John Pabon, author Sustainability for the Rest of Us

Judging by the cover art, John Pabon may have taken a little inspiration from the hugely successful book “The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson; but in Pabon’s treatise on sustainability, his counter-intuitive approach is to think less about protest and more about persuasion.

I’ve followed John on LinkedIn for some time and found myself silently Hear! Hear!-ing in agreement whenever he’s posted a controversial comment or link. So, when The Fifth Estate gave me the opportunity to pick an interesting book to review, I jumped at the chance to read his latest offering.

Sustainability for the Rest of Us is only just over 200 pages so it’s manageable in a week or so (maybe even less as we all sit here in the middle of a not-lockdown) and it’s full of anecdotes and examples of what Pabon likes to call “Pragmatic Altruism”.

The challenge for improving sustainability, he suggests, is that “The Greenies have ruined everything” by making it all sound undesirable and difficult. This accusation is the fundamental premise of the book; that climate change activists are demanding a future where everyone has to sacrifice everything, live off grid without our smartphones and turn away from all the technologies and luxuries we’ve invented over the last 200 years.

You and I know this is probably an impossible ask and yet those same environmentalists use reproachful or disruptive methods that make it all the more easy to dismiss them and the cause (Think Greta Thunburg shaming us and Extinction Rebellion delaying our commute). There’s no pragmatism or working within the realities of modern society for them so it feels like no progress is made. Academics get equally short shrift for pontificating from their ivory towers without any practicality or real-life application.

It doesn’t matter how strongly these protesters and academics might feel because Pabon tell us “passion, without pragmatism, is just complaining”.

So instead of beating ourselves up, Pabon believes we need to look to the corporate sector for widespread and lasting change. He notes that many companies have balance sheets and influence bigger than those of small countries and they’re motivated to do the right thing from a place of self-preservation and shareholder pressure, if nothing else. He gives the reader a crash course in sustainability terminology and key issues so that when we read about those large multinationals congratulating themselves in their annual reports we can apply the necessary scepticism and materiality.

In fact, this theme of impact and materiality is probably one of my favourite arcs in the book. Pabon points out how we’ve all been convinced that the future of civilisation hinges on whether we as individuals put the right type of plastic in the recycling bin or decline that plastic straw but no-one is asking the big questions like why can companies continue to pollute without appropriate penalty? or How can populations keep growing without any limitation? We must split our resources and start attacking all of these big challenges, not all work on the same old ones that get the most attention.

Pabon shares his experience at the UN as a cautionary tale of when good people with good intentions are either ineffectual or, worse, actively stifle progress by saying “yes” to too many things or listening to the wrong people who don’t understand the problem.

He points out how often philanthropy is misplaced and unsustainable and usually for the vanity of the giver rather than the benefit of the recipient. One example that challenged my preconception that philanthropy was harmless was the “free shoes for the third world” program, de-skilling local cobblers over time.

Instead of old-fashioned philanthropy, Pabon challenges us to look for the shared value created when we do what we are good at for people that genuinely need it. A great example he shares is a life skills educational program for 100,000 factory workers in China and rather than signing up for that one off clean up or dog petting day he recommends donating your professional skills in an ongoing way so that charity isn’t wasting their precious donations in accounting or clerical work.

For those of us on the front line of sustainability, the 5-point plan outlined in the book may not include anything incredibly new or ground-breaking but just like the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, the advice is simple and cuts through all the noise to highlight what really matters.

I’ve always had this nagging worry that I’m not militant enough or too quick to compromise perfection but this book shows pragmatism is not only acceptable but necessary to achieve broad change. We’ve got to focus on what we can do and not try to do everything at once. We’ve got to be inclusive rather than arrogant and listen to those that are experiencing change and difficulty first-hand. We must celebrate those that do good things and not just elevate those that claim to be perfect. If the rest of us do that then we’ll achieve far more than a few climate change warriors.

Final verdict: 4 Stars out of 5. One to give to your CFO, significant other, neighbour to let them know that not everyone needs to be Greta Thunberg.