Columnists: Ruth Mourik, DuneWorks

Published on: 26 Sep 2017

I am proud you work for a cleaning company, Mom!

Last week rain was pouring down from the sky in the Netherlands, a pretty typical September day in our wet country. Each time we wake up to find such weather, our family has to make the decision whether to use the car to drive the kids to school or take the bike and use raincoats. We all hate these raincoats because they make you wet with sweat. Despite the fact that it was raining cats and dogs my nine-year-old daughter said: “We should do the environmental right thing and ride the bike to school”.

Just before arriving, my daughter observed that we were one of the few people riding the bike to school, and out of the blue said: “Mom, I am proud you work for a cleaning company”.

My first reaction, to be honest, was proud denial: “I do NOT work for a cleaning company! You know what I do, I do research on sustainability issues!”. My daughter answered: “I know, you clean up the climate mess humans make, so you work for a cleaning company!”

The feeling this conversation caused took me back to another conversation I had two years ago with my girls. A mini tornado had hit a village a few kilometers from where we live and destroyed a few farms in a village in the Netherlands, not Texas, an unthinkable nature event in my country. The girls asked what they should do if a tornado would hit us. At that time I was dumbstruck. I was actually having a conversation with my girls about how to deal with a tornado?!

Two years later we have one big nature event after another all over the world and the Netherlands is getting its fair share of inundated cities, hailstones as big as ping pong balls, and mini tornados. My girls consider nothing as weird anymore, only sad and scary. Climate change is business as usual for a lot of our kids, whether we adults acknowledge its human cause or not.

I was amazed how much climate change is on top of mind of my daughter, so much so that the rain pouring down made her think about how this rain might be created by emissions, and how we avoided emissions by not taking the car. But her comment about me working for a cleaning company startled me.

This feeling of unease her comment created was not because she was wrong. On the contrary, she was very right: most of the people I work with, and most of the projects we work on are indeed no longer trying to prevent climate change. Most of the activities we undertake today are about cleaning up and bracing for impact. My work has changed in the course of the past few years, from avoiding the worst and focusing on mitigating to accepting the almost inevitable and focusing on adapting. For example, we now work on nature based solutions to adapt to impacts cities face such as heat stress or inundation. So we have indeed become a cleaning company.

What made me react so strongly is that her comment suddenly made something very clear. It was one of those moments when things fall in place. I had been struggling with a little professional midlife crisis for some time. The sense of purpose my work used to give me had been diminishing but I did not fully understand why. Until her comment.

Not only did my work and my company increasingly focus on climate adaptation, the projects we do are no longer aimed at the more fundamental systemic change needed that got me started years ago. Our projects are about making sure we use a little less, or more efficiently or a little bit more green. So we tickle the system a little bit, making small changes in small places. But we no longer aim big, dream big dreams, and really challenge the fundamentals of the way we produce and use energy, we do no longer aim at societal transformation. Somehow, we have quietly and without being aware of this, surrendered and focused on adaptation, on cleaning up the mess…

It took a few days, but my daughters comment woke me up! I felt protest and energy surging in my bones again! So what to do now, what are the topics and type of projects that would help avoid the mess, instead of accepting it and focusing on cleaning up? The answer is: Sufficiency! How can we meet our needs and be happy, but with an adequate yet modest way of living? This question is the way forward in challenging and fundamentally rethinking how we use energy and what for, and its connection to sustainable development.

So, although my daughter is proud I work for a climate cleaning company, I am not ready to adapt to that title… I do not want to focus on cleaning up solely, I do enough of that at home already. Thanks to her, and because of her I want to prevent part of the mess! So, with newly felt energy I now hope to contribute to making sufficiency business as usual! Let’s see how long this new found energy stays when faced with the next really rainy day…


Other columns by Ruth Mourik