Addressing the Symptom or the Problem - or both? by Gia Machlin, November 10 2009, 0 Comments

So I got into a heated discussion today with a representative (let's call her Ms. C) of a sustainable education institute. One of my interns had arranged this meeting - he is a graduate student at a New York business school and he has been learning a lot about the organizational and systems approach to teaching sustainability. This is related to a project we are working on here at EcoPlum that involves educating for sustainability.

On the way downtown I grabbed my afternoon Decaf Americano in a personal cup at that coffee place I keep mentioning. Just as the train was pulling into the station I tried to chug the last drops down so I wouldn't have an accident on the subway. Well I missed my mouth and poured coffee all over my cream colored blouse, my white jacket, and my pretty scarf (my old business partner used to give me things like Shout wipes and baby bibs for the Holidays - ha ha). Anyway, I was a little self conscious when I arrived all coffee stained for this meeting.

So we sat down to discuss our different approaches to educating people to become better stewards of the planet. In my intro, I talked about how at EcoPlum we are all about empowering the consumer with the information and incentives they need to make responsible we encourage people to make small changes that collectively make a big difference. She went on to talk about how their program is focused on training the leaders to affect change through changing mindsets and taking a big picture systems approach to teaching sustainability. I have to say I really like what they are doing, especially since their trainees are mostly educators and administrators in the K-12 school systems. Awesome - let's "teach our children well" as CSNY sang so many years ago.

How did this conversation possibly get heated and downright uncomfortable, you may ask? I think it was when Ms C started using terms like "treating the symptoms not the problem" and "dictatorial approach" and "short term solution" when talking about, well, my exact approach! She was only trying to make a point - that you can't address the symptom without addressing the problem. But I got a little defensive. Then my intern, in an effort to illustrate the importance of addressing the root causes to get to the best solutions, took a minute to share this story:

The Lincoln Memorial had a big problem with bird poo, so the initial reaction was to kill the birds. After some investigation they found that these little gnats were attracting the birds, so the next reaction was to kill the gnats AND the birds. But finally, one person discovered that the gnats were attracted to the type of lighting used on the monument. So the lighting was replaced with a less gnat-friendly kind, the gnats and birds went away, and lives were spared.

Great story! But was he implying that I am just killing birds by preaching to people to stop buying water bottles?? Is my whole approach just a band aid solution? Hmmm...

Tonight I talked to my ever so wise husband about this meeting, and he reminded me that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. For example, if our health care system only focused on wellness and preventative health programs and never healed the injured and sick, that wouldn't work!

This whole experience did get me thinking if the direction I was taking for educating on sustainability was, in a sense, myopic. I was focusing on concrete measurable results - but would these results be sustainable over time?? The strange thing is that I have always favored a systems approach to other problems (health care for one) and I have been very critical of and disheartened by the business community's short term profit driven strategies. It is something I have struggled with since I graduated from business school almost 20 years ago.

The important thing is that both Ms. C and I came out of this meeting a lot richer. She later sent me an email to say I had left her with a lot to ponder and think about. She and my intern certainly did the same for me. I am excited to learn more about the organizational/systems approach to educating for sustainability and look forward to hopefully reaching people I wouldn't have reached before. And I also hope that Ms. C and her institute integrate some of the incremental, concrete, and tangible steps that result in measurable changes.