Saturday, February 25, 2012

Provocateurs, Incrementalists, and Sustainability Entrepreneurs by Moderator John Hartig

In any major, long-term effort or project inertia will eventually set in. At that point we need provocateurs – people who challenge the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom. In the case of the Buffalo River, a jeweler named Stanley Spisiak played a critical role as a “watch dog,” changed public sentiment, and eventually was credited with stopping indiscriminant industrial pollution of the Buffalo River. Later, the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper continued to effectively fill that role. In the case of the Cuyahoga River, David Blaushild, an automobile dealer, raised awareness of water pollution and became an activist for river cleanup. In the case of the Rouge River, a county drain commissioner named Jim Murray challenged the 48 watershed communities to protect their watershed home. In 1880, a Citizens’ Association was formed to investigate remedies to cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks, and to educate residents. Their advocacy helped create a regional governmental entity called the Sanitary District of Chicago in 1889 to address the water supply and wastewater problems. Today, the Friends of the Chicago River regularly challenge established practices and advocate for river stewardship.

The provocateur role can be played by individuals or groups like nongovernmental organizations. Such provocateurs have played and must continue to play key roles in river revival and watershed protection. They fill the important roles of raising awareness, questioning conventional wisdom and practice, catalyzing action and change, serving as an environmental conscience, and speaking as a voice for future generations. In essence, river restoration processes need both incrementalists (i.e., people and organizations that follow patient application of the small, very important tasks of watershed restoration) and provocateurs that champion fundamental paradigm shifts. What needs to occur is a dynamic tension between the two.

Many people have asked me “What is the major accomplishment of the public outcry over environmental pollution in the 1960s?” That is easy – it was the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and Earth Day. These same people have asked “What is the major accomplishment in more recent years?” I believe it is the expansion and proliferation of nongovernmental organizations established to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. The environmental movement developed a generation of people concerned about the environment. As more awareness was raised about pollution, more people got involved and many new environmental and conservation organizations were established. As more people and environmental and conservation organizations were created, more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation was generated. As more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation has been generated, a better knowledge base has been developed for better management. This improved knowledge base leads to a better informed constituency and the cycle continues. As we all know, an educated and informed constituency can change public sentiment.

If you believe, as I, that sustainable development is the next major challenge then we also need sustainability entrepreneurs that engage people meaningfully at all levels in achieving sustainability. That is why it is so heartening to see sustainability organizations like EcoCity Cleveland, Sustainable Cleveland, Chicago’s Greening Network, the Western New York Sustainable Energy Association Trust, and Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum building the institutional capacity for meeting the sustainability challenge at the local level. Clearly, an important lesson is that we need provocateurs, incrementalists, and sustainability entrepreneurs to avoid the next “tipping point.”

What do you think is needed to avoid the next “tipping point?”

Photo above: Provocateur Stanley Spisiak (4 th  from left), President and Mrs. Johnson (center), Governor Nelson Rockefeller (2 nd  from right), and others discuss the “bucket of slop” from the Buffalo River, 1966 (photo credit: Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society). 


James A. Swan, Ph.D. said...

Burning Rivers should be required reading for anyone interested in environmental conservation. It's the story of good news that needs to be heard and understood to put things in contexts and balance the obsessive need to wax apocalyptic that comes from the environmental community.

Macrobe said...

"In any major, long-term effort or project inertia will eventually set in. At that point we need provocateurs – people who challenge the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom."
Thank you for stating what has needed to be said for a long time. And may it ring like a crisp bell everywhere.

As a product of the '60's, I agree with your assessment. However, I am not very hopeful of provocateurs that will lead us to action in this generation. Every move we make is overridden; often two steps backward for every step forward. We have very little cohesion, and no leaders.

As for reading the book, I agree. However, the real target audience is the general public. In today's busy and technological world, visual media has more punch. The book would be an excellent candidate for a documentary.

John Hartig said...

Macrobe, In addition to provocateurs, we also need incrementalists and sustainability entrepreneurs, as stated in my post. Then, I agree, we need leaders to pull everyone together and get them rowing in the same direction. We have always had a dearth of good leaders. Where we have them they make a huge difference. Finally, I agree that this story needs to be told to the general public and would benefit from getting out in the visual media.

John Hartig said...

Dr. Swan, I agree that if the primary emphasis of environmental and conservation community is to wax apocolyptic, then we may miss the opportunity to motivate and inspire people, and to address issues like loss of habitat and urban and agricultural pollution that will require much cooperation.

nmullettjr said...

What do you think is needed to avoid the next “tipping point?”

Major investment in the water/wastewater infrastructure and in the restoration of green infrastructure so that our communities can become more sustainable. This investment is going to take a significant change in the public's awareness of this infrastructure and willingness and methods to pay for it. My question/concern is: Can we make this change and improve our willingness to pay/invest in this infrastructure without experiencing a new "tipping point". Excellent book! wish all would read. A documentary would be very cool!

JOhn Hartig said...

nmullettjr, Very good point. In major urban areas we need to dramatically increase the public's awareness and understanding of both water/wastewater infrastructure and green infrastructure. Water/wastewater infrastructure is very expensive and not often seen by the public. We need a major educational campaign to increase public understanding of these infrastructure issues and the value and benefits to society. The public will have to fully understand the cost of acting and not acting to avoid a new "tipping point." This is a huge challenge.

tembokangatours said...

All of the above are needed for addressing problems and changing the prevailing paradigm, in my opinion; however, without more green-minded corporate leaders, we may be hard-pressed to avoid the next "tipping point."

As for the comment that environmentalists have a penchant for being "apocalyptic," the displacement of tens of millions of people as sea levels rise around the globe, I might add, does seem pretty "apocalyptic" to me, as does the acceleration of melting ice caps and glaciers around the world; and, the issue of transforming our energy economy and business practices to better address these potentially catastrophic demographic shifts and climatic upheaval is prudent, and the scientific evidence is staring us in the face pointing to this dire future, as many continue to wax poetic (or play their fiddles?) as planet Earth melts down...and, population approaches 9 BILLION by 2050…

And, have the "fires" in the rivers really gone out? I've read of a recent pipeline spill in Michigan fouling the Kalamazoo River with—what else?—tar sands “oil.” I know it's not the only one in recent years. Surely the only difference between a river on fire and one that is not is simply an ignition source.

Certainly, the return of wildlife to places once grossly contaminated is a victory; but, today, while we are good at restoring local ecology, in large part due to the actions of environmentalists (or environmental-minded citizens worried about environmental catastrophes?) and government regulations forcing compliance by polluting companies, we are in danger of not seeing the forest (planet Earth) for the trees (local or regional ecosystems that have been restored to some semblance of their former selves).

The adoption of a modest environmental code of conduct, in my opinion, by fossil fuel companies, would be a victory in itself, though “green washing” is always a possibility that merely makes a company look good without actually being a good environmental steward. But would even this lead to the changes that are critically and urgently needed to stave off a fossil-fuel driven climate meltdown, or the extreme demands of 9 billion people wanting in on the “American Dream?” These two are not mutually exclusive, and it is the reason why we need corporate leaders of our most environmentally destructive industries to have the courage to forego massive short-term profits for a much better world that we will be leaving behind for our children and future generations.

Today’s corporations wield enormous power—political and economic, as well as social—and, unless we want all-out social protest and upheaval to set us on a new course before we begin witnessing the full ill-effects of a planet of 9 billion people and an atmospheric concentration of nearly 500 ppm CO2, then corporate leadership must be at least as much about long-term planetary health as it is about profit motive. The sad part is, these stupendously rich companies could still see great profits through the advancement of alternative energy technologies, but they are too addicted to the absurd numbers they see in their quarterly reports.

But don’t listen to me here. As an environmental science teacher for nearly 20 years, I have always found that it is our youth who often possess the most wisdom—often the younger, the wiser—because they see the present and future with a clean slate, eyes unclouded by profit-motive, political gain, or tribalistic tendencies. Perhaps we should be asking them what is needed…

I believe that the young people in these two links explain the situation better than I ever could:

John Hartig said...

Tembokangatours, I agree that an environmental code of conduct would be beneficial. Architect William McDonough helped develop the Hannover Principles to giude development of the 2000 World Exposition in Hannover, Germany. These principles were intended to ensure that development was sustainable. They were also seen as a living document, were they could adapt as knowledge evolves. See link:

EcoCity Cleveland has posted the Hannover Principles on their website to encourage adoption and applicaiton. See link:

Perhaps the Hannover Principles are a good starting point and a major urban area is good initial scale. A major urban area could utilize a partnership agreement to get all stakeholder groups to endorse and commit to such a set of principles.

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