The Positive Deviant

The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World was first published in 2010. It is based on the course I designed and taught for at Forum for the Future for 20 years, and has since become a core text for multiple other university courses in several countries.

Following the thinking of The Positive Deviant, I have drawn many of the arguments for my newest book What Does Good Look Like? which you can find, and even contribute to, here.

Please see the abstracts below for an insight into The Positive Deviant, or alternatively, you can order your own copy here.

A Positive Deviant (PD) is someone who does the right thing for sustainability, despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and thoroughly uncooperative people.

Once a rare brave creature, now a growing band of PDs are creating a brilliant good news story. They are demonstrating to today’s panicking leaders that interconnected financial, ecological and social problems can have a happy resolution, if some basic sustainability principles are taken seriously.
This website is about how you can become a PD too (or polish your credentials!) wherever you are and whatever you do.
A couple of years ago I wrote a sort of DIY guide – The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a perverse world. It will get you started. Here you will find some extracts, but mostly this is about put its messages into practice. All to build confidence (mine as well as yours!) that it is entirely possible to decide and act in a way that is are more likely than not to take us in a sustainable direction.

The Global Sustainability to do List

If this section had a slogan, it would pinch that of the supermarket Tesco: ‘Every little helps’. Its purpose is to help you handle the argument that unsustainable development is globally so advanced that local contributions are pointless.Compared to the US or China, the UK’s emissions are tiny, so why bother when the big countries don’t? What difference will it make if I turn off the lights or you use a bicycle when those around us don’t?

Both practically and morally, the answer to both those questions is: a lot. If unsustainable development is the outcome of zillions of (mostly) unknowingly wrong decisions and actions then the route to sustainability will be paved by a similar magnitude of knowingly right decisions and actions. Even a miraculous edict or wholesale policy change from top levels of leadership in an organization, country or even an international body, while greatly to be desired, will only become reality through a multiplicity of relatively small and mostly local acts of implementation. Many of these will have to be in positive deviance mode, because there won’t be time to wait for top-down institutional reform before we get on with it. The challenge for the implementation brigade – the sustainability-literate positive deviants and those they motivate – is to maintain confidence over time that they are actually making a global contribution of value in what are bound to be turbulent times.

Tesco is well aware that a penny off this or that item in the weekly shopping trolley may not seem much, but actually adds up to a noticeable saving. In just the same way every contribution to a more sustainable way of doing things, however small, adds up. The talk of tipping points in relation to CO2 emissions triggering runaway climate change, needs to be countered by the positive message of tipping points in the other direction – from multitudes of actions that bring emissions down. Moreover, opting out or preaching hopelessness sends the wrong message both ecologically and philosophically. If I don’t, or you won’t, then why should anyone else? A negative psychological loop is created. But if I do and you do, then together we can create a positive loop that is attractive to others. Being in a positive club not only does good, it feels good too.

The crisis is in implementationKofi Annan, Johannesburg 2002

The previous section considered many ways for you to develop your own capacity to provide sustainability-literate leadership, so you are able to decide and act in favour of sustainability, regardless of the perversities of the world around you.

This section should help you to tell a good story about what a sustainable world might look like and describe the grand lines that will get us there. Like the Five Capitals Tool, it should help you see and talk about the interconnections between different elements of sustainability, but most of all it should help you connect, for yourself and others, the way local efforts can contribute to global outcomes.

There is just one chapter – Chapter 9 – which starts with the list and a short explanation about how it came about. For those interested in the longer story behind the way the list is constructed, that comes at the end.

Returning to the metaphor of Chapter 1, the Global Sustainability To Do List could be seen as the fitness regime the patient ALOE+US needs to complete in order to return to full health – assuming, that is, we have learnt our lesson, taken our medicine and stopped gorging on an unreformed and resource and soul-depleting human economic system.

In this fascinating book, Sara Parkin condenses her years of teaching experience into the definitive ‘how to’ guide to sustainability leadership Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development Surrey University.
  1. Guardian, 25 May 2009 []
  2. Z Corbyn, THE, 25 September 2008 []
  3. 24 October, 2009 []
  4. Global Environmental Change, No 18 []
  5. Editorial, Climate of Fear, 11 March []
  6. Neiman, 2009, p92 []
  7. Tett, Fools Gold, 2009 []