When Sustainability Gets Competitive, Everyone Loses
tl;dr: we all win together or we all lose together
Something that I struggle with hiding is the fact that I am insanely competitive. While I have taken some time to celebrate some pretty remarkable victories and achievements, I don't really enjoy winning. If we're being really truthful, I hate losing. I hate it with every fibre of my being. If you ask other hyper-competitive people, this belief will probably be a very common theme. Losing sucks.
The original title of this blog post was going to be "Everyone hates overachievers." I was going to talk about the fact that while overachievers might be perceived as annoying individuals, the overachievers often end up disliking themselves as well. It's a tough space to be in. Many people dislike an overachiever because those accomplishments draw excess attention to that person. What might not be known is that many overachievers dislike themselves for all the moments that didn't go to plan. Again, losing sucks.
The absolute worst situation is when an overachiever suddenly finds themselves in the midst of a lengthy losing streak. Doubts start creeping in. Negativity becomes the default when choosing an attitude. Excuses suddenly flourish where there were none previously. When it comes to sustainability, Americans are that overachiever who is struggling. Gone is the confidence and hubris of leading the pack in so many aspects. The comfort of waving the foam #1 finger in multitudes of categories allowed many of us to become a tad complacent. While we started to think that superiority was our national destiny, the rest of the world rolled up their sleeves and got busy trying to overcome American excellence. What is especially concerning is that we strengthened our dominance in some categories that don't seem to be as glamorous or valuable. The US is the most obese non-Pacific Islander nation in the world. We use more energy per person than any other nation in the world at 8.35 TOE (Tons of Oil Equivalent) per person. Our #1 status continues when looking at which nation produces the most trash. We win that one pretty convincingly, as well.
Compound our "excellence" in finishing at the top of some pretty dubious categories with not finishing at the top of areas that produce pride (best clean energy producer, sustainability work, number of K-Pop bands) and it creates a perfect breeding ground for apathy. In the worst-case scenario, it leads to a complete rejection of the contests themselves. Other countries are beating us, so we aren't even going to play the game anymore. This is not a good direction for our country to be headed. It is easy to be frustrated that we aren't getting the gold medals and the accolades anymore. This is not a reason to give up. The US is too important to just pack up our toys and go home. We simply cannot pull a Cartman here. We emit too much, consume too much, and waste too much to disengage from the sustainability work. Yet that is precisely what many of us, and particularly some of our leaders, are doing. The "if we can't win, we won't play" mentality seems to be increasingly popular. While we might not be expressing those exact words, our actions speak louder confirming them than we know.
Sustainability can never become competitive to the point that it discourages participation. Just because someone can't afford the new Tesla electric vehicle doesn't mean that they should just stop recycling, composting, etc. This is not a binary of winners and losers. If there is a winner, it is someone who happens to do more than others, and that is it. No humblebrags, grandstanding, gloating, etc. Sustainable winning can - and needs to be - a collaborative effort. Without that mindset, we will find ourselves in a familiar situation, where some overachieve and others simply refuse to participate. Inaction in sustainability will exacerbate the challenges that we already face. The solution to not making things worse is to create a space that doesn't divide people into columns of winners and losers. It's not a contest. It's about life, and whether that life is a high enough quality for all who are here and those who are about to come.
Perhaps it is human nature to create a competitive environment in any collaborative efforts. Not too long ago, that would have been my ultimate paradise. It isn't anymore. Sustainability means that either we all win together or we all lose together. I really don't want everyone on this planet to realize what hyper-competitive people already know. Losing sucks.