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“Start believing in it as a process” with Dr. Katelyn Dowling

Stop thinking about sustainability as an outcome, and start believing in it as a process. The goal is to move toward a more sustainable future. This will be ongoing for decades to come. It’s a lot like anti-racism work. The job is never “finished;” it evolves as you develop your understanding of it. Initially, it is a […]

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Stop thinking about sustainability as an outcome, and start believing in it as a process. The goal is to move toward a more sustainable future. This will be ongoing for decades to come. It’s a lot like anti-racism work. The job is never “finished;” it evolves as you develop your understanding of it. Initially, it is a cognitive shift in how we view our moral responsibility to ourselves, to our community, and to our planet. That is what makes this challenge so important right now. Even more importantly than the shift in cognition is the heart-centered work that follows. We desperately need to heal from our collective past so that we can stop repeating our trauma cycles in the future.

As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Katelyn Dowling.

Katelyn Dowling, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Self, Inc. She is dedicated to helping people and organizations solve complex problems with simple solutions. Dr. Dowling developed the signature Depth Assessment for organizations looking to identify unique opportunities to leverage existing technology, infrastructure, and capital to create more sustainable futures now. This pioneering approach to management consulting incorporates knowledge of complexity science, psychology, business analytics, and macro-marketing. Learn more about Dr. Dowling here.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in Silicon Valley during the height of the tech boom. It was pretty surreal as a kid to witness all of the change happening back then. As a child of divorced parents, I spent a lot of time in the car going back and forth between houses, school, and various activities. I still have this one image in my mind, which is probably an aggregate of many memories.

There is a particular spot on southbound Highway 280 where rolling hills appear off to the right-hand-side near Magdalena/El Monte exits. You could set your watch by the changing color of those hills. I remember how vivid and bright green the grass was in the winter months. Especially juxtaposed with the magnificent, dark leaves of indigenous oak trees spotted across the hill.

These days when I visit the area for winter holidays, those same hills are often brittle and dry. The ever-increasing severity and frequency of fires in California are the evidence we can all smell with our nose. It makes me sad to imagine what the world will be like when my son grows up if we don’t wake up and change our global systems.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

Sure! Actually, I would say there were two particular experiences that set me on my path of environmental leadership.

The first was in college. My senior capstone was to complete a research project on food security in a post-peak oil scenario. The project opened my eyes to the social dimensions of environmental issues and how interrelated these problems actually are. One example is that communities of color are less likely to have access to fresh produce because the ratio of grocery stores per capita is lower on average. They are also more likely to live in close proximity to environmental waste and breathe in environmental-hazards.

These realities reflect a set of values, beliefs, and assumptions from our past: that certain groups were historically viewed as less valuable than other groups. When decisions were being made about where to invest money and resources (for instance, where to put our waste), the people making those decisions enacted the assumptions, beliefs, and biases of that particular time. Today, those values and beliefs are changing. Which means we have to reckon with the reality of how our built environment reinforces structural differences among groups. We need to deal with the consequences of our past actions and the beliefs that guide them.

The second experience was after college, when I started volunteering as an environmental educator for a local nonprofit, Sustainable Santa Monica. Every week or so, I would head to the public library and hold a class for community members on a variety of topics. We covered things like energy, waste, transportation, water, shopping, food, and chemicals. I saw first-hand how even the self-selecting group of highly motivated individuals struggled to create lasting change in their personal lives. Every week the homework was to pick one or two small behavioral changes and come prepared to talk about how it went in the next class.

Week after week, participants returned with their tails tucked between their legs, ashamed to admit that they had failed. Here I was teaching people about environmental problems, but the effect it had was to leave them feeling powerless and hopeless. I asked myself: if our global systems are so far out of balance with nature, how can any individual live sustainably? Something wasn’t adding up. I realized that if I wanted to be a part of meaningful change at scale, I would have to learn more about human psychology.

This was in 2010 and the economy was barely starting to rebound. So, I went back to school and got my doctorate in clinical psychology. It was there that I began my research on the inner dimensions of environmental problems.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

I would encourage you to be unapologetically ambitious in pursuit of your goals for the planet. A leader is not just someone who sits at the top of the organizational pyramid anymore. An environmental leader is someone who demonstrates empathy, curiosity, compassion, and imagination in light of the seemingly impossible odds that our species is facing.

People will tell you that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. They might be right. But I am here to tell you that it only takes a small percentage of the population to awaken in order to shift the entire consciousness of the planet. We are very close to this tipping point.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

These days I am coaching global leaders on the inner work required to enact change within their organizations. The sheer scale and scope of the problems facing human civilization is super overwhelming. Most people experience a predictable set of emotions when they become aware of the complex ecological and social crises we are facing. These include feeling despair, overwhelm, helplessness, hopelessness, and fear. All of these feelings are normal. They also look a lot like what you would expect when dealing with depression. When you are depressed, it is harder to see beyond the pain of the present moment, let alone imagine creative ways to solve global problems.

The crazy thing is that we’ve seen these problems coming for more than a hundred years! Yet, collectively, we have failed to act. Why is that? Have we all been depressed for the past century? I have some opinions on this, but for those you’ll have to wait for my book to come out.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

I think this question is a bit misleading. What we need is massive private and public investments in structural changes to the way our global systems function and interact. What we really need is to start behaving as one collective hive mind on Planet Earth.

It is too late for lifestyle tweaks. Climate change is not a future problem; its impacts are happening now. New and novel diseases, just like COVID-19, are actually expected to become more frequent as a result of the same factors driving climate change. We must stop thinking of these problems in silos.

If you personally want to eat less meat, take public transportation more frequently, or donate to organizations doing regenerative agricultural work, I think that’s great. You should be proud of your decisions! Those actions are important, and can lead to better health and longevity, but they won’t add up to a needle in the haystack that is the climate crisis.

The best thing you can do at this stage in the game is organize within your workplace and local community around environmental and social governance (ESG). Who runs ESG within your organization? Do they report to the CEO or COO directly? If not, that is a problem. It is an indication that your employer is not yet taking these problems seriously. Start having difficult conversations and start imagining what is realistic to change. Imagine boldly.

Think of it this way: even when the whole world shut down at the beginning of COVID-19, the effect of the reduced economic activity was still not enough. Even if the planes stayed grounded and the people stayed home for the next 10 years. It would still not be enough to limit an increase in global atmospheric temperature to two degrees Celsius by 2030. The scale and scope of what we are facing so much bigger than your decision to not eat meat on weekdays.

We have to start working as one united global team in our imaginations while we build resilience at the local level. We have to make a quantum leap in our understanding of what is possible for life on Earth.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Stop thinking about sustainability as an outcome, and start believing in it as a process. The goal is to move toward a more sustainable future. This will be ongoing for decades to come. It’s a lot like anti-racism work. The job is never “finished;” it evolves as you develop your understanding of it. Initially, it is a cognitive shift in how we view our moral responsibility to ourselves, to our community, and to our planet. That is what makes this challenge so important right now. Even more importantly than the shift in cognition is the heart-centered work that follows. We desperately need to heal from our collective past so that we can stop repeating our trauma cycles in the future.

Adults need to model the ongoing work for our children on a daily basis. To break it down into digestible bits, use the mantra BEGIN AGAIN every day when you wake up:

Breathe

Teach yourself and your children healthy breathing skills. As wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and plausible social unrest ensues as a result of the ecological crisis, you and your family will need to learn to regulate your body’s stress response. This is the number one thing you should start practicing now. Are you breathing?

Engage

Learn about local and global initiatives and start participating. Engaging in activities makes you feel good inside. It will give you a sense of purpose and meaning. There is nothing better than a meaningful life.

Gather

Gather together like we do at Thanksgiving to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. This can be more difficult to do these days, but there are lots of creative ways to gather your loved ones and create rituals for your family. Community is the antidote to despair.

Imagine

What legacy do you want to leave for future generations? Imagination is more important now than ever. Start dreaming. Get to know what’s happening in your psyche. Get creative!

Negotiate

Be bold in your workplace and negotiate your boundaries. I know everybody has a ton of daily responsibilities on their plates — especially if you are working from home with kids at the kitchen table distance learning. Getting through the day can be overwhelming. But if you are doing two jobs, you should be paid for both jobs. If your boss is giving you too much work, it is not a sign of weakness to ask for more time or fewer projects. We live in a culture that makes us believe we are impervious to stress. We are not. Stress is toxic. Negotiate realistic boundaries and create space for what really matters.

Advocate

What are your company, your local government, and your state doing to support people in the transition to a more sustainable future? Sustainability is tied to the rise of automation, artificial intelligence, and remote working in some cases. What is going to happen to the people? What policies and practices can be put in place to protect our most vulnerable populations? How can we begin to envision human beings cooperating in pursuit of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion? How can you use your privilege to advocate with compassion for those who have less than they need to live dignified and decent lives?

Get outside

Breathe in your biome! The research on time spent in nature is incredible and mind blowing. Take your shoes off, play on the grass, go walk in the woods. It will reduce inflammation in the body and help you to focus and concentrate. Nature is the miracle drug.

Activate

Move your body. Get active. Do something that gets your heart rate up. If there was a natural disaster in your community tomorrow, would you have the physical strength to flee to safety? It’s a survival skill for a number of reasons, including increased cardiovascular health. Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in this country.

Inspire

Inspiration can be as simple as singing in the shower. Finding joy in your daily life in light of the grim ecological reality we face as a species can be a real challenge. Do it anyway.

Never give up

We are all on the same team! We have one planet, guys, and we all live here. If Elon Musk wants to terraform Mars, be my guest. I’ll take my chances here with all the good, the bad, and the ugly humans on Earth. Complacency is no longer a choice. Grow up.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Human ingenuity is incredible. The power of our collective imagination is, quite literally, limitless. If you are a senior leader in your organization, look to the work being done in India. In 2013, for instance, the Indian government passed a law mandating that any corporation operating in the country with annual profits above a certain benchmark must invest 2% of those profits into corporate social responsibility initiatives. Large corporations such as TATA Steel and other multinational entities are now running those CSR initiatives like another business arm. We do not have to limit ourselves to existing business models to come up with new ideas to make the world a better place.

Trans-national corporations are uniquely positioned to lead the movement towards sustainable futures. They have existing infrastructure and capital across the globe that could be repurposed in any number of ways. Just imagine the sheer volume of personnel, for instance, that could be redirected one day per month on a rolling basis to physically plant trees. Could those efforts serve to mitigate desertification in specific local regions? Could they foster a sense of community engagement and camaraderie? What about planting native grasses in boglands to help buffer against more severe weather systems? Why are corporations not doing this already as a way to offset the impact of their existing business model?

There is a growing sentiment among C-suite and executive board members around the globe that companies must start thinking beyond shareholder profits and bottom lines. This is the time to be creative. Life itself on this planet is at stake. Just remember to act in collaboration with community stakeholders, not in spite of them.

I would also encourage leaders to imagine new ways to create impact beyond the supply chain. For instance, why doesn’t every Fortune 100 company tie a percentage of executive compensation packages to ESG outcomes in their proxy statements? I’m not saying that reducing the amount of plastic in your packaging is meaningless; it is a step in the right direction. But what else can reasonably be done within your organization now to speed things up?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been very fortunate to learn from many wonderful mentors in my life. At this moment, my former supervisor, Dr. Bobbi Carlson, comes to mind. I met her when I was interning as a psychotherapist in a rehab facility during my doctoral program. She was well into her eighties at that time. She had short purple hair and brightly colored nail polish on her fingers and her toes. Dr. Carlson was also a psychiatric nurse in addition to a clinical psychologist. She was a feminist, but she was also a realist. One day she brought me into her office and said, “Katelyn, you come across as arrogant.” Of course I was devastated to hear this from her, but the comment stuck with me. It was one of my first lessons in the double standard faced by women in the workplace. I have no doubt that I still come across as arrogant sometimes, but arrogance by a different name is simply courage to speak the truth. If you are a young person with strong opinions, check your privilege, and then give ’em hell.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love the magic wand question! I would like to see a popular education movement through social media to teach intelligent energy management skills. I want everyone on the planet to learn how to regulate their nervous systems so we can begin to heal from our collective traumas. People are stressed from hundreds, maybe even thousands of years of epigenetic trauma. Stress is a neurotoxin. The planet will heal itself if we can heal ourselves. It starts by breathing with your heart. Focus. Activate. Radiate.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Yes, the quote actually came to me in a dream about seven years ago, “In the synthesis of opposites, truth is known.”

So often these days we find ourselves falling into the trap of black and white thinking. It is a very common cognitive distortion, also known as “all-or-nothing thinking.” An example would be the thought that “fossil fuels are all bad.” Political rhetoric is another great example of this trap.

If you are someone who understands the science of our current ecological crisis, it can be easy to overlook the tremendous advancements in society that continue to emerge through our access to fossil fuels. That said, our over-reliance on these outdated energy resources is also the main cause of climate change and ecological collapse.

Our mind automatically categorizes things into good, bad, or neutral. It is adaptive and helps us go through life more effectively. But if we are not mindful of this pattern, we can become blinded to pragmatic solutions right in front of our faces.

The tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms is normal, but it is not entirely accurate. It is a distortion. So whenever I find myself becoming fixated on one side of the equation, I remind myself of that quote from my dream. It helps me to find the middle path.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

Follow me on Medium! Or learn more about my work on LinkedIn. If you’re feeling frisky, ride along with me on Peloton (@drkdowling) with the hashtag #sustainableself! P.S. Ecological JEDI stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion — all Earthlings on planet earth.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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