Sustainability is the Greatest Challenge of All Time And Here is Why

In 2022, I will be celebrating my 25th year as a sustainability leader, speaker, advocate, educator, author, and designer. Despite all the success and satisfaction of a career well spent, I have yet to see the larger transition to a sustainable future that I assumed would occur. How is it possible that we can be so aware of the climate emergency, but take so little action? In short, we are NOT hard wired to use the mental techniques necessary to achieve a sustainable condition. Thinking over the long term; Thinking globally; and connecting with people that are different than us are underdeveloped skill sets. Our instincts to avoid pain and seek pleasure are so ingrained in us that we most often focus on first cost, short term ROI, and traditional linear processes.

Unfortunately, the default motivation of self-interest makes it difficult to pursue specific sustainability initiatives promoted by ESI: Inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems; Rethinking quality of place; and Redefining smart and connected communities. Meeting these important goals as an organization will require all of us, especially those of us with power and privilege to flex a different set of mental muscles and deeper level as mindfulness.

Luckily there is hope. We have the capability to combat self-interest. We are hard wired for affective empathy which allows us to feel pain for others and to work effectively in groups and to collaborate at high levels. And, we can learn to use cognitive empathy which we are not wired with, but allows us to see the world through the eyes of another person, especially someone who is different from us. Let’s dig deeper and explore a road map to achieving a fully empathetic consciousness.



Figure 1: Thinking across Time. Adapted from the book Sustainable Design for the Built Environment Diagram concept by Rob Fleming based on Integral Frameworks. Illustrated by Corey Jameson



We are hard wired to be short term thinkers. Over thousands of years, we have evolved to become adept at thinking in the moment. The rush of cortisol and adrenaline pumps through our veins as the hunt for food propels us to think clearly and act decisively. Fear also releases cortisol, as we decide to fight, flight, or freeze when confronted with a threat. These instincts still play out today, but now they occur at board meetings, or at a community forum, or even at the dinner table with our families. This is natural and normal. But is there another way? We can intentionally tap into our empathy instincts to project our thinking and planning far into the future and make decisions today, that will benefit the millions of people in the future. That is a tall order, but that is what sustainability compels us to do. Scenario planning, empathy mapping, and basic sustainability planning are a few methods that can be used to accomplish this form of thinking. Mindfulness will be needed to initiate and stay upon this course of action.


Figure 2: Thinking across Space. Adapted from the book Sustainable Design for the Built Environment Diagram concept by Rob Fleming. Illustrated by Corey Jameson


We are hard wired to think locally. We have adapted over thousands of years to “read the land” in order to be skilled hunters and clever gatherers of food. Long before the Age of Agriculture we lived in partnership with the local environment as we thrived in a variety of climatic and ecological conditions. These instincts are still in effect today, except we choose to alter the land in ways that benefit us instead of altering our ways to benefit the land. The negative effects of this instinctual behavior are obvious., we have lost 66% of wildlife species and polluted our water and soil, and triggered the climate emergency.

In 1969 the first Apollo mission reached orbit and we finally “saw” the Earth in its entirety. We saw a beautifully complex and rich image and the shift began towards a global view; ecological world view was born. And yet, we still struggle to see the world through a global lens. The hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, melting permafrost, and species extinction all seem so far away to us. We hesitate to take definitive action in response to the climate emergency because we can’t instinctively connect to the scale of the issue. It is overwhelming and paralyzing, and yet, that is exactly what sustainability asks of us. As leaders, we can develop the cognitive empathy necessary to see the climate emergency through eyes of people and creatures that are perishing in faraway places? Can we make local decisions that do not compromise the ability of societies far away to have a decent quality life, now and into the future?


Figure 3: Thinking across Difference. Adapted from the book Sustainable Design for the Built Environment Diagram concept by Rob Fleming based on Integral Frameworks. Illustrated by Corey Jameson


Lastly, we are hard wired to be biased. Over thousands of years, we developed the ability to recognize a “threat” when confronted with the “other”. Cortisol is released in our bodies, and we choose between freeze, flight, or fight. In our current society, this dynamic is as present as ever. For those who us who are not in power, those threats are very real and occur in real time and space in the form of physical danger and discrimination. For those of us with privilege, the instinctual tendency is to maintain power and control. We institute systems and policies to discriminate against those that are different, and we find ourselves using implicit bias on a regular basis. The fact that this happens instinctually, does not excuse the behavior. Once we become aware of our own biases, we are compelled to surmount them and find a new relationship with difference. Consciously finding ways to get outside of our own perspective and seeing the world through the perspective of another can lead to profound changes in ourselves and society. The Integral framework shown above provides a holistic and comprehensive mental map that can be used when making any decision. It does not eliminate bias. To the contrary, the mental map “daylights” our biases and helps us to see a problem or opportunity in all its dimensions – especially from a social equity lens. As leaders, we can be intentional and use cognitive empathy to overcome our innate bias and build a future where we can all work together, across difference, to achieve an authentically sustainable future.

Putting it all together





Figure 4: The Empathetic Thinking Holistic Framework Diagram concept by Corey Jameson and Rob Fleming. Illustrated by Corey Jameson

Clearly empathy lies at the heart of the necessary changes we seek. With intentionality, we can develop this part of our mental capacity by practicing it on a regular basis. While this step forward in human evolution is sorely needed, be aware that using these skills will lead to a much different decision-making process.  Meetings will be become more complex as we consider our decisions from multiple scales and time frames; and more time consuming as we engage multiple perspectives from multiple stakeholders, especially those who are typically marginalized in decision making processes. And yet, we owe it to ourselves, each other, future generations, and the planet Earth to become more authentic, more intentional, more holistic and more empathetic leaders.


Rob Fleming is the Director of Online Innovation at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior advisor to Econsult Solutions. He is also the President-Elect at Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, and the Co-founder of JADE: The Justice Alliance for Design Education in Philadelphia.

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