Walking the Talk
Consent and the Climate Crisis:
How Learnings From #MeToo Can Reframe the Conversation

If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that the privileged cannot ultimately succeed if others suffer as a result. So, too, humanity cannot thrive if nature, future generations and the less privileged have no voice in the decisions we make.

Over several decades advising corporate leaders on social responsibility, there’s a story I often tell about Phil Jackson, famed coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Each new season, Jackson would meet with every player one by one. He’d draw a circle on a board and ask, “If this circle is the team, where do you see yourself?”

His theory was that he could never have a winning team if the players felt they were outside the circle. Everyone needed a place. Everyone needed a say. The stars in the middle of these circles — the Michael Jordans, the Shaquille O’Neals — had reason to include others out of their own self-interest (to win!), not necessarily because it was the right thing to do.

Jackson, of course, holds the NBA record with 11 championship titles as a coach, so his theory holds some weight. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I’ve found the Circle concept useful in helping people in positions of power deconstruct corrosive, patriarchal ideas and think in a more holistic, responsible way that serves everyone better — including themselves.

Many of these learnings are relevant now, as world leaders try to put much-needed climate policies in place at COP26 in Glasgow. After all, the kind of thinking that allowed organizations to tolerate sexual exploitation for too many years is the same kind that led us to this critical moment — when the world needs to do more to address the climate crisis. Just as some men excluded women from the Circle, excluding nature and future generations from our decision-making has created an unsustainable world in which humans and nature both suffer.

At the core of both of these issues is those with power and privilege choosing to act in their own self-interest, without realizing the ramifications of ignoring the rights of those who were not at the table for important decisions.

Research has shown that systemic bias can lead to poor decisions because of the blind spots of decision makers. Over the last 50 years, our society has consistently failed to include nature, the needs of the developing world, or future generations in the circle of our decision making. In fact, traditional economic theory considers nature only an “externality,” rather than an important input.

It is because of this systemic bias that governments and companies will often invite a devil's advocate to offer points of view that counter prevailing ones to make better choices.

John F. Kennedy used such an approach during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having seen the systemic bias that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy later said he could not believe “intelligent people had made such wrong-headed decisions.” During the Crisis, he tapped his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to argue the opposing viewpoints during the team’s decision-making processes, which helped the administration bring a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Consent and the climate crisis

Given the climate crisis is the existential threat of this generation, a similar approach could conceivably be applied to avoid the most dangerous outcomes. Imagine how things would be different if nature were given a seat at the decision-making table? Imagine if every company always had a seat reserved for future generations and for nature, asking that seat what it wants or needs from us now.

What would nature say it needs from us so we can have a winning team? A clear example of this is the collapse of fisheries across the planet. Fish had no voice in the decisions we have made about commercial fishing. (Neither did the small-scale fishers). But, when the Circle was expanded, many jurisdictions realized we needed marine-protected areas (MPAs), along with no-catch zones. Wherever these have been implemented in the world, within a short period of time, we’ve seen an increase in seafood catch and restoration of fish biomass. The Apo Island MPA in the Philippines is one of the more famous examples. By asking what nature needs, our thinking shifted, and everyone won.

Another lesson from the #MeToo movement is relevant here. After decades of marginalizing women, men in positions of power now must listen more than speak. Programs to accelerate the hiring and promotion of women have become the norm, which often put men at a short-term disadvantage for the sake of longer-term equity. A similar situation is needed regarding climate change, but on a global scale.

Developed, privileged nations need to listen to and work with developing nations to make their shift to less polluting, more sustainable economies. They’ll need to listen to other marginalized voices, as well — including Indigenous communities, many of whom have knowledge and perspective that can lead us to meaningful insights and solutions for a climate-resilient future.

This will result in some disadvantages to developed nations, whose economies have been grown on the back of carbon; and the needs of nature need to be given priority over short-term economic growth.

Finally, just as men have had to confront our often-toxic behavior in terms of sexual consent, so all of humanity must recognize the non-consensual relationship we have had with the rest of nature for the past several hundred years. With little recognition that other species had “rights,” we have doomed thousands of species to extinction. Just like #MeToo, we all share in that legacy — whether or not we intended to be predatory. Only when we face the truth can we begin to move forward.

When we truly expand the Circle, everyone wins. When we don’t, we all lose.

If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that the privileged cannot ultimately succeed if others suffer as a result. So too, humanity cannot thrive if nature, future generations and the less privileged have no voice in the decisions we make.

Everyone needs a place. Everyone needs a voice. It’s the only way to form a winning team.

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