The invisible change-makers

By Cristina Apetrei

I recently came across a video about a man who planted 100 acorns a day in a desolate landscape, slowly but surely restoring it over several decades. I remembered that I had previously read this story in “The Global Citizen”, a book which collects columns with the same name written by Donella Meadows. No wonder she liked the story, I thought, as it is not only about the extraordinary determination of one man, but it is also about systems, about leverage points, about vision, hope, and change. By doing a simple, but meaningful, high-impact gesture, day in, day out, Elzéard Bouffier reforested the barren mountains, and that in turn brought life, community, and affluence back to the region.

In sustainability science, we often talk about the need of doing more research on transformative knowledge. We know enough about how the world works and about what we want, we say. Instead, we must increase our understanding about the “how to”, about which actions must be taken in order to achieve the desired outcomes. We endlessly theorize about types of processes, enabling factors and barriers, actors that ought (or not) be involved, absence or presence of facilitators etc., and we try to see how these elements will weave into various outcomes. I won’t discuss here the usefulness of such analyses, some of which I also carry out myself. Instead, I ask: what if realizing “The Sustainability Transformation” is not so much about having sophisticated cognitive insights, as it is about allowing ourselves to be driven by a more personal, more visceral and heart-rooted involvement with the world around?

In my fieldwork, I am often humbled to meet amazing characters. They are the silent, invisible change-makers that you will never hear any story about, who will never get any prize, or recognition, not even an acknowledgement in a paper condemned to eternal rest on a dusty bookshelf in a library.

I see the road to sustainability being paved by the wonderful librarian lady from a forgotten village in Transylvania who, despite better prospects in the nearby cities, felt it was her duty to serve in her little community, even if she now often feels alone and helpless in her plans. With determination and hard work, her village may once rank highest in the region in education and civil engagement, and – just like with Bouffier’s forest – officials will think this success happened on “its own accord”.

Similarly, the road to sustainability was opened by the foreign traveller who taught a community how to make felt slippers as a way to supplement their earnings. With sustained effort, that idea gradually turned into a fully operational women’s association which today, not only creates additional income for its members, but also runs community-wide projects in health and education.

Finally, the road to sustainability is the collective labour of the many farmers, teachers, neighbours, healers, tenders, activists and community leaders who plant their carefully chosen seeds one after another, diligently and devotedly, with the assuredness that the star that guides them shines from beyond their own interest.

Of course, not all stubbornness in action is necessarily beneficial to society, nor even to oneself. Also, not all well intended actions will be useful or have positive rippling effects. In dealing with global change in an interconnected world, sharpness of mind and ethical integrity go hand in hand with clarity of collective purpose. Finding the right lever is as important as knowing what is an end and what is a means. But for me as a scientist, the takeaway of this story is a reminder that, no matter how important, or how transdisciplinary, or how close to the ground our work may seem to us, our intellectual musings alone will bear no rivers to dry lands, no energy to cold houses, no solace to the suffering. We need to carefully look around to see how we, as individuals in our private lives, can also have an impact beyond our formal working hours. What problem in your close environment really moves you? Which chord of your heart could make the most beautiful music if you applied to it the precise bow of your mind?

I urge you all to watch the video, be inspired and go into the world to plant away your acorns! May we be gifted with the “passionate determination and the unfailing generosity of spirit” required for the complicated tasks ahead of us.

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