tl;dr: working smart in sustainability means pressuring local government
I'm willing to guess if given the choice between these two options, most people would select working smart, because of course that is the best option. Someone is probably thinking that if we really want to achieve our goals, we need to do both. That is undoubtedly true, but the question asked was to choose between the binary of working hard or working smart.
If we know what the better choice is, why do so many of us choose working hard? The answer is simple and somewhat uncomfortable. We don't know how to work smart. In the age where everyone has an answer at the click of the search button, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are operating at high efficiency in the choices that we make. Let's do a deeper dive into this to see if this is actually true when it comes to sustainability.
I know a large number of people who are very committed to fighting the battle against anthropogenic climate change and ensuring we have a sustainable world. They recycle properly and religiously. They drive an electric vehicle. Their yard is abundant with the proper wildflowers for their region to promote pollinators. They have "save the planet" signs in lawns that look much more natural instead of ones consisting of perfectly manicured grass. They have given up consuming meat and dairy. Surely these are all really smart choices, right? While the answer to that question is a resounding YES, the fact remains that all of these choices and actions can seem like incredibly hard work. Many people don't want to sift through a multitude of ingredient lists at the grocery store to see if there is palm oil in their purchases. Installing a Level 2 charger for an electric vehicle in the home can seem really annoying, especially if you don't own your own home.
It would be really annoying if all I did was point out the problem and not provide an answer. Thankfully, I believe there is an answer on how to work smart when approaching sustainable outcomes. The solution is to harness the power of collectivism. The vast majority of us live in communities. Many of these communities are woefully behind on addressing sustainability. It is not necessarily because they don't care, but because there is a long list of priorities that municipalities must address and some of those were even postponed in the most recent years due to a global pandemic. Unfortunately, there are two reasons why local government does not move sustainability work to the forefront. One of those reasons is on us, the folks working in this space, and the other reason is on the residents of those municipalities.
Let's tackle the first reason. The majority of the time, when we are cautioning people on the impacts of non-action, we tend to use long-term timelines. Polar ice caps will be gone by 2035. The year 2050 is a very popular measuring stick. We here at Greenheart Partners are shaping a message that the consequences of inaction are happening right freaking now. Quite frankly, many people don't care about 2050 because they'll be dead by then. Sustainability efforts matter to anyone who plans to be alive tomorrow. We hear warnings about catastrophes, like coastal cities being under water, rivers drying completely up, and rainforests and coral reefs disappearing all the time. And that is scary as hell. The problem is that the timeline is so distant that many people think that we have time to turn the situation around. In many cases, that is just simply not true. But we lost the urgency because of the framing of the message. Sigh.
The second reason is that municipal leaders aren't being pressured by their constituents to take these issues seriously. Many people think that efforts need to come from the federal or state level. They ask what the current POTUS is doing to fix these things. Or what their governor plans to do. Fewer questions are directed to local officials, where the vast majority of governmental efforts that impact your daily life actually occur. This is where someone can work smart in sustainability. The reason why Greenheart Partners specializes in local government units is because we know that this is where we can make the biggest difference. To sweeten the deal, we strive to ensure that the municipality gets all the credit. We have created a situation where there are very few reasons not to prioritize sustainability on the local level.
What can local governments do? Well, for starters, they can begin to conduct greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories. GHG inventories are critical because we cannot demonstrate improvement without first quantifying a starting point. The next step is to lay out a plan to identify where consumption and emissions can be lowered, and the best steps to achieve that. Currently, for most municipalities, this comes in the form of a Climate Action Plan (CAP). At Greenheart Partners, we have revolutionized the CAP into something far more comprehensive and holistic, a Municipal Action Plan for Sustainability (MAPS). What is the difference? Well, CAPs don't take into consideration other impacts to sustainability like geopolitical factors (Russia invading Ukraine spiking up energy prices), supply chain problems (have you tried buying a car below MSRP lately?), health crises (anyone heard of something called COVID-19), and a litany of other issues that impact how we live our lives. MAPS addresses all 17 U.N. Sustainability Development Goals, something that the vast majority of Americans have no idea even exist. The problem is that only 600 local governments out of the 90,000+ local government units in the US have conducted a GHG inventory and CAP. That is 0.5%, or in non-math terms, really, really, really, low. This must change. We have to start working smart to tackle this.
So what can you do as someone who wants to work smart? The answer is to apply pressure. Pressure your city leaders. Join a sustainability or environmental committee in your hometown. Attend the meetings. Request that your town or city take sustainability seriously. Ask that they look at firms like Greenheart Partners, that is literally on the cutting edge of sustainability products that can make a profound impact in your community. That is working smart.