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.

About the author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl is the founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation, a pioneering educational program in New York. Cheryl works with business leaders to transform organizations and industries—eliminating complexity, developing strategies and campaigns that energize communities and shift behavior.

  • Tammy Hartmann

    I sat quietly for a moment, after reading your article. I feel the exact same, and I have seen how so many people have chosen poorly in prioritizing. Many do
    not realize what Mother Earth can do for humankind (all you need to do is
    reconnect with nature, and it will heal you). As you wrote, “No one saw the
    connection between human unhappiness and disconnection from nature”—I agree
    I like your idea of making Mother’s Day a celebration for mothers of every species. In fact, I started a tradition a few years ago with my family for Mother’s Day. On that day, I try to do an outdoor activity. After reading your article, I am thinking of changing this tradition, and instead lend my hands to Mother Nature at the same time I enjoy quality time. It drives me crazy to see families celebrate Mother’s Day at places like the waterpark or a restaurant.
    Lastly, I strongly encourage EVERYBODY to read a book, Saving Kids from Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Louv. I am planning to read The NATURE PRINCIPLE book to reconnect with Life in
    a Virtual Age and a few others by Richard Louv. Have you read his books? What do you think?
    Also, you posted about Socrates’ statement, 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 bio mimicry and nanotechnology way back then. We still have time to pay attention to nature. LOVE IT! Cheryl, I wish more articles were like this one, thank you.

  • Theresa Fitzsimmons

    Thank you Cheryl, I really love your articles. My favorite part of your article was how you explained that we as humans focus on being good to one another but do not focus on being good to wildlife and our earth. I have always focused on recycling, picking up trash, and eating meat at the bare minimum, or not at all. One thing that I thought about after reading this is how I need to volunteer at a wildlife center. Wildlife is also an important part of nature besides protecting our trees and water. I used to be in animal rights club when I was in high school. Thanks again for reminding me that I need to also care for our animals.
    I am from a small rural area in Wisconsin, what can I do besides volunteering? Where should I start?

  • Abbey Stibbs

    Thank you for the post Cheryl! I have read all of your articles on here, and this one is by far one of my favorites. I think that it is extremely important to focus on the earth and the wildlife. I think that people are way too focused on themselves and others that they do not care about the place that they live. I think that people would benefit more if they cared about the world that they live in. I feel like people would live happier and longer lives if they put a little effort into helping out the land and earth. I think doing little things like recycling and turning the water off when you brush your teeth could even make the difference.

  • Katelyn Vaughn

    I agree, Abbey. I think that people do not care about the world or nature like they should. Yes, people are way too focused on themselves but not only that, they are too consumed by their technology. Individuals in today’s society also move at such a fast pace and need to slow down in order to make a positive effort to improve our land. We need to be aware of our surroundings. Should we pick up the garbage? Should we recycle? Those are just small questions that could make such a big difference in our world if more individuals did them.