Why Give a Damn:

Because the metaphor of fiddling while Rome burns is inevitably a modern one.

The author of this post, Cheryl Heller, designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA. She also serves as a mentor at the Unreasonable Institute.

A request to make this last post of 2012 a reflection of the year gone by has been an opportunity to reclaim some perspective. I am grateful for that, and for the opportunity to talk about the things we never talk about.

Several weeks ago in the Booth Theater in New York, I watched Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” During intermission, seeking distraction from the pain of the play, I checked email, expecting to find nothing of note after 10pm on a Thursday. What I found was an update from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya – in it a revolting story about the murder of three well-known and beloved female elephants. Qumquat, the matriarch, her 13-year old daughter, Quantina, and another 10-year old daughter, Quaye. Qumquat had kept her extended family safe for over four decades, as only old matriarchs can, but now she is gone. Her youngest calf Quanza survived, but was there to witness his mother’s face hacked in half by the Tanzanian poachers who took her life along with her beautiful, slender tusks – so that someone, somewhere, could have another bauble for their wrist or bookshelf. Just 24 hours earlier, the elephants posed for a photograph by Nick Brandt, “calm and trusting of their human admirers”.

The juxtaposition was literally breath taking; the New York audience of cultured theater-goers, watching a voyeuristic three-hour play that indulges unsparingly in base and vindictive human behavior, and the incisive reminder of such unspeakable brutality and acute loss – unfortunately every bit as commonplace, in its own context, as New Yorkers going to a play.

It has been a year of impossible-to-synthesize juxtapositions with the same extreme disparity of mundane and portentous, ephemeral and irrevocable, personal and universal. For months on end, we watched a presidential race in which candidates spoke relentlessly about money, spent like there was no end to it, and never once talked about the defining issue of our time. Then, the silence on climate change was punctuated by a hurricane that mocked our country’s unwillingness to acknowledge it.

Our world of social innovation is an exciting one, filled with new ideas and signs of progress every day. Smart, well intentioned, hard working individuals and institutions are devoting their energy and resources to solving the problems that face humanity. We are making real progress; new models, technologies, platforms – learning and improving at enterprise design, problem solving, collaborating, measuring and communicating. Most of the people I know are succeeding individually in accomplishing remarkable things. Yet as a species, each of us contributes daily to a massive, incomprehensible failure.

As we work away on our innovations, the major consequence of our time is likely to be one of the greatest mass extinctions the planet has undergone. Rising temperatures and the arctic meltdown caused by humans have been called earth’s biggest change in 3 million years. We prepare for a global population of 9 billion and counting, blithely assuming technology will make up for what the planet cannot naturally provide. As a country, we export our fast food and consumptive habits, comfortably ignorant of the price the earth, and we, will pay.

Why aren’t more social innovators working on environmental issues? Why does everyone focus on shifting the behavior of poor farmers or slave traders or people with HIV Aids or obesity, and not our own? Why are we focused only on being nice to each other when we are so cruel to the rest of nature? How do we manage to keep our eyes locked onto our computer screens, blinded to the other species on this planet who feel as deeply as we do, and who are in many ways so much more wise? Why do humans seem to believe that we can poison and degrade our planet and everything on it and still survive to buy another iPhone? In fact, the trendy notion of human-centered design is equally a product of our arrogant selfishness as our generosity.

In Seoul last week, a group of 30 graduate students expressed a longing for more trees in their lives, and spoke of the problems of suicide and extreme stress. Yet, when the opportunity arose, no one wanted to work on fixing that. No one saw the connection between human unhappiness and disconnection from nature. They developed ideas for finding jobs, for helping people with disabilities, for fixing the food system, assimilating diverse communities and recycling coffee cups. All worthy initiatives, but not the one that trumps them all. Is nature, the most extraordinary inspiration imaginable, just not cool enough? Is the source of all human wealth and resources not rich enough to reward the effort to save it?

In the realm of juxtapositions, I had a great year. I developed and launched the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation. The faculty and students are fantastic, and many more students want to join next year. Wonderful new initiatives are emerging with more on the way. My husband and I completed the transformation of an empty factory into a sanctuary in the middle of the woods in northwest Connecticut – fulfilling a dream to create a place to live and bring clients where nature is part of the conversation every day. In my practice, I work with extraordinary people and organizations who are revitalizing cities, shifting the way mission-based organizations are funded, displacing toxic materials and aggregating communities of data scientists in service to humanity. I am healthy, busy, and loved. By any measure, not bad. Yet I have failed, for still another year, the thing that has always mattered most to me – the earth and its silent inhabitants.

Years ago, I worked with the World Wildlife Fund, and proposed a campaign to them to make Mother’s Day a celebration for mothers of every species. It was built on the premise that knowledge and understanding are inevitably followed by compassion, and that, if people learned what passionate and devoted mothers hippos and elephants and gorillas and polar bears and otters and whales and albatrosses and (ok, almost) every other creature on the planet are, we might come to see them as the extraordinary family to us that they are. And perhaps care enough to spare them space and resources to survive. The campaign was called, “I Mother Nature”, and as you may have (not) noticed, I haven’t yet managed to get it off the ground. (But have not given up if you are inclined to join me.)

Next year, as we notice the things that consume us and the things we consume, I hope we can reclaim a healthy perspective on the real priorities of life for all. Let us invite the elephant back into the room, cherish, honor, and listen to her.

An Unreasonable Challenge:

My wish for next year is to help more entrepreneurs who are working on the environment, and to inspire more people to take up the cause. Come forward, wherever you are. Bring your talent, ideas, technologies, and starry-eyed optimism. As Paul Hawkins said, “You are brilliant, and the earth is hiring.”

Update: Socrates said, to a companion who walked him outside the city walls and tried to start a conversation seated under a tree, “You must forgive me, my dear friend. I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do”. Imagine if Socrates had looked up at the tree and said, “Aren’t they amazing, I wonder how they do what they do?” We might have been launched on a path of biomimicry and nanotechnology way back then. We still have time to pay attention to nature.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

More by Cheryl Heller