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  • Writer's pictureCasey Meehan

Helping businesses (and the rest of us) function with a new (climate) operating system

The following article was originally published in the Coulee Region Sierra Club Newsletter (February, 2019).

If the precedent of unprecedented flooding in the Coulee Region over the past decade hasn't been enough to convince your neighbors that we are in a climate crisis, perhaps this number will: 408.  

408 is the number of consecutive months where the average monthly temperature has exceeded the 20th century monthly average.  Said differently, no one under the age of 34 has ever experienced a month in which the average temperature was cooler than the 100 year global monthly average. 

Let that soak in for a moment. 

Environmental activist @billmckibben writes about "Eaarth," a new planet we have created due to our hubris and addiction to cheap fossil fuels. Eaarth, while still recognizable, has a climate that behaves in fundamentally different ways than the climate on which human civilization developed. 

And herein lies the problem: our society continues to operate as if we lived within the old climate, the one that no longer exists. 

Why is this a big deal? Think about it in terms of a computer operating system. Operating systems work largely unnoticed in the background, yet on any given computer they dictate what we do and how we do it. Those who have ever switched between the Apple iOS and Windows Operating System know the disruption this can cause in workflow. 

Climate is earth's operating system. It works in the background (pending extreme weather events), yet dictates what humans do and how we do it. Indeed human civilization is built upon systems and cycles that assume particular climate givens: a reasonably known amount of rain falling within a particular time of year, temperatures that rarely go above a certain point, snow pack lasting through dry months, extreme weather events remaining within general temporal and geographic bounds, etc. Everything from our economy to our infrastructure to our cultural norms is connected to assumptions about how climate operates.

And herein lies the problem: our society continues to operate as if we lived within the old climate, the one that no longer exists.  

In order to stave off the worst case-scenarios, we need immediate, systemic changes to stem greenhouse gas emissions. Simultaneously we need to help people re-imagine how to live on this new planet in ways that optimize the well-being for all inhabitants, instead of maximize profits for a few.

The Sustainability Institute, a not-for-profit organization housed at Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is taking steps toward those ends. (Disclaimer: part of my time is given in kind to support the efforts of the Sustainability Institute, including the MPower program.)

Borrowing from a program originating at Sustain Dane in Madison, Wisconsin, the Sustainability Institute runs the MPower Business Champion program. MPower is a year-long, cohort-based program that connects businesses & organizations who want to learn about, implement, build upon or showcase sustainability. Participating organizations attend ten monthly sessions around our community, network with other local organizations, and engage in eco-challenges while spearheading their own sustainability related projects.

In the four years the Sustainability Institute has offered the MPower program, we have delivered 84 hours of sustainability education over 42 separate sessions, we have worked with 16 different businesses and organizations in the Coulee Region representing about 7,000 employees, and we have inspired 77 sustainability-related projects. 

It's hard to quantify the totality of the environmental and social impacts of MPower due to the wide range of sustainability projects participating organizations take on. However, we do know that participating organizations have collectively conserved over 49 million gallons of water, re-used or diverted well over 10,000 tons from various waste streams, kept 796 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and returned $260,000 back into local communities.  

We realize our collective action still doesn't make a dent in what the world needs to do, but if the history of social movements is any indicator, society can transform quickly once a critical mass normalizes a behavior. 

And how do we normalize a behavior? Show people compelling examples of others engaging in the desired actions. In this case, the more businesses we can encourage to take even small actions that promote sustainability and resilience and the more people we can get talking about climate change and how to respond, the sooner we hit the tipping point that pushes society towards a new narrative--one that offers a better chance for all to thrive despite the challenges we face.

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