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What does Sustainability mean when you need just about everything?

A recent trip to a remote area of Guatemala was a good reminder of how far-reaching the word sustainability needs to be in order to be relevant.

In this area of the Department of Huehuetenango, the needs seem unending: People have little access to water – and what there is often contaminated; deforestation; trees are cut down for firewood and not replaced; eye/lung/skin diseases are rampant and accidents common resulting from thick smoke that fills homes lacking stoves or vents; a dearth of building supplies and expertise make construction a limited and fragile enterprise; virtually no medical care exists; the common diet is so limited that the population’s growth is stunted from birth; infrastructure is minimal and tattered at best. And the list goes on.

HuehuetenangoThe region is remote, minimally accessible and even travel books refer to it as offering so little potential wealth that even the Catholic Church pretty much ignored the area during colonization. Today, it’s still marginal.

Certainly, multinationals with sustainability campaigns have little reason to test out innovative approaches in these areas if they need economies of scale. The population is dense, has very limited resources, and no disposable income to purchase even the most mundane of consumer products.

The individuals who are actively tackling sustainability-related issues are affiliated with NGOs, service organizations or are missionaries. I went with Rotary International and connected with a number of other groups.

Rotary is working on water collection, sanitation, stoves and sundry other projects. While each organization was focused on a single or handful of programs, they often found ways to collaborate. Giving each other rides in an area where few alternatives exist for getting around. Sharing knowledge. or the occasional meal. That was heartening.

A stove factory tour
photo: Heather Gillon

I was focused on stoves, deforestation and, always, communications. I watched all manner of efforts to communicate, innumerable disconnects, and found so many filters that it made sharing common objectives almost impossible.

I am confident we can find ways to communicate and help people change the way they do things, even when short-term results seem unproductive. Peter Senge, Fred Kofman and others who focus on integral organizations and deep change insist that change requires starting with a vision that exceeds individual capabilities and connects people to common effort with genuine meaning.

I saw a few community leaders able to set aside their ego and self-benefit to work on the greater good. Not only did they have the hurdles of cultural values and almost impossible logistics to deal with, but they also had to make serving the common good a stronger motivation than individual gratification. No easy task.

If we want to create communications that will help shift behaviors to meet sustainability initiatives, we are tasked with crafting messages that compel our audience to be willing to modify routines, change beliefs, ignore peer pressure, and battle plain old inertia.

In today’s sustainability arena, a lot of resources are being poured into innovative strategies by thoughtful, well-intentioned people. For those who focus on communicating these efforts to propel change, the stakes are high – we must find ways to get our message through, or we’ll just be making more noise in an already really noisy world.

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