Exploring sustainability

I first learnt about Hannah Ritchie‘s book, Not the end of the world, from Bill Gates. Guardian recently published another review of it as the book had just come into the market.

As Bill Gates pointed out, the interesting perspective that Hannah brings is that humans have not quite achieved the notion of ‘sustainability before. The UN notion of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. We were not ‘more sustainable’ in the past as living standards were not great and life was pretty savage; ie. the needs of ‘the present’ wasn’t achieved in the past.

In a sense, it was as though nature had been too harsh to us and we somehow tried to survive that – mostly by ‘conquering’ and ‘reclaiming’ nature. Of course, that somehow begins to push the frontier of the planetary boundaries, and we end up breaching some of them. So the result is that the future needs become somewhat compromised.

Another important aspect of Hannah’s contribution to the book is to encourage people to look into the science and the facts. There had been so much bad press about palm oil and a very sustained assault by Western media on the crop that the productivity of the crop was overlooked. Turning to oilseed alternatives could result in more, rather than less deforestation and hence environmental destruction. Agriculture in the modern times for most part is more about taste and preferences as well as the sway that narratives have – as opposed to optimising agriculture for environment and the world.

Ultimately, we realise from Hannah’s fact-based approach that a lot of the challenges and problems do already have some kind of solution. It is all about adoption, and integrating new narratives in the way we live, and consider what is success for ourselves. Dietary choices are largely a matter of culture and what diet people aspire towards. People’s preferences can be shaped (and hence economics’ attempt at distinguishing exogenous variables from endogenous ones are somewhat moot).

For people to be more aware of the costs, and the challenges of the coordination problem, they must begin from this very fact-based approach that Hannah is leveraging in her optimistic storytelling about the history of human development. We may be struggling towards the solutions that we know (eg. putting a price on carbon and making people pay for it), but at the very least we can agree that this is how we need to move forward with and be aware of the costs and consequences. We need to get people to the bargaining table and work out who has how much to gain or lose. Without creating the transparency and acknowledging the financial, political costs, we end up being caught up in false arguments about technical solutions.

Gift of grace

This Christmas, I thought to just repeat to all of us what the gift of grace from God is. Christianity is all about this gift of grace from God, through Christ being born as man to die for our sins. And what this grace means is not that we have to be good in order to earn our place in heaven. Rather, it is that Christ have been that good for us such that we already have a place in heaven, so that we can be good as a response to that. We will never earn our place with the goodness that we can have or do.

It was never the point for us to earn our place with our goodness. But this is what we are constantly fed by the world. And Christianity is this safe spot where we learn that we don’t. Even as Christian myself, I need this reminder. And that’s why this Christmas I’m writing it again, in a different way. To tell all of us that we achieve our place in heaven not by our own goodness. But the goodness of God through Christ, who died for us. This is grace.

And that is what Christmas is about. Christ born for you and I. Grace given to us. Freely. What a joy to be able to receive it.

Sunny day will come

I chanced upon this brilliant letter penned by Stephen Fry to a fan named Crystal who wrote to him for help in a bout of depression and with no one else to turn to. It was kind of Stephen to have thought through it and replied, kindly and lovingly.

You might enjoy the letter as well as Stephen’s public reading of it in audio form nicely captured in this website stewarding all sorts of letters.

Specific thinking

I wrote about the holistic thinking that was characterised by western researchers of Asian’s approach towards persuasion as contextualised by Erin Meyer. I had the chance to reflect a bit more on specific thinking as I begin to observe it more and more at work in western workplaces and cultures. There are no right or wrong and the good and bads can only be appreciated from particular perspectives or lenses.

Specific thinking parcels out bits of work and various tasks, having more of a tendency to operate in silos even when coordination is excellent. This can make things difficult to change and also individuals becomes less sensitive to the overall workings of the system they are part of. It can be good in that it reduces the anxiety around being unable to bring about the intended collective outcome because one can just focus on delivering one’s part and leaving the rest to others. Being specific in thinking also encourages focus on the smaller specific outcome that is within one’s control.

However, specific thinking may mean that there’s less ability to navigate situations that are far more complex where clarity does not come instantly. For example, during a business development meeting, one may not yet figure out if there’s chance of collaborating or working with the prospect when we are still in discovery phase. Specific thinking can lead one to try and force a result and be counterproductive, or to give up too early.

Specific thinking may also render us unable to genuinely celebrate collective wins as one becomes overly focused on the parts they are ascribing to themselves to the extent they ignore other parts of the system they are part of.

Just some observations and muses on my part.

Flinging ideas

I write for many different reasons and with different objectives. One of the recent struggles I’ve been having with writing is to be able to convey depth of analysis and value of those ideas and insights to my target audience. I’ve traditionally always pondered deep and hard about various matters but did not necessarily structure my ideas properly.

While my role as a consultant helped significantly in terms of creating structures for my analysis, I need to get better at putting together the pieces of analyses not in the order by which they are done but in a manner than gives a compelling story and call to action for the audience. To put it simply, this is actually a life skill to develop that everyone and anyone can benefit from having. It is more about storytelling and bringing out the story with various mediums and different ways.

It is also a reminder that my training as an artist during my high school days were not wasted. Those were the times when I had to not just deliver a piece of art work as an end result but to document and share that process. Documenting the process may not be enough to really give a clear view of how one arrives at the outcome of a particular art work. It takes quite a fair bit of storytelling. That means filling in gaps, building bridges across different moments and different intermediate ideas, even seeing these intermediate moments that one can use to make the bridges connect.

Ideas are great but if they’re not put together with a good story, flinging those ideas around haphazardly is not useful. The poise and elegance of those ideas emerge through the stories that we tell.

Choice as talent

I took some time on Christmas eve listening to the latest podcast episode of People I Mostly Admire and it was a lovely conversation between Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. Over the past few years I’ve really enjoyed the podcast on Freakonomics radio and it’s impressive the amount of quality educational content that has come out of it.

One of the interesting ideas introduced in this episode was raised by Dubner on how one’s choice could be one’s talent. It turns out to be something incredibly important, especially in the Asian context where there’s a highly competitive environment and one could be surrounded by lots of highly talented people. I have in fact talked about how talents cannot possibly be born, but rather, the market recognises some kind of value for it which encourages and incentivise effort that enhances it. For most of us, we could perhaps fare really well by recognising that our choices can propel us in life. Thinking through our strengths and then making the choices to push ourselves into roles where we can leverage our talents works for more people than we realise.

The approach isn’t so much about sticking it through than to define some kind of exploration phase, development phase and pivoting phases where one identifies sets of strength and abilities, then consider the roles, value-creation, and gradually make them work within the context or community they operate within. Each step involves choices. And continually making choices, even if they might be wrong, is the way to move forward, to improve and to keep on pushing towards a point worth going.