By Jeffrey Merritt

As a child, when I’d start off a sentence with “I wish” or “I hope,” my dad was quick to retort with “wish in one hand and poop in the other and see which one fills up first.” (He actually used a different word, but you get the idea.) Kind of a tough message to deliver to a kid, so it stuck with me.

During my studies in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, I’ve often thought of this sentiment as it applies to sustainability. We are living in the Anthropocene, the geological period where human activity has been the dominant force, shaping the climate and the environment. We are burning fossil fuels and heating the planet. The percentage of the Earth’s population that lives in poverty is declining, but the number of people on the planet continues to grow—still leaving us with close to a billion struggling to simply survive. We’ve got many mouths to feed, but arable soil and potable water are getting scarce.

Hoping that things will improve isn’t going to get it done
Hope is not a strategy when it comes to sustainability. The world needs action, collaboration, and commitment from a lot of people to survive. It needs it right now. 

My XMNR classmates and I have studied a number of “systems”—water, food and agriculture, climate change, etc. Through the study of each, we evaluated several potential solutions, dissected these options, and prioritized them. While I didn’t recognize it at the time—maybe I didn't quite see the forest for the trees—these assignments were miniature examples of the work that worldwide leaders need to do to tackle our biggest sustainability problems. We need a collective strategy and, together, we need to execute that strategy quickly.

A perspective from the other side of the world

Flooded field near the Nile River, Egypt. Photo by Jeff Merritt
Flooded field near the Nile River, Egypt. Photo by Jeff Merritt

All MNR students participate in a Global Study (in non-pandemic times, anyway) to explore and better understand sustainability issues and challenges in countries around the world. My cohort’s destination was Egypt; the trip of a lifetime for many of us, to be sure, and definitely eye-opening. My classmates and I were exposed to an entirely different perspective compared to the life we live in the United States.

Take water, for example. For the most part, in the United States, we turn on the faucet in our homes and enjoy fresh water. We water our lawns, wash our cars, fill our swimming pools, and make sweet tea in the summer without care. Water is, seemingly, in abundance.

Now, let’s consider other countries. According to the United Nations report on global issues, almost 2 billion people live in countries that are experiencing water stress, and half of the planet’s population lack safely managed sanitation services. Hoping that it rains, hoping that everyone will get fresh water, hoping that we will farm without recklessly overusing water, or simply hoping that the problem will go away isn’t a strategy.

During my time on the Nile, I saw water challenges first-hand: pollution in the river, and the primitive farming practice of flooding fields. Egypt’s own 2018 Voluntary National Review notes that only 47 percent of rural households have access to sanitation services, compared to 92 percent in urban areas. Based on my readings and study of other countries, Egyptians are not alone. In fact, they most likely exemplify the challenges we see across the globe.

Developing a strategy and implementing it
Among many important takeaways from the XMNR program was the notion that lack of solutions is not the issue when it comes to global sustainability challenges. In fact, there are solutions on every topic—some better than others—but the real, meaningful impact doesn’t come from knowing the solutions; it comes from implementing them.

Leadership requires a number of skills. Leaders need to establish a clear direction, get everyone aligned on the solution and ensure their commitment to implementing the solution. Problems will not be solved by forcing compliance. After all, each country has its own governance and laws. Sanctions and wars might force some issues, but they’re not a sustainability strategy. Successful world leaders will need to gain commitment through partnership, collaboration, and influence. Those leaders will find ways to engage others and find common ground to build upon. Some will have to compromise, and everyone will likely be engaged in some form of negotiation to reach consensus. Some countries will lead by example. Some will have to offer support to others to bring them along.

Regardless of the unique system or challenge, there is an abundance of winning strategies that can work. It would be easy to hope that everyone will agree to solutions, but that’s not how the world works. After all, hope is not a sustainability strategy!

Jeffrey Merritt

Jeffrey (Jeff) Merritt is an alum of the Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program. He works at Cox Communications as the Market Vice President in Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations in the Roanoke Market, Jeff also serves as executive sponsor for Virginia’s Cox Conserves program and is Virginia’s Incident Commander for Business Continuity.