Sustainability Transformation: Between Conservatives and Tree Huggers

July, 2022

Sustainability Transformation: Between Conservatives and Tree Huggers

The IPCC report and the articles surrounding it evoke various reactions. Some people acknowledge the problem and recognize the urgency. They consciously choose sustainable or more environmentally friendly alternatives, opt for organic products, or limit their travel. Some even argue that the report is too conservative, that the probability distribution is flawed, and that the urgency and risks we face are much greater than described. Another group of people may be startled by the findings but want to “keep things enjoyable and continue to have enjoyable BBQs.” They may be aware of the problem, but that’s as far as it goes. Their goal for the next year is to achieve double-digit growth once the economy bounces back. The first group is often seen as tree huggers and idealists. The second group is seen as conservatives and currently holds the majority. If we want to mobilize conservatives to take action to preserve the world and shape the transformation, two things are needed:

  1. There must be a framework that allows both parties to engage in discussion. It shouldn’t dictate what is “good” or “bad” but rather facilitate understanding of each other’s perspectives. This framework can shed light on why ideas such as “regenerative agriculture” are not yet seen as real solutions.
  2. There should be space between conservative boundaries and idealistic goals. Once ideas emerge within that space, we can shift into action mode to develop those ideas.

In the following paragraphs, we will delve deeper into these two steps.

A ‘neutral’ frame of mind: longevity vs. potential

The framework where conservatives and “tree huggers” can find common ground consists of the time mindset (longevity) and potential. Their perspectives strongly differ along both axes.


The two opposing perspectives within the longevity dimension are Strategic Management Thinking and Generational Thinking. The fundamental difference lies in the time horizon within which results should be achieved. Strategic Management Thinking primarily focuses on short-term results. €1000 tomorrow is more valuable in the spreadsheets than €1200 in 10 years. From this perspective, sustainability should make logical sense for an organization, such as building a portfolio of ideas based on different market dynamics (sustainable forces). Generational Thinking, on the other hand, recognizes that there will be more people coming after us than those who came before us, and that we are just a moment in the development of humanity. Improving the lives of 1200 people in 10 years is more valuable than 1000 tomorrow. Here, the emphasis is on maximizing impact, regardless of whether it is achieved now or later. Both approaches are valid and logical but lead to different outcomes.


The other opposing perspectives, on the potential axis, are Limits Thinking and Regeneration Thinking. These ways of thinking view potential differently. Limits Thinking primarily focuses on limiting damage. If we stay within the boundaries in which nature can recover (the planetary boundaries), then we are in a “safe” zone. This involves reducing CO2 emissions, ocean acidification, pollution, water usage, and more. The Doughnut Economics model adds a social dimension, emphasizing the need to contribute to well-being. Limits Thinking is like the circle that a square business model needs to fit into. Regeneration Thinking, on the other hand, does not start with limits but instead focuses on designing based on natural principles. It recognizes nature as the best producer and manager, capable of creating more than what is needed. Regeneration Thinking is currently observed in sectors closely connected to nature, such as agriculture, mariculture (mussels, oysters), and forestry. Both perspectives are valuable, with Limits Thinking focusing more on conserving the system by reduction (more conservative), while Regeneration Thinking seeks to redesign systems inclusively (ecologically and socially). With this framework, we can better understand how someone looks at the problem from a particular perspective. It is noticeable that both Limits Thinking and Strategic Management Thinking are selective; they provide reasons not to do things. On the other hand, Regeneration Thinking and Generational Thinking work in opposite directions, focusing on creation and identifying actions that should be taken.

Both perspectives enable action

The “tree hugger” mindset is focused on creation and possibilities, while conservative mindsets are selective and limiting. This means we need to seek overlap. The creative ideas of tree huggers should stay within boundaries and align with the current rhetoric within organizations. Additionally, challenges that arise from limitations in organizations can be solved by employing alternative mindsets. Therefore, we need to search for the space, “the zone,” where our mindsets intersect. Why does this work? Every creative process consists of a combination of generative, creative thinking and limiting, selective thinking. Without both, there can be either too much or too little output. Of course, the basic rules for successful brainstorming still apply: no buts, suspend judgment, build upon each other’s ideas, and generate volume before selecting. Engage in conversations with both conservative thinkers and tree huggers. Explore each other’s perspectives and gather ideas within the framework of thinking. Collaborate on how to bring ideas into the “zone” and translate them into concrete projects.

Would you like to discuss this further? Send us a message to exchange thoughts.


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