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The Death Star and the Stone Cutter

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

One of the most enjoyable aspects of what I do is to try and figure out ways to explain either complex or new concepts in ways that people can understand them quickly. I believe that we all know what we have to do in so many situations, we just need to look at them from a different perspective. Sometimes analogies or metaphors are invaluable in getting us to where we need to be.

Lately I find myself thinking back to the very first Star Wars movie that we old folks ever saw, which was Episode IV: A New Hope. Hopefully we don’t have to perform an exhaustive summary of the movie and we can skip straight to the part that is relevant to the topic of sustainability. That part is the dreaded “that’s no moon” battle station called the Death Star. This planetoid sized terror had incredible offensive and defensive capabilities. Yet, the plucky and woefully weaker Rebel Alliance managed to blow the hell out of this indestructible weapon. How did it happen? Well, in the planner’s hubris, arrogance, or just simple incapacity to consider the extreme flanks of possibility, there appeared to be a weakness that could be exploited. All of the defensive systems were designed to repel attacks from large ships, and not an assault by a lot of small, single pilot craft. Thus, the path to victory was sown. By swarming the Death Star with masses of small attacks, success became a real possibility. Add one cocky little pilot, aided by a force-guided photo torpedo, and the planet killer was obliterated.

Now, what in the blazes is the relevance of the fictional Death Star’s demise to sustainability in the real world? Please follow me in connecting these dots. It is true that there is no lethal threat hurtling towards us, ready to blow the planet into smithereens. But the actions and threats that we are inflicting upon ourselves are no less serious. We are going to literally consume ourselves into an existential crisis. It’s a huge problem, and it doesn’t take much poetic license to realistically compare it to the destructive ability of the Death Star. Because it is such a big problem, big solutions are being proposed to combat the perils. And all of us at Greenheart Partners are sincerely rooting for all of them to succeed. But it sure does seem that they may just be too big to get past the defenses. What solutions are being presented? Massive initiatives like the Paris Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, Carbon Neutral by 2050, The Green New Deal all come immediately to mind. Sadly, they are being thwarted. The forces of political opposition, conflicting interests, apathy, and poor execution are all culminating in lagging far behind where we need to be to realize these goals.

Perhaps we need the sustainability equivalent of the vaunted, yet tiny X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters. Just what could that possibly be? Well, the answer is YOU. Yes, you. Individual actions and choices can be the reinforcements that are required to get us to the finish line of a safe place for all people to prosper. Many skeptics will scoff and ask "What can one person do to make a difference?" If that truly is the case that one person cannot have an impact, then why do we even get up in the morning? What good does the writer of one blog do out of the millions that exist? What value is one teacher in a system comprising of 3.2 million educators? What benefit can one assembly line worker provide in a multi-billion-dollar corporation? All of these questions matter when the answer is you or someone you care about.

There is a saying that I particularly appreciate, which goes “there are no small tasks, only small actors.” I interpret this saying to mean that it is up to us to decide how we approach any task. If we think it is pointless or not valuable, then we essentially make it so. But it doesn’t have to be. We have the ability to attach value or purpose to anything we do. WE can make a difference in deciding how we are going to consume finite and precious resources. Do we perhaps try to reduce the number of times we flush the toilet each day from 5 to 4? Do we save all of our errands for one or two days instead of just going whenever we feel the need to? There are so many ways that we can live a potentially more purposeful life that takes into consideration what we are consuming in water, energy, food, etc. The single action by itself will not make a dent in the problem at hand. Of course not. But it’s about the accumulation of those single seemingly insignificant actions. A federal standard toilet in the US takes 1.6 gallons per flush. If you decide to save one flush a day, it’s a savings of 1.6 gallons. Whoop de do. However, if all 329 million people living in the US did the exact same thing, that’s 526 million gallons of water saved in a single day. That would mean 192 billion gallons of water saved a year. Just from one simple, easy choice.

What makes the power of collective simple choices even better is that there is no significant opposition to doing this. No one is going to penalize you for saving a flush. There are no protesters outside your bathroom demanding that you go as many times as you feel the slightest urge to do so. That isn’t the same for those larger projects, is it?

While it is good news that we could potentially save 192 billion gallons of water per year with this simple act, the bad news is that, in the US, we actually consume 322 billion gallons of water per day. Surely, we can start thinking of how else we can save. Is it possible that one tiny action can inspire us to take additional small actions? Are we willing to be a little bit more thoughtful if that means that our single act is amplified?

I’ll wrap this up with one of my favorite parables. It’s about three stonecutters, made famous in Peter Drucker’s book The Practice of Management. It goes something like this:

While walking, a traveler came across three stonecutters and asked each of them what they were doing. The first replied, "I am making a living." The second kept on hammering and replied, "I am doing the best job of stone cutting in the entire country." The third stopped, looked up at the traveler with a visionary gleam in his eye, and said, "I am building a cathedral."

A trivial task is only made trivial by the attitude of the person performing it. Every time that we make a choice with noble intent, it becomes meaningful. Because we have given it meaning. The reality is that we, as a species and as a society, have made this mess that we are currently in. This also means that we have the capacity to clean it up. It’s not going to be a giant metaphorical battle cruiser that is going to destroy this Death Star of Unsustainability. It’s going to take a lot of determined pilots tackling the problem together, all willing to do their part. And the good news is that we don’t even need the Force to make this happen.

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