustainably with so many competing points of view?
We’re told climate change is man-made, but then hear it’s a natural phenomenon. We hear that we need to regulate our companies, but also that doing so limits job growth and hurts our economy.
We hear calls to “kill the Keystone pipeline,” but then read that we’ll create more greenhouse gases transporting the oil any other way. We hear combustion engines are bad, but then learn that lithium batteries can’t be produced without mining rare earth metals, and releasing toxins into the environment.
We listen to politicians call for major changes, but then learn that they have huge homes, and fly on private jets. We enjoy the ease of shopping online, but then watch the packaging pile up in our homes.
The conversation around sustainability is complex and filled with frustrating contradictions and trade-offs. Even people who are committed to make change and willing to sacrifice are often at an impasse about what the best course of action is.
But no matter what specific course we choose to take, I believe it has to start with a new way of thinking about our relationship with the natural world which supports us.
To change how we act, we need to first change how we think. Namely, our mindset must change such that we feel a deep sense of responsibility for the health of the biosphere which allows us to survive as a species.
I have long had a deep interest and awareness of environmental issues.
I was raised with a reverence for the natural world, and most of my youth was spent outside. My family often discussed environmental issues and tried to make decisions with an eye towards sustainability. In college, I studied biology and other hard sciences, and have read many books and articles to try to improve my awareness of the subject.
Yet, like all of us, I find myself conflicted about how to best balance my daily life with the well-being of the environment.
As President and co-CEO of Chipotle, I was blessed with the opportunity to make decisions regarding sustainability at a larger scale. Sustainability was a daily consideration as we decided which ingredients to buy, what kind of packaging and cleaners to use, which suppliers to support, and how to best implement composting and recycling at our 2,200 restaurants. But again, while we made many great decisions, it was not always clear how to navigate the pressures of running a business with the desire to do right by animals and the environment.
I don’t propose to have the solutions.
And, at any rate, a simple web search will quickly yield much more than I could include here about all the things we can do to be better stewards of our world’s resources.
But I believe that we need to change our mindset before any sweeping, broad, positive change is likely to happen.
Namely, we need to understand the deep and inherent connection between love and sustainability; that our very fulfillment as people is tightly connected to living harmoniously and in balance with our world.
Sustainability generally means avoiding the depletion or destruction of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. The word is everywhere these days. Unfortunately, even more ubiquitous are the blatantly unsustainable practices which are the hallmarks of everyday life for most of us living in this “modern world.”
I recently wrote a book called Love is Free, Guac is Extra, detailing how I built a culture at my law firm, and then Chipotle, on a foundation of love. In short, I explain that the only source of a leaders’ power is that people choose to follow, and that people will not follow unless they believe that the leader will take them to a better place. Leaders can only accomplish this by deeply knowing and understanding their people, and developing deep compassion for them.
Since the book’s publication, I have been overwhelmed by the incredibly positive feedback it has generated. People seem so relieved and amazed that a leader of a large, public, and very profitable company could use a foundation of love to create such resounding business success.
But if you really think about it, love is the most powerful force in the human race. Everyone alive wants to be in its embrace and to feel it around them. Why should it surprise us that love is the key ingredient to success in almost all aspects of our lives?
And, as I will argue here, it is also completely intertwined with sustainability, such that one cannot exist without the other.
When we were children, it was our parents’ responsibility to take care of our every need. If our parents were effective, they knew that as we grew more capable, they should give us more responsibility and begin to expect a greater contribution from us. Maybe it started with them asking us to clear our plate after dinner. They explained to us that we were part of the family, and that we were expected to help out. We did chores, sometimes washed the dishes when it was our turn, perhaps mowed the lawn, took out the trash, and so forth.
Our parents used this increasing scale of responsibility not only to harness our labor to make their life easier, but also to teach us many critical lessons. This work taught us to become self-sufficient, and capable of living on our own someday. It gave us more confidence, as we became more aware of our own capabilities.
But also, and very importantly, undertaking these tasks began to build our sense of value: we felt useful, worthwhile, capable, and even needed. These latter effects of this work formed the basis for our own sense of empowerment and fulfillment as human beings.
We often ascribe the word “love” to various aspects of this process of raising our children towards personal capability, enrichment and satisfaction. No one assumes that an upbringing which entails hard work, chores, or even discipline is anything other than loving. Rather, the opposite is true. We love our children, so at times we must discipline them. We love our children, so we raise them to be capable, independent, and able. We love our children, so we do what’s necessary to see to their wellbeing, even when it may not be what they want at that moment.
But this love isn’t limited to our children: expressing love always entails bringing to someone or something our understanding, care, concern, and attention.
As we became adults, we learned more and more about how to most effectively and appropriately interact with our world. We continued to complete the transition from selfish and helpless, to caring and capable. As we walked the buffet line of life, most of us learned to put on our plates enough food for our own meal, but also to leave enough for the next person in line.
Our success in transforming from child to adult defines not only how we are perceived by society, but also determines our level of satisfaction and contentment in life. We begin to derive our fulfillment not by taking all we can, but by discovering how much we can give to those around us.
This exhibition of care, respect and concern for others is a manifestation of our own inner drive to be of use, to be at our best, to manifest as a valuable force. In short, this is how we experience our inherent goodness, which is love.
There is a famous old story about a wise man who reaches into a river to save a drowning scorpion. As he saves it, it stings him. He sets it free and begins to tend to his wounds. Then he sees it has again fallen into the water. Again, he saves it. Again, it stings him. A passerby comments, “Oh wise one, why do you continue to save that horrible creature….can you not see that it just keeps stinging you?” “Yes, replies the wise man, but it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, but it is the human’s nature to save.”
While this story is ancient, its wisdom and message are fresh, accurate, and urgently needed. Only if we understand that it is our basic nature to be of help, of service, and to love, will we live a life of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Often, this fulfillment through giving starts with our first friendships. We begin to care for other’s feelings, well-being, and happiness. We feel our own value manifest as we become a source of support for others.
Then perhaps we become parents. We become a personal source of support, guidance, wisdom, and comfort to our spouse, our friends, our children. Some extend their efforts still further, by giving support to their city, church, or even our society as a whole. Through this support for others, we find satisfaction and fulfillment, as our value and sense of worth manifests in the quality of our relationships, our contributions at work, and in our other areas of interest.
The ability of each of us to make a contribution depends on many things. Our physical stature, our intelligence, our level of education and awareness, and the resources at our disposal, to name a few. Generally, we might reasonably expect that those with the most to give would be the ones most likely to be of service.
If you apply this expectation to the incredibly capable human race, then it would seem very reasonable to expect our race to contribute enormously towards the betterment of our planet.
Unfortunately, so far, what we have seen is the opposite.
Because we’ve managed to conquer and dominate this whole planet and its magnificent biodiversity of plants, animals and lands, we have quite literally made it our responsibility. When someone moves into a home, they take responsibility for that home. If they move into a larger home, they take responsibility for that larger home. When that home becomes the Earth, then they must take responsibility for the whole thing. To think otherwise defies any logical understanding of morality.
To whom much is given, much is expected. That’s not a punishment. It’s an honor.
Being endowed of the capability to achieve a lot is a blessing. But it does come with a duty to use these powerful capabilities towards the betterment of the world around us.
The human race has evolved to be the most synergistic, cooperative, mutually dependent species in history. We rely on people halfway around the world for the very products that keep us alive. Food, shelter, water, tools and so on.
Where hundreds of years ago we depended only on our family or tribe, we now rely on people thousands of miles away, whom we’ve never met, who work hard to produce things that better our lives. These people have become part of our extended family. And the only way to act lovingly within a family is to take part in caring for the home that surrounds us all. And once again, that home is the planet Earth.
In our modern society, our collective failure to care for each other gives birth to many afflictions.
We fail to teach the basics of nutrition to our youth, and then argue incessantly over the enormous and fiercely expensive health care system that is born from this initial failing. We fail to educate our children about our dependence as a species on clean water, clean air, and a healthy and intact wilderness of animal and plant life, and then argue over horrifically complex government regulations designed to somehow make up for that.
We fail to teach even the basics of the interconnectedness of our entire world and all of its animals and plants, and the many things we can do to care for it, and then bemoan the horrible atrocities of pollution, resource depletion, climate change and environmental destruction.
If we all can come to understand how our entire world, and all that depends on it, is interconnected, then we can re-awaken our sense of responsibility to care for it just like we care for our own children, pets, and possessions.
All satisfaction and fulfillment in life comes from feeling our own value manifest in the world around us. Of watching ourselves become increasingly useful. We are at our best when we are working to improve the lives of others. This is our inner nature. It is who we are when we are living authentically.
We are creatures of love. Our modern failure to remember this, and make it a priority, is leading to widespread despair, opioid abuse, malnutrition, disease, war, and a host of other negative downstream effects.
The solution begins by each of us taking responsibility, and by understanding that an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
Our decision to ignore the degradation of our planet and its complex and intertwined ecosystem isn’t serving any of us. It’s like a child not clearing their plate after a meal. Sure, they’d rather go off and play, but each time it happens, it’s deprived them of an opportunity to feel their value.
Likewise, with each failing of an adult human being to take an action to care for our planet, it deprives them of a chance to feel their value, or to become a force in building a healthy, balanced, symbiotic, interconnected world.
Once we realize this, we are forever changed. We can no longer throw something away without thinking about where it will ultimately end up, and whether it will do harm in its journey downstream. We will find ourselves searching for ways to reuse things, recycle them, or give them to someone who values them.
But again, as we take on this added responsibility, we won’t feel enslaved by the extra effort, but rather will feel a sense of satisfaction. We feel one with our inner nature: our most authentic self. We are acting with love.
This is why the act of living sustainably and in harmony with our world is not simply an academic exercise. Instead, it is a way of living our most fulfilled, satisfying, and loving life.
In a world where each of us is connected, living sustainably is living in accordance with our inner nature: being of loving service. If our species is to fulfill its highest and best purpose, then we must act together to integrate ourselves as a sustainable part of the further evolution of our world.
As we each begin to shift our mindset and search for ways to answer this call, we’ll feel our personal sense of value and fulfillment blossom.
Hopefully, with this shift in mindset, we will begin to insist on better solutions, pick better leaders, support better companies, and work towards creating a more beautiful world of harmony and fulfillment.
Photo courtesy of Monty Moran