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Zugunruhe: Advice to Anxious Change Agents

ZUG_cover_hi copy When Jason McLennan asked me to contribute to his latest contribution to the sustainable building field I grabbed at the opportunity. With a title like Zugunruhe, who could resist? In case you aren't an ethnologist, the word signifies the anxiety accompanying migration (usually, but not always, of birds). This is more understandable when you see the full title, which includes the explanation: The Inner Migration To Profound Environmental Change. This book, available from Ecotone Publishing, is required reading for anyone who desires a future our children and grandchildren can thrive in.

In addition to the journey Jason takes you on in the book, he graciously provides space for some of us more senior types to share some "sage" (his word) advice with his readers.

Here are my words from the book, slightly edited for context:

"When my youngest son and wife were expecting their first child, he asked me for my advice on parenting. I wondered why, he of all people, would be asking me this, since he knew firsthand of my imperfections in this regard. However, I did share with him what I had learned: "Scott, for me it has to be simple: Always admit when you make a mistake….and always let your child know you love him." ("Him" turned out to be a "her", by the way — my beautiful granddaughter Ellie!)

The reasoning for the second half of my maternal advice — to make sure Scott's child felt loved — should be obvious to anyone. But why is it so important to admit mistakes? First, it's about being honest. No one is perfect, and to act like one could be is to perpetuate a dangerous fantasy that we might actually be so. It is living a lie, and asking our children to live in denial of what they intuitively know.

Second, it's about being teachable. If we admit mistakes, and particularly if we see them in proper proportion — not too big, not too small — and in their proper perspective — not an occasion for blame but an opportunity to learn — we can actually grow from them. To put it simply, we mature. By admitting our mistakes to our children, we show them how they can grow.

I believe both pieces of advice work just as well for adults desiring to be a cause for sustainable change. Act out of love, not judgment. Don't be self-righteous bores. It's tedious, and it doesn't work. But also love your fellows enough to be genuine. Sometimes love looks less like a hug, and more like a correction.

And be teachable, so you can learn and so others can witness that and open themselves to the opportunities that may mean for us all. Jason encourages us in his book to use the right side of our brain, to be what he calls a polymath, to resist "temporal dilution" and "parasitics," and to go outside of our comfort zone through deep structural shifts. This absolutely requires the willingness to make big, glorious and sometimes public mistakes. Yup, and it doesn't feel terrific sometimes. But the more we do this the more we learn to be gentler on ourselves (and others) when we (or they) err, and the less likely we are to stick to the conventions that will kill us if we cling to them. We'll be better mentors, and better recipients of mentorship.

I mentioned earlier that admitting mistakes is also a matter of honesty. Facing the truth about our personal impacts — at home and out in the world — is extremely important. The creative tension it causes — by revealing the dissonance between our core values and our actions — is a necessary pre-condition for change. And we cannot expect our fellows to change if we don't. So honesty and love. Not easy.

For me, getting to this place has required inner work. What this work looks like for you will be unique to your situation, so I'd best not give any advice here — and there are plenty of others much more suited to do so.

Getting here has also required a commitment to continued and disciplined study. Rather late in my life, I took a masters at Antioch University Seattle in Environment and Community. As part of that program I was mentored in independent study by Janine Benyus, who coincidentally has written the preface for Jason's book and not so surprisingly inspired its title. In that learning opportunity Janine offered me far more than I can describe in this small space, but two things are especially relevant that I want to mention — the importance of being precise in our articulation of sustainable concepts (including Biomimicry, which she advocates through the Biomimicry Institute), and the necessity of supporting our green building solutions with rigorous study. So it is not enough to be teachable, we need to commit to continuous education that has depth and breadth. So perhaps it is best we keep our left brain engaged along with our right brain! God Bless."

Kathleen O'Brien is Editor of Building Capacity Blog and solely responsible for the advice she offers here. She has been active in the sustainable building field since the early 80s and principal of O'Brien & Company since 1991. Her book: The Northwest Green Home Primer is available through Timberpress, your local book store, and Amazon (on Kindle, no less!)

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