Finding common ground to make sustainability conversations relatable BY JESSI BURG

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

We’ve all had an experience where we think we say something innocuous, and someone responds “oh, let’s not talk politics.” But for many of us, our very existence is considered political – and that makes it hard to have conversations about sustainability, climate change, and the ways these issues affect our lives. Recently, the US Supreme Court has passed a plethora of opinions gutting protections for women, indigenous peoples, the environment, and more. Some are hailing these as victories, while others are literally in fear for their lives. So what can we do? How do we hold on to hope and the decades of work we’ve already committed?

For me, it’s by remembering to be kind, wherever I can. Kindness is often the most important part of introducing change. Everyone wants to lead a safe and happy life, but finding ways to make life safe and happy for everyone is a tricky challenge. Often, what makes one person feel safe actively harms someone else – and these feelings are at the crux of the climate change conversation.

As an example, let’s look at Weld County (1). Weld is one of the more conservative counties in Colorado, and gets a bad reputation for its support of oil and gas. Though only 4% of the population works in oil and gas extraction, it has the third highest average wage – behind “Management of Companies and Enterprises” and “Utilities”. Not only that, but at $113,000 per year, an average mining job pays nearly double the county average of $63,000. If you want to make a good wage in Weld County, oil and gas is one of the best ways to do it. When you ask residents of Weld County to vote against these industries, you’re asking them to vote against high paying jobs without providing a clear alternative.

Grappling with this dichotomy is one of the hardest parts of talking about sustainability. How do you manage the fact that some towns wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for mining industries, oil and gas, or coal mining? How do you find solutions that acknowledge that a more sustainable world means many of those towns will die?

At the best of times, empathy and compassion can be difficult. Under the current political climate, finding common ground is a formidable ask. It’s easy to help your friend who has broken their ankle to go grocery shopping. There’s a clear solution, a starting/ending date, and everyone agrees what the problem is. It has solid metrics. Nothing about the sustainability world meets this criteria.

Finding solutions to global problems is an inherently local issue. Finding ways to talk about those problems requires input across all economic classes, industries, and walks of life. It is an overwhelming challenge and there is so much more that goes into how we have to approach these issues. Cultural issues and “isms” (racism, sexism, classism) typically get rolled into how we talk about it and that puts many of us on the defensive.

So what do we do about it? Like so many things, it starts with personal reflection and growth. If we want to be able to create truly equitable solutions, we have to be able to listen to viewpoints we don’t agree with. This requires kindness and patience on a scale often reserved for preschool teachers. We need a way to talk about these issues while still retaining both our values and our ability to listen. It also means recognizing that there is information you likely don’t have.

A common topic in sustainability is managing the rural/urban divide, and how we handle our recycling is an excellent example of how our available information differs. Many rural communities don’t have recycling infrastructure. The Producer Responsibility Act passed earlier this year in Colorado will help create the infrastructure, but nevertheless, the task is daunting. It’s compounded further by the constant confusion for many around what is and is not recyclable in the first place. I live in Delta County, and the nearest recycling drop off for me is twenty minutes away. There are no options for safe hazardous waste disposal or industrial composting. Most people handle their organic waste by burning and in the springtime, the air is hazy with smoke from field and ditch burning. (For those not familiar with agricultural towns, burning is a common way to clear a field or irrigation ditch of last year’s growth, creating space for new planting and keeping channels clear for water flow.)

It will be a long and arduous process to generate the infrastructure needed. Once the infrastructure exists, we still need buy in from the local community, funding for ongoing education about how to use new programs, and long term management of the programs themselves. When I talk about the barriers to people I know who live in urban areas, they’re unaware these hurdles exist. It’s easy to assume people aren’t recycling because they don’t agree with it or they’re lazy. And in some cases, maybe that’s true, but for a lot of us, we can’t make more sustainable choices when the options don’t exist. In these conversations, step one is to agree on what the problem actually is. 

Even once we know what the problem is, we rarely have the right answer for how to solve it. Generating space within ourselves to be able to sympathize, empathize, and have compassion for other beings is hard, especially when they disagree with us. Climate change is a real issue that requires change from wildly disparate populations around the globe. However, even within the realm of climate change, we run into opposing opinions. Some people think that climate change is real, but isn’t caused by human activity. Then there’s the people who don’t think it’s happening at all. Then there are still others who believe it is in fact happening, humans are the cause, and we need to make better choices but aren’t sure where to start. 

Starting a conversation with “I think you’re wrong” isn’t likely to get your desired result. When we have these conversations, remember to think about where the other person is coming from. The more you practice this, the better you will get at listening. The more you listen, the easier it will be to find common ground. I start with the basic premise that everyone wants to live a safe and happy life. The things that make us feel safe are also things most people have in common: we want a stable place to live, we want a community, we want a regular source of food and water. 

Practicing these conversations and discovering within yourself how to approach them with kindness is counter to a lot of the things we learn in American culture. We’re taught that it’s more important to be right than to be kind. The American Dream tells us that helping others and accepting help is wrong – the true way to success is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The reality is that kindness gets us farther than anything else. Finding common ground lets us agree on the problem and start conversations where there are no good answers. Recognizing that there are no good answers opens the door to new questions, new curiosities and creates a path to better solutions. 

Practicing kindness and listening begets the ability to have conversations around the real issues facing all communities. Local solutions require local answers – and that means sharing knowledge (and questions) on a global scale. 

  1. Weld County Map, accessed 7/8/2022.

Jessi Burg • Outgrow Your Garage

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