My greatest storytelling challenge yet: overcoming the tragedy of the commons

Ten years ago this month, in a fit of desperate inspiration I set out with my wife Heather to produce the film, “Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop.” We hypothesized that independent retailers were dying in the onslaught of big box stores. We found otherwise in the communities that were fighting back, driven by a powerful narrative of self-sufficiency and “love thy neighbor.”  It was a transformative lesson. Everything I’ve done since then as a content creator and educator has had some sort of focus on community-engagement and connectivity.

And now it’s time to apply what I’ve learned to my greatest communications challenge yet: can we resolve the tragedy of the commons (our inherent inability to share and sustain our common natural resources) as we rush towards the last days of planet Earth?

A daughter's cause
A daughter’s cause

It’s a calling I can no longer resist, as various catalysts for action have suddenly emerged:

– I’ve co-founded the Prosperity of the Commons initiative, with its human-centric approach to sustainability.

– I’ve had initial conversations with the Seattle Aquarium about how my graduate students can support their communication efforts.

– I’m exploring a partnership with the World Bank to fulfill my daughter’s request that her family help save the oceans (which I mentioned at the end of my Drop the Mic TEDx talk).

– I’ve been nominated to the board of Climate Solutions

And this month, I’m hosting the inaugural Transition World conference, in collaboration with some remarkable people. It’s taking place at Kronborg Castle, the real-life setting for Shakespeare’s fictional “Hamlet.” Fittingly, leadership educator Richard Olivier — son of renowned classic actor Laurence — will read a passage about Denmark’s doomed prince at an evening gathering.

Update: here’s the five-minute highlight reel from the inaugural gala:

Here’s how we’ve framed Transition World:

We’re on the eve of profound transformation, propelled by both necessity and opportunity. For so long, we’ve struggled with our seemingly intractable inability to manage the precious, limited resources available to us — a veritable “tragedy of the commons.” This has endured while the existential threat of climate disruption, resource depletion and population explosion grows.

Now is our time and our chance to act differently, thanks to technology that connects us in once inconceivable ways. While these tools have already facilitated revolutionary transformation at a global scale, the more important shift is in our own hearts and minds. Suddenly, we can see new solutions to our historic challenges. We can come together as communities — not clans — to communicate and collaborate to evolve in a way that benefits both people and planet.

That is Transition World’s story, situated where Shakespeare’s haunted Hamlet appropriately asked the universal question, “To be or not to be?” It is here that we gather as individuals, civic groups, businesses, international organizations and public institutions. Together, we will share ideas, resources and networks. Through this powerful community we can re-imagine the world as a true prosperity of the commons.

Riverton City Dump, Jamaica
Jamaica’s Riverton Dump, by Hanson Hosein

This spring, I spent a number of weeks exploring the Caribbean (my family is from Trinidad & Tobago) with colleagues as we met with regional leaders, and proposed the application of some of the transformative solutions mentioned. We toured Jamaica’s largest garbage dump, a health hazard that is also home to hundreds of people. And yet we discussed very real opportunities to convert this location into a valuable, ecologically-safe asset that could ultimately benefit its immediate community. Sometimes overcoming the intractable truly can be as simple as “flipping the script.” Especially now as new technology gives us new approaches to trust and persuasion — key ingredients to resolving the tragedy of the commons.