Where Extremists Agree

September 10, 2009

Scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

Atticus Finch in a scene from the 1962 movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

That was then: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. – Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee

This is now: Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table. – Comments at a town hall meeting, by Rep. Barney Frank

I wonder how Atticus, the selfless public defender in To Kill A Mockingbird, would fare in today's polarized discourse and in this age of the sound bite. (Then again, he didn't need much income; Scout, after all, was fine being shoeless.)

But just when you want to give up on the whole idea of finding a common ground, along comes sustainability. We don't agree on sweeping topics, like global warming. But we will agree to recycle bottles and lower our thermostats. We won't get on the same page about public welfare, but we will drop our dollars into the Salvation Army kettle. National healthcare, no. Taking walks, yes.

Sustainability is where the actions can have universal appeal, but the participants associate them with different goals. When a supermarket installs an aluminum can bin, very few of us will consciously walk past it to throw a soda can into the trash. We'll use the bin. But why did the company put the bin there in the first place? To be socially responsible, or to keep the parking lot from looking trashy? Or to get some income from the recycling company? And why do we use the bin? To save the planet? Or to avoid waste and conserve resources? Your personal slant on the world will determine the answer.

And yet your viewpoint really doesn't matter, because sustainability has you doing the same things as other people with whom you would never agree.

And from this viewpoint, promoting sustainability might just be the most unifying activity an organization can ever take.