This is a story for 'The Greatest Generation (GG!)'. A story that began in the tumultuous, black swan of a year - 2020. A year that has come to be known as the single most dominant inflection point for our Planet. Not only for the insufferable chaos it ravaged on humanity, but mainly for the critical reset and pivot it provided our collective imagination, philosophies, priorities and efforts!
This is an ode to a new generation of scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and sustainability leaders who stepped up in the wake of that crisis, picked up the gauntlet and said “What can we do to REBUILD?”! Not just to address the trailer that the pandemic provided, but the infinitely larger motion picture of the (then) looming climate emergency.
This Generation came together quite haphazardly. A motley crew of diverse strangers, mostly new to the climate action and sustainability challenge. Spread out in various pockets around the World. All taking the leap into the unknown, but reassured by their gut and resounding belief that this was important. This was a make or break decade for humanity, and not being part of the solution in some way would haunt them forever. While this was organically, silently and fluidly happening in the World, I used to regularly listen to astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson’s podcast ‘StarTalk’. There was a line he’d repeat quite emphatically - “If we have the capacity to turn Mars into Earth, we most definitely have the capacity to turn Earth back into Earth”. I lived in New Delhi. Our air was polluted. Our water had to be purified. Our Springs were turning shorter. The climate crisis was most definitely real. I wanted to get involved, long and deep. The whole time his appeal to “turn Earth back Earth” had stuck with me, and kept ringing in my head.
I think this is how I found my tribe and climbed aboard the GG’s bandwagon. Or did the tribe find me? I can’t tell anymore. Serendipity works in funny ways 🙂 What I can say for sure though is that joining that global motley crew of scrappy optimists set some magical wheels in motion. It birthed a sustainability movement that gave a home, narrative and leverage to some of the starry-eyed superstars across India working with equal (if not more) levels of raging optimism and ambition. 20 years later I can now say without doubt we made our small dent (along with the millions of others laudable in a million different ways) to bring humanity back from ‘The Brink’!
I fundamentally believe in the power of community to direct collective action, and building The Sustainability Mafia was in my opinion the best way to organize the chaos around the word ‘sustainability' and the solutions that existed. Our fundamental goal was to “make sustainable solutions all of humanity’s default choice”. By decluttering, giving narrative, converting each solution into a habit loop, and then feeding the newly created public demand! This seemed long-drawn, thankless and daunting at the time because a TON of solutions existed, but they were largely inaccessible, complexly communicated, wrongly valued and not fun to use. Default choice worthy? Absolutely heckin not!
If we really wanted to make the dent we wanted, we had to take a two-fold approach. Organize the Supply side of solutions. And parallel-y foster plus fuel the Demand side. To organize the supply side, we took inspiration from the 90’s classic cartoon 'Captain Planet' and broke down existing sustainable solutions into a big basket of 36, housed within the 5 main elements of Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Heart. We then recruited super awesome entrepreneurs from each of these themes, labelled them our Mafiosos, and built a rich community focused on value exchange, storytelling and collaboration around them! In parallel, we were also building out the demand side, which involved attracting anyone who wanted to make sustainability their default choice, labelling them our army of Soldatos, and channelling toward them a steady drip of quality, sustainability related information. What were the solutions available? Why were they obviously required? How convenient were they to integrate? How economically viable were they to procure? How satisfying were they to use? Essentially re-tailoring our basket of 36 time tested and powerful solutions into new habits. Through good Communication. Good Design. Good Economics. And good Psychology. Drip by drip.
It worked! It took about a decade or so, but it worked! The mass movement and impact we were looking for only really started shaping up in the second year of our operation, roughly when our 100,000th Soldato climbed aboard and chose to make sustainability a default choice. After that inflection point, our Mafiosos’ basket of solutions were THE only choices anyone really wanted to design around or adopt when building a habit, a product, a home, factory or even just when moving from one place to another! The collective impact on the environment from the sum of the micro ripples we created was clearly there for all to see by 2030! Humanity as we knew it had a new approach to living: one fundamentally in tune with the Environment, Society as well as the Economy -> True Sustainability.
By the turn of that decade, I started thinking more deeply about Material Ecology - a term coined by Professor Neri Oxman (at the MIT Media Lab). Particularly her observation that "historically our environments have been assembled and manufactured, but in the Future they must be grown”. With the democratization of the sustainability habit behind, I wanted to dive deep into ‘growing' Future landscapes. Post-2030, sustainable architecture became my overarching obsession. I was convinced that our living habitats and transportation systems could be drastically revolutionized with the DNA of zero-waste, zero-energy, carbon capture and dematerialization. I’m proud that for the last 10 years, I have been growing decentralized and livable ecosystems across the Planet with this ethos in mind.
However, I believe that the turn of this decade is seeding yet another inflection point in my life! I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favorite sci-fi movies from the 2010s : Interstellar. The protagonist ‘Cooper' watches an approaching dust storm and laments "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt”. I’m glad we buckled up during the climate emergency and lifted our eyes up from the dirt, however I want us to start looking up and wonder about our place in the stars once again. I believe that we’ve saved Earth and we’ll always call her home, but our Futures will be written in the stars. I want to use what I’ve learnt through the sustainability habit and growing landscapes, to find our place in the stars. But that’s a story for another day.
I’ll end with what I believe are the common key ingredients that those in The Greatest Generation harnessed to mitigate the climate emergency:
a scoop of insatiable curiosity,
a dollop of unreasonable optimism, and
a generous sprinkle of magical realism.
I’m convinced that in 2040 these continue to be the same ingredients as we Build The Future. Upward and onward!