11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sustainability: There is no Enemy (?)

In the past several decades, we have seen a tide-shift in the way we think about social change. It is a shift towards recognizing the interconnectedness of issues; a paradigm in which words 'resistance' and 'domination' are being trumped by words like 'effectiveness' and 'results.' It is a shift away from seeing any one individual or group as 'the enemy,' and towards seeing every single individual and group as part of the solution -- a critical part of the solution at that.

If there is any one person whose journey is representative of these kinds of shifts, it may well be Adam Werbach, who I had a chance to chat with today before he gave a talk in the Carbon Plenary here at the Momentum Conference.

Some of you may know his story. At 23, he was the youngest President of the Sierra Club. As an activist, his efforts helped achieved many successes, including major legislation in California to protect the state's deserts from destruction.

But slowly, he grew dissatisfied. He started to realize, he told me, that his efforts weren't achieving their stated goals. Despite decades of efforts by thousands of organizations, every environmental indicator was heading the wrong way.

He took it as a reflection on his own work. In fact, he was ready to throw in the towel. If he couldn't be successful, he told me, perhaps he should walk away and let other people take the lead who could do a better job. He gave a speech in 2004 on the Death of Environmentalism, a speech which sparked controversy throughout the environmental community.

Today, Werbach doesn't regularly call himself an environmentalist anymore. He has urged us, publicly, to drop our 'isms,' reminding us that the world's problems are so urgent, complex, and interdependent, requiring us to stop creating fiefdoms over which issues are 'our' issues. This kind of thinking is indeed part of the overall shift I described earlier-- and is referred to in some areas of the activist world by the term 'intersectionality.'

But far more controversially, Werbach has chosen to work on the inside, with big corporations rather than against them. He was first approached by Walmart several years ago when several of its executives asked him to collaborate with them on their plans to green their footprint. It was a moment of deep reflection for Werbach. His decision to collaborate with Walmart earned him derision and even threats from colleagues in the environmental movement. Such incidents were widely noted in the media.

Today, nearly five years later, Werbach runs a division of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world's largest marketing and PR firms, focused on helping large multinationals create more sustainable operations. His recently released book, Strategy for Sustainability, urges corporations to look at sustainability as crucial to long-term profits.

Sitting in a board room with corporate elites is a far cry from organizing protests against the destruction of the world's ecosystems. Or is it? "Look, it's always been about effectiveness for me," he told me. And he proceeded to give me an abbreviated list of the ways in which the strategy has yielded tremendous dividends. The vast strides forward made by Wal-Mart are only one of these results. He points to the ways in which companies like Hewlett Packard and Starbucks and even McDonald's have significantly greened their operations, in the process creating the kinds of results that sometimes seemed elusive to Werbach during his Sierra Club days.

Werbach's professional arc is noteworthy not just because he has leveraged the power and logic of business for social good. Such openness to work with and through business is in itself a popular trend, especially amongst today's young professionals. But the more important take away here comes at a higher level of abstraction. It's about finding allies wherever they can be found, leaving behind the logic of opposition to focus more on the logic of solution-making. Werbach repeatedly emphasized this point in his talk to Momentum attendees. "Can we pull away from our own dogma to meet people where they are?" he asked, challenging an audience of donors, activists and social entrepreneurs.

It is this kind of sentiment, perhaps more than any other, that embodies the way our thinking about social change has shifted in past decades. The great complexity of our modern world does not permit simple models of good and evil, the oppressors and the oppressed. We are increasingly compelled to find common ground wherever it can be found, to leverage resources wherever they can be used to genuinely good effect.

This does not mean that everyone need work on the inside. It does not mean that traditional activism, as we know it, is dead. (Indeed, Werbach was born in the world of activism, and freely acknowledges, for example, that without Greenpeace activist creating high-profile stunts outside major corporations, he would have far less leverage to do his own work.) But it does mean that activism is no longer the single dominant model for how change occurs. It is one of many important tools at our disposal.

The urgency of the world's problems demands we use all the tools available to us, as well as possible.