Leadership for a Sustainable Future

Leadership for a Sustainable Future
by the Honorable George K. Heartwell
Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan USA
on the eve of the 2nd Americas RCE Regional Conference in Lima, Peru
27 February 2013

The 21st century has ushered in a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, a new way of seeing ourselves in relationship to the planet on which we live.

Suddenly the reality of finitude has dawned on us – the recognition that there are limits to our natural resources, limits to our exercise of power, limits to our economic potential – and that failure to honor these limits has consequence for ourselves…but even more so for the generations to come. We call this recognition sustainability; and it is sustainability that has brought us together today.

I will assume that you are here because you value the world we live in and you are conscience of the fragile nature of this world. As a people we have mostly moved beyond the mindset of perpetual expansion; the belief that Earth can absorb all the blows we deliver: the destruction of the forests, the unrestricted mining of the minerals, the pollution of the waters, the carbon loading of the atmosphere.

You know, and I know, that Earth is a finite environment. We must not deplete the resources. We must not pollute the air. We must not enable some people to amass extreme wealth while other people suffer from extreme poverty.

Sustainability is defined by the Brundtland Commission as, “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

We have another way of describing sustainability in the United States. This definition comes from the ancient, indigenous people of our country who said, “We do not inherit the world from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.”

And so, as we gather for this important symposium on sustainability, we do so conscious of the fact that what we do with the Earth today does have consequences for our children and grandchildren. If we want them to enjoy the same quality of life that we enjoyed – to see the sunrise through clear morning air, to watch the salmon fill the rivers in their spring spawning run, to provide a living from the earth for their children and their grandchildren – then we must change the way we live, change the values which motivate our actions, change the relationship between humankind and the rest of the natural order.

The other assumption that I make is that you are here because you are leaders. You may lead in government, in academia, perhaps in business, or you may lead an NGO. As leaders we have a unique responsibility – indeed, I would argue that we have a sacred obligation – to help direct the people we lead to a better way, a more sustainable way, of living in the world.

I want to start this conference, then, by talking about leadership for a sustainable world. I ask the question for your consideration: What are the characteristics of leadership for a sustainable future?

Let me start with vision. I believe that the most important characteristic of a leader in this age of sustainability is vision; the ability to look beyond the present with its limitations, its despair, its frustration, and envision a world where natural resources are preserved and where people are valued above wealth generation.

United Nations Secretary General from 1953-1961 Dag Hammarskjold wrote:

In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened, through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment – the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth – until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.

That is a vision of sustainability: to enter a reality where “we all flow together and live anew.” Leaders for a sustainable future must embrace such a vision. They must hold it before us and lead us into its light.

No longer can we live in a world where some prosper while others struggle to survive, where those who control Earth’s resources mine them for their own benefit without regard to the consequences for future generations. 

“Without a global revolution in the sphere of consciousness,” said Vaclav Havel, first President of the democratic Czech Republic, “nothing will change for the better…the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility.” 

While plenteous evidence surrounds us that would suggest the world is headed toward destruction I believe that the battle has already turned, that the day in which “we all flow together and live anew” is upon us.

So a leader must live into that reality which is not yet dominant, maybe not even yet apparent. A leader for a sustainable planet must promote the grand vision of a world made whole again, a world in which economic division is ended and environmental destruction is outlawed.

That means that the second characteristic of a leader for a sustainable future must be boldness. A leader must have courage of conviction. A leader must be willing to speak for the planet, to speak for the starving people wracked with draught, to speak for the animal species facing extinction, to speak for the water, to speak for the air, to speak about a future that few can imagine.

History provides examples of such bold leaders, visionaries with the courage to speak their convictions. Their voices were in the minority when they spoke. They were derided and criticized by the establishment. They were alienated, imprisoned, even executed. But their words were stronger than their bodies. And their words spoke of a world that is coming, their words painted a picture of a reality we can only see in part today.

We must draw courage from them and act boldly in our own time and place. We must heed the words of Mohandas Gandhi who said, “ Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

I know that, when I speak out for sustainability as the Mayor of Grand Rapids, there are still those who deride, criticize and even plot against me. I also know that when I speak on behalf of sustainability I am speaking for the marginalized people of the world, for the animals of the forests, plains and tundra, for the fish in the oceans and streams. When I speak for those who are voiceless I must speak boldly, courageously. Every leader must do so. 

Leadership for a sustainable planet is also leadership that is ethical. I t is leadership that is grounded in a set of universal beliefs that align with the greatest religious teachers and philosophers. Lao Tzu said, “Do not kill but always be mindful of the host of living beings.” If we are to act in a sustainable way, we must be mindful not only of ourselves, not only of our family, our clan or our nation. We must be mindful not only of humankind. No, we must be “mindful of all living beings.” To speak and to act on behalf of all living beings requires that we be ethical in our core being. 

The Iroquois Nation in North America, adopted a modern creed called “A Basic Call to Consciousness”. From that work comes this statement:

“The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow concept of human liberation, and begin to see liberation as something that needs to be extended to the whole of the Natural World. What is needed is the liberation of all things that support life – the air, the waters, the trees – all the things that support the sacred web of life.”

Now I tell you this: if we are visionary and bold, if we are ethical in our actions and speech, if we are mindful of all creation and if we seek to liberate creation through our actions, then we must be prepared to practice that other leadership trait: sacrifice. Yes, we must be prepared to give of our time, our possessions, even our very lives. 

Krishna said, “All the wealth one earns is transitory, so those who die without having realized the Self and its right desires find no permanent happiness in any world to which they go.” And Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” By this these two great teachers taught us that the way of righteousness is sacrifice for others; that right desires are found in giving up our self-interest as we pursue the interests of others.

Every mayor in the audience today knows what I speak of when I call for sacrifice. To serve as the leader of a city is to give up ownership and control over your own time. To be mayor is to put the needs of your citizens ahead of your own needs. It is to work long hours, to be wakened from sleep at midnight by a telephone call informing you of some difficulty or even tragedy in your city, to make your highest objective the welfare of your people even when that means compromising your personal comfort. Why do we do this? We do it because we are leaders and because we envision a better future for all in our community.

Thus the final – and perhaps most important – attribute of a leader in this movement of sustainability is hope. I will again quote former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel:

“Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good. [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

The visionary leader of the 21st Century, the man or woman motivated to do all within their power to create a sustainable world, must be deeply infused with hope such as this. We work for a world we will never see. We must take our satisfaction from the knowledge that our contribution moves the world inexorably closer to a state of pure and perfect sustainability. In that work is our hope. Hope born of a vision and sustained by the certainty that what we do makes ultimate sense even if we do not live to see its final flowering.

We have this moment in which to do our work. All of creation is crying out to us, crying out for relief and protection from the destructive elements of selfishness and greed. If we do not grasp this moment and live fully into the vision for a sustainable planet, if we do not do all within our power to answer the cry of a despairing world; then our children’s children will, with total justification, lament the days we walked on Earth.

I tell you this is the moment for leaders – for bold, visionary, hopeful leaders – to stand together and declare that we will use this moment we have to change the course of history. And then our children to seven generations will rise up and say, “Our ancestors saw clearly and acted bravely and because they did, we have an abundant life.” 

Leaders, join me. Let’s change the world.