All in outside: Small steps toward a big solution

There is no denying the challenges we face with regards to our environment and our health are real and daunting. The majority of the literature that exists in these subject areas is primarily data driven and purposefully alarming so as to force reactions among its audience.

But fear is not enough. We need tangible and specific actions to take. We need solutions. This is where we, and you, come in. Over the next several weeks, our focus will be going beyond the problems to foster creative ideas for solving them.

The inspiration for this series came from a similar sequence of stories published on the blog The Cleanest Line. The environmentally focused blog is a creative offshoot of the eco-conscious outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia.

In successive posts for the site, author and environmental activist Annie Leonard discusses concrete ideas for implementing meaningful solutions, beginning with locating the source of the problems we seek to tackle, not managing their aftermath. Leonard begins her “Solution Series” with a somewhat unnerving story that masterfully articulates this concept.

She describes a scenario in which a village discovers babies being washed down a nearby river. In their desperate attempts to save them, the village people go about setting up elaborate rescue techniques, including an alarm system and a 24-hour watch. However, they soon became overwhelmed and cannot save all the babies. Finally they ask the old wise man of the village how they could save the babies. He tells them to go upstream and find out who is putting the babies in the river to begin with. Then they can stop the babies from being thrown into the river in the first place.

While slightly morbid, this story speaks to the effect that most of what we consider to be solutions really are not. While good-natured and with certainly commendable efforts, the village people were really not solving the problem of babies being thrown into the river. They were merely diffusing it.

This kind of solving is the equivalent of doing things we deem to be good or responsible for the earth and its inhabitants: we recycle, unplug, volunteer, donate and help out with various fundraisers, projects or organizations we care about. These are all worthwhile and significant contributions to our collective goal of making the world a better place, but, like the alarm system and 24-hour watch, they are downstream diffusions. Leonard calls these “transactional” solutions; that is, they help to slow down or mitigate the problem, but do not fundamentally change the system that created it. To achieve upstream solutions, or what Leonard refers to as “transformational” solutions, we have to search more deeply for the root causes of our problems, not just observe their consequences.

So, what kinds of things cause our biggest problems? Leonard points to cultural, political, and economic factors that define how our society operates as the biggest culprits. This is where many of us get stuck. These institutions are large, pervasive and rightfully intimidating. Infiltrating these powerful drivers of society is exhausting and often unrewarding work. But even if you have no aspirations to become a radical social activist, there are things you can do. Big ideas come from small ones. Transformational solutions almost integrally begin as transactional ones. Together, we can take the small steps that will lead to big solutions.

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