The Sustainability Mindset Principles: A Guide to Developing a Mindset for a Better World

The Sustainability Mindset Principles: A Guide to Developing a Mindset for a Better World
Isabel Rimanoczy

Routledge, NY, NY, 2021
254 pp., illus. 7 b/w. Paper, $42.95
ISBN: 978-0-367-55900-7

Reviewed by: 
Gregory Tague
July 2021

I could not imagine a more inspiring book than Isabel Rimanoczy’s The Sustainability Mindset Principles. Although we live in a world suffering from one ravaging disaster after another, whether a pandemic or climate catastrophe, here is a book that offers a blueprint for individuals, groups, and leaders to effect meaningful change. In his Foreword, Chris Laszlo notes how Rimanoczy offers a practical “roadmap” for educators to prepare and engage a new generation of business leaders in sustainable thinking not just to reduce harms but to achieve positive impacts. Reflecting on the tragedies of Covid-19 in her Preface, Rimanoczy says that the world now knows there are more stable patterns for how to live. Rimanoczy studied successful business leaders to understand how the elements of a mind shift could be developed with a goal for outward change. This research led to courses and the establishment of a larger, wider program that includes instructors and business leaders. As she shows, there are many ways to develop the sustainability mindset across disciplines, from economics and entrepreneurship to physics, literature, art, philosophy, or psychology.

Rimanoczy addresses how despite an explosion of sustainability courses across global campuses, the data input into students does not seem to translate into action. Another approach is needed – a new habit of mind regarding values and beliefs. As she says, this mindset arises from “social sensitivity” and is expressed in a desire aimed at “the greater good of the whole.” Introspection becomes meaningful action. In Western culture, logical, rational thinking is rewarded more than non-traditional forms of creativity. This enculturation of rationality has set like concrete in the brain networks of most people in spite of neural plasticity because it’s routinely reinforced and guides our perceptions. Rimanoczy suggests alternative ways of thinking and being. While there are benefits to analytical thought, it tends to ignore a holistic perspective and interconnections of seemingly unrelated parts, cycles, and larger relations. We now have serious health and environmental issues because of paradigms set up, adopted, and unchanged from at least 50 years ago, patterns that ignored the larger picture of the land, water, and air. A focus on the rational, such as energy production and consumption at any cost, precludes the emotional consequences, like social and environmental implications of climate change. Rimanoczy argues for more “personal engagement” and not a standstill attitude of corporate profitability. She rightly puts forth questions like these in the face of dramatic climate change. “What does this mean for me? How does it make me feel?” Data should be connected to emotional and not automated response so people can ask about their role in problems and solutions. Her point seems to be that the social and natural worlds should be considered as one, not separate, and part of self-identity. With a sustainability mindset one comes to grips with how her social action (or, perhaps, inaction) has consequences for nature’s ecosystems with which she is entwined.

For each principle Rimanoczy includes a definition, a teaching goal, and a metacognitive goal. There are also prompts, stories, and resources in each chapter. There are four large arenas that encompass the principles: ecological world view; systems of processing information; emotional intelligence; and spiritual intelligence. In chapter 2 Rimanoczy gets to Principle 1, ecoliteracy, which involves environmental understanding for personal engagement. She notes how some corporate leaders, like one interviewed from the fast food business, were ignorant of the scope of the environmental problems caused by their corporations. Fortunately, executives have at least passing awareness of how companies instigate climate harms. Ecoliteracy is not simply cognitive data but emotional content about how an individual is connected to and makes meaning with the environment. Problems are not solved via intellectual information alone. As she says, it’s important “to link data with meaning” to find significance about our lives on an emotional level. On a teaching plane, Rimanoczy relates how students, faced with the dire consequences of climate change, must not be left with feelings of helpless indifference.

Principle 2, also part of the ecological worldview, covers individual contribution. This principle deals with raising one’s consciousness about how he contributes to the climate ills of the planet. In some cases, for the corporate leaders Rimanoczy interviewed, the magnitude of contribution is both strategic and technical; for many others, the scale is domestic. There’s a connection between one’s moral emotions, actions, and the external environment. Making that link evident is crucial, especially for executives. However, even among consumers such connections are important. One has to overcome cognitive dissonance to really feel what’s at stake and how one unintentionally participates in and contributes to unsustainable practices, like electric usage. The point is to empower individuals, principally young people, because of their emotions so as to solve environmental problems.

Chapter 4 explores the area of systems thinking with Principle 3, long-term approaches. Contrary to analytical thinking or fragmentation, systems intelligence examines pattern flows, feedbacks, and integration best exemplified in the processes of nature. As the word suggests, ecosystems are systems; so, contamination of one part will have deleterious effects sooner or later on connected locations. This principle considers the future, and goals are important for business leaders and mainly students to consider. A solution to an immediate problem might not best serve future generations, like consumption and disposal. One has to reflect on the daily habits of his own life that amount to negative impacts on the environment, such as driving rather than walking or gross consumption of fast foods packaged in plastics.

Systems thinking is continued in chapter 5 where the idea of both + and is discussed. This principle tries to break the ingrained either/or mentality that pervades much social thought. The example Rimanoczy gives is either/or in business as usual, not friendly to sustainability. In her model there’s room for both. Dualistic thinking, which can be reductive, is the product of an automatic emphasis on logic and rationality. This perspective promotes dominance and not inclusion or diversity. She says there’s psychological development in stages with increasing social awareness, and as people grow their creative consciousness can accommodate the both + and mentality to manage problems, breaking away from stasis. Granted, the either/or mentality exists for a reason as a shortcut to make quick decisions, like approach/withdraw. This does not exclude alternate modes like both + and. Either/or helps eliminate uncertainty, but ambiguity can be a valid element in decision-making.

Flow in cycles is Principle 5 and continues in the vein of systems thinking. Rimanoczy focuses on cycles in nature opposed to the linear thinking of humans. An example of linearity is how most human societies extract resources from the earth, manufacture products, and eventually discard those items as waste. This process is pollution heavy and depletes energy that continually evaporates. What’s needed is a flow in cycles, as occurs naturally in the biology of ecosystems. For example, recycling by humans repurposes items otherwise slated as trash. She notes how businesses need to participate in the flow of reuse and not simply leave it up to consumers who turn many products into garbage. More than recycling, leftovers could become parts of new products, much as waste in nature becomes food or other usable matter from one organism to another. Ecology is natural cycles, she emphasizes, evident in hunter-gatherer societies. In today’s world, there are moral and ethical issues regarding the use/disuse of resources. This principle calls for a radical new design of most business and social practices. Linear, unstable practices are epitomized in industrialization whereas natural flows appear in hunter-gatherer groups. The flaw for the past few hundred years in most developed countries has been for individuals to find identity in possessions. Massive consumerism with subsequent disposal is not sustainable.

System thinking goes on with Principle 6, interconnectedness, which implies incorporating diversity and relationships while avoiding fragmentation. As she relates, the scientific revolution sought a mechanistic explanation of the world where parts could be separated and studied, all of which exploded in the nineteenth century with machine governance over nature. With the rise of quantum physics in the twentieth century, holistic interconnection over fragmentation was emphasized and influenced disciplines as varied as psychology (Gestalt) and ecology (Gaia). This history is important since it sheds light on values of individualism and control, which have led to practices of accumulation, wealth aggrandizement, and unstable habits. As Rimanoczy says, nature is less about autonomous independence and more about interdependent webs. This is the most broadly conceived principle since interconnection implies systems, spirituality, and biology, questioning our independence from earth.

In chapter 8 we move to a new area, emotional intelligence, which begins with Principle 7, creative innovation. Emotional intelligence is a means of staying in touch with one’s feelings and those of others to guide behavior. Rimanoczy sees three areas of emotional intelligence related to a sustainability mindset: creative innovation, reflection, and self-awareness. She explores the importance of non-rational, imaginative thinking as a partial means to problem solving. Intuition along with aesthetics can be dynamic prompts for innovation. Importantly, she connects creative ability to resilience, or the ability to adapt. How will one leave a place in which she lived? Hunter-gatherers are resilient enough to make use of what’s available while not ravishing the environs to which they might return. This attitude should be transferred to industrial management theory and practice. Creativity is critical in an area like sustainability since there are no models to copy; rather, one needs to invent a better method.

Emotional intelligence also includes Principle 8, reflection, in chapter 9. Putting one’s thoughts on pause is a helpful tool in seeing the larger picture to explore and generate designs without impulsive reaction. Typically, this is a physical and mental response: walking, listening to music, or meditating. Reflection is self-consciously active, not passive. This principle is related to process thinking: what happened; what does it mean; what next. Implicit is questioning one’s assumptions so as to think sustainably. Critical thinking is the opposite of spontaneous, automatic behavior in order to appreciate the complexity of problems and solutions. On a larger level one can reflect on one’s values that often are embedded in unsustainable practices, such as material acquisition coming at a fast pace with little reflection. Rimanoczy says speed is overrated and often leads to competition.

The section on emotional intelligence concludes with chapter 10 and Principle 9, self-awareness, or how values and beliefs are scrutinized to reveal unsustainable practices. Specifically, which assumptions has one inherited or learned and can they change? How does one become conscious of behaviors taught as automatic? How can one with self-awareness alter unsustainable actions in others? With leading questions like these we see how consciousness of one’s learned and shared identity impacts collective conscience. Are the values we embrace truly what we believe? One can change her mind and espouse other values. Self-awareness involves analyzing paradigms of behavior to develop sustainable habits. Self-examination is not just for adaptive but preventive change, which comes through education.

A new part of the book begins with spiritual intelligence, Principle 10 or purpose, in chapter 11. For Rimanoczy, spiritual intelligence is how one connects to and makes a contribution. What is the higher order? Where does one find meaning and purpose? In her research she found spirituality to be an altruistic factor among some business leaders who want to do good works. This is a matter of aligning life priorities not just for one’s own needs but for others. She sees how many people’s purpose centers on stopping climate change in line with the United Nations goals for sustainable development. This principle balances with the others, like ecoliteracy, personal contribution, long-term thinking, and self-awareness in terms of what’s to be done, not what’s in it for me. For young, upcoming leaders, hands-on projects, like neighborhood clean-ups or community gardens, are transformative, she notes.

Spiritual intelligence moves into chapter 12 as Principle 11, oneness with nature. Though sounding cliché, humans are one of many species. This principle draws from interconnectedness and rises above the notion of human exceptionalism, derived from the Bible. Rimanoczy acknowledges obliquely eco-psychology and embodied cognition in reference to aboriginal people who don’t view their bodies or minds as separate from nature. This is an ethical stance. Which is more sacred: energy in the earth or in human cities? The anthropocentric view has been good for us but bad for the planet, consequently not beneficial for us. Will humans really fabricate new technology to save the world considering how machines are a big part of the problem? Nature is not some object out there to be probed and dissected for human consumption. If people can feel solidarity with nature, movement toward sustainable goals can be achieved. Part of the problem, she admits, is that most people simply do not spend time experiencing nature without their friends, devices, or pets.

The main part of the book ends with a final look at spiritual intelligence in chapter 13 covering Principle 12, mindfulness. This important principle is like a hinge to all the others: inner and outer responsiveness are both critical for sustainable action. Rimanoczy defines mindfulness as “alert consciousness” where we are in touch with ourselves non-rationally and without judgment, holistically present without actually thinking. She cites the neurobiological paybacks of meditation in reducing stress. Meditation can be focused on nature, and from the early 2000s there’s been a movement for ecological mindfulness. Practiced correctly, mindfulness can help develop positive emotions and good social behaviors, cultural components to a sustainability mindset. Mindfulness is more than resilient adaptability; it enables one to foresee problems and solutions to effect stable changes of behavior.

Isabel Rimanoczy demonstrates a range of knowledge across disciplines, from the sciences, social sciences, technology, arts and humanities, history, and philosophy. The principles are moveable pieces in a sustainability mindset, scaffolding each other, but which can be rearranged by instructors as needed. One could rely on a few vital principles like contribution, reflection, self-awareness, purpose, and mindfulness. This book is about turning thoughts and feelings into ethical actions. The book is less about the subject of sustainability and more to facilitating a shift to the sustainability mindset. I admire Rimanoczy’s optimism about human cooperation and her emphasis on the education of tomorrow’s leaders, a worthy goal if we are to have a stable future.