Origin Story Interview w/ Ryan Hagen, Crowdsourcing Sustainability

Origin Story Interview w/ Ryan Hagen, Crowdsourcing Sustainability

Brighter Future


Apr 26, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #CrowdsourcingSustainability #ClimateChangeActivism #CollectiveImpact #climateactivist

Brighter Future

We had the pleasure to sit down with Ryan Hagen, climate activist and founder of Crowdsourcing Sustainability, a community platform that brings together the collective energy, intelligence, and actions of people around the world to make our future safer, more just, and healthier.

Thank you so much for joining us, Ryan. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your project?

I’m a huge sustainability nerd— and have been obsessed with climate change and sustainability pretty much ever since it crossed my radar 10 years ago in college. At the time, I made a promise to myself that I would find a way to make a career out of working on climate because I saw it as the greatest challenge facing humanity. Ever since then, I have been trying to wrap my head around, like, what can I do personally to help solve this problem by changing my own life? And also, what can I do through work to help everyone solve this problem quicker? After college, I worked in clean technology for a few years, but felt like there was more that I could be doing.

In part, the media's lack of coverage of climate change both in quality and quantity motivated me to start Crowdsourcing Sustainability. I believed that we needed more people power, and that was going to start with talking about climate more, and in more effective ways. Crowdsourcing Sustainability is a grassroots non-profit movement committed to reversing global heating as quickly and equitably as possible. We do that by building the climate movement's power, by driving cultural change, and mobilising people worldwide to accelerate the implementation of climate solutions in homes, schools, cities, and companies worldwide. We believe everyone is powerful and has something valuable to contribute to solving this problem.

With our newsletter, which reaches over 200,000 people in 150+ countries, our podcast, and our online community, we are consistently informing minds, touching hearts, and inspiring action. We aim to strengthen existing climate champions and onboard new ones by connecting people to resources, climate experts, hope, peer organisations, and each other. We aim to empower people everywhere to make science-based and justice-centred policy and investment decisions within their spheres of influence.

Deciding to start this was scary. But I figured that even if it didn't work out the way I wanted, maybe it could still make my friends and family think about this differently. Even if it “failed,” raising my voice and letting others know I cared about this issue could still create an impact.

Where does the name Crowdsourcing Sustainability come from?

The idea behind crowdsourcing is that a lot of people together can accomplish things that no one person would be able to do alone— kind of like the idea that the sum is greater than its parts. By combining our unique ideas, skills, experiences, and networks, we can achieve more together than we could on our own. This is what the climate crisis requires— a collective effort that multiplies our impact.

Sounds great. Together, we can move mountains. Could you share with us a bit about your roots and personal journey?

I have a couple of things to share about my journey towards sustainability. My mom and grandmother instilled a deep appreciation for nature in me by sharing their passion for gardening and birds. Also, my grandfather and family in general— they wouldn’t have called it sustainability, but they didn’t like to waste anything. Another important value I learned from my grandmother and dad was treating absolutely everyone with respect and kindness, regardless of who they are and seeing the value in everybody.

Fast-forwarding to college, I was studying in business school and had an internship that didn't feel meaningful. I first became aware of climate change when I was around 21, and I had a moment of “oh my gosh, is this real? Why isn’t everyone talking about it? Why aren’t we doing more about this?”.

So I did some research and of course realised that climate change is real, and started to connect the dots of what that meant for the future. And I quickly grasped onto this idea that if we get climate wrong, nothing else would be right— because climate is the context in which everything else that we care about takes place. It’s a foundational problem that impacts the very building blocks of our society, from food to water to even the safety of where we live. Everything else we care about stands to unravel if we don’t stabilize our climate and preserve our ecosystems.

So that was a turning point for me. I started looking at solving this problem as the best way for me to help save and improve as many lives as possible.

You mentioned having an “Aha!” moment at the age of 21. Have you experienced any more of these moments throughout your journey?

I don't think any were as big as that first one but I would say there were some important realizations that increased my understanding of the issue over time. In the beginning, I didn't fully understand how close it already was to us and in place and time. I didn't understand it was already affecting people's lives around the world, especially people in the most affected countries and those relying on the weather for their jobs and their food and their water so directly.

There's also a massive justice component that’s important to understand. How we solve climate change really matters, and making sure we do it in a way that maximizes justice to all people. Also, it’s not the only piece of it, but in my mind how quickly we do it really matters a lot. In some sense, speed is justice when it comes to climate because how quickly we solve this, one way or the other, will impact a hell of a lot of people both today and in the future. If we do it quickly and equitably, we can save and improve a lot of lives.

So, while not “Aha!” moments per se, these realisations represent an evolution of my understanding of the problem over time.

Indeed, it is absolutely a global matter, and no lives will be untouched by it entirely. We’re all in this together. That said, who specifically are you trying to reach with Crowdsourcing Sustainability? You must have a target audience.

We're really speaking to the people who care about climate already— the folks who are alarmed or concerned about this. We let them know that they’re right to feel that way and try to validate that whatever you're feeling emotionally is a natural response to such a threat to our way of life. We try to help people navigate their climate journey, the emotions, and provide guidance on what they can do to make a difference. We offer suggestions on actions they can take at home, in their city, town, company, or school, emphasising the greater impact of organising and creating change beyond themselves.

So what we do is primarily aimed at this group (about 60% of people in the US), but we hope that anyone will be able to read and find it valuable. We strive to make it simple, approachable, and free from shaming or guilt-tripping. We believe that blaming people for existing in a broken system is unproductive and unhelpful. Our content is specifically written for those who care and want to do more, and it comes straight from the heart.

Your sincerity is beautiful. What part of this work do you find most fulfilling?

It’s honestly the people. There are several levels to that. First, there are all the amazing people who read the newsletter, listen to the podcast, or are part of our online community. I love talking with them, hearing from them, and learning about their work. So many people are doing incredible work; hearing about them gives me hope and inspires me. It's extremely fulfilling to learn how our work at Crowdsourcing Sustainability has impacted people's lives or work and motivated them in various ways. Some of my favorite stories are from those who go from doing nothing or come from a place of despair and turn it into activism.

So people's stories are the most fulfilling for me. Especially at the beginning, when we weren't reaching many people, I felt like I was writing into the proverbial void. But when the first stories started coming in in response, I knew we were making a difference. Knowing that people are resonating with our work and bringing it into the world in powerful ways is incredibly fulfilling.

Another fulfilling aspect of my work is the people I work with. We have a fantastic team at Crowdsourcing Sustainability. There’s Rachel Taylor, our full-time community-weaver, connector, and leader; there’s Julia Chacur, who leads our fundraising efforts from Brazil; Diego Rentsch is our podcast and video editor, and Emily Elliott works on our social media and web development. These people are all super passionate and kind, and it’s really great to work with them.

Additionally: of course, I love to interview people on the podcast and learn from their experiences. Part of my job is to follow my curiosity on climate and what people can do, and I get to learn constantly from super smart people doing amazing things— which is also fulfilling.

Is there a particular person, movie, or book that has really inspired you in your journey?

As far as movies, one that really stuck with me was Al Gore’s famous “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary. It helped spark my understanding of the enormity and importance of climate change.

I have a few inspirational quotes that come to mind. One comes from the Dalai Lama, where he talks about the true meaning of life and emphasises the importance of contributing to other people’s happiness. Another powerful quote is from the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said that we should never doubt that a small small group of committed people can change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has.

I also find inspiration from Carl Sagan's “Pale Blue Dot” quote, which puts our small planet into perspective and reminds us to prioritise love for one another and our collective well-being.

In addition to these quotes, I have published lists of my favourite books, newsletters, podcasts, and documentaries on climate and sustainability. (You can find them here: Books, Podcasts, Newsletters, Documentaries)

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered during your journey?

Two challenges immediately come to mind. One is just learning how to do everything that you have to do to run a startup. Another challenge that stands out to me is managing people. While I worked in a corporation for a few years after graduation, I had never managed anyone before I founded Crowdsourcing Sustainability. But I started managing volunteers and interns early on there, and at this point I’ve been doing it for five years.

There has been a bit of a learning curve, and there were times when I bit off more than I could chew. For example, one summer, I brought on eight interns; looking back, I realised that I needed to have my act a little more together in terms of defining people's roles and work more clearly.

I could have made their work clearer so they would have less stress in their day about what they were supposed to be doing. I am still a work in progress, but I believe I am improving. I treat everyone with respect and constantly strive to become a better leader internally for the team.

The other challenge was not making money, which is still a struggle. I have been doing this since the end of 2017, and I have lived at home every year except one since this started to make this project possible financially. Especially in the first couple of years, it was difficult to know if this would work, with only a few people reading the newsletter in the beginning and some people close to me gently suggesting that I should check out other jobs. It was challenging to keep the faith and persevere. But I held onto the idea that this was going to work, and that there was something here based on what I was hearing from some of the readers and the impact it was having.

Aside from the feedback you received from early readers, what gave you the faith that you could really make it and get as many people as you have now paying attention to your work?

I'm still surprised by the number of interested people. Sometimes I think, “Oh my gosh, there are 200,000 people; this is amazing. How did this happen?” Maybe there was some level of stubbornness, but I really think a big piece of it was just… this is really important work. And there aren't nearly enough people talking about this stuff.

That’s absolutely right. People still don’t talk about this enough.

Part of the reason I started this was that mainstream media wasn't covering it enough. And when they did, it wasn't particularly helpful. They tended to focus on fear, doom, and gloom without giving people actions commensurate with the scale of the problem. It was like, “The sky is falling— make sure you recycle!” So I felt that the way I was talking about it in the newsletter was important for people to hear.

The organisation has always been called Crowdsourcing Sustainability. But our newsletter was initially called “What on EARTH,” and “Earth” was an acronym. The “E” stood for something exciting, the “A” for something alarming, the “R” for a random quote, the “T” for taking sustainable action, and the “H” for highlighting someone awesome.

I had this sandwich of content where the “A” was always there to increase people’s understanding of what serious things were happening and going on. But there's also exciting stuff happening, so that would be included with “E”. The random quote was always something inspirational or thought-provoking, and then we gave people something to act on with the “T,” and highlighted someone doing amazing work with the “H”.

That sort of recipe helped keep people engaged and thinking about the topic. Then, over time, the newsletters provided a kind of “menu” of actions people could take, letting them know that they can do all sorts of things to make a difference— whatever works best for them.

I trusted my gut that this work was needed right now.

That’s very balanced. There are a lot of people out there struggling with eco-anxiety, so people need this mood-boost of at least somewhat-positive news regarding what's happening out there. Unfortunately, the media can sometimes be too negative.

Absolutely. And we are not conventional media. That’s super important. This allows us to instill some level of emotion, personality, and authenticity. People need emotion in communications about climate change. There needs to be some acknowledgement of how serious and challenging the issue is. Validating people's emotions and helping them work through them is important for increasing action and promoting sustained action and well-being because it's easy to feel overwhelmed by this issue.

What kind of future do you envision creating through your work? What are your hopes for the future with Crowdsourcing Sustainability?

We aim to create world that is safe, healthy, and just for everybody. I can share some specifics of what I envision— part of it is just the basics of a future where the water is clean and safe to drink, and the air is not polluted by all the burning of fossil fuels that we do right now. According to the World Health Organization, 99.9% of the world's population breathes air that isn’t safe. I think we often overlook how harmful our current systems are. So I imagine clean water and clean air; I imagine cities with fewer cars in them; more public spaces; and more nature being integrated into everything. Fewer cars and more public space will create more community and help people develop more social connections than we currently have. Over the decades, we have lost much of our sense of community.

I could go on and on, but I also want to mention my recent writings on supply chain justice and the entire economic system we have created. Currently our system prioritises profit over people and the planet. And so I envision a future where the opposite is true— we prioritise people, the planet, ecosystems, and other life on Earth over money. We must integrate these values into our systems because they are not currently reflected. We need to see ourselves as a part of nature rather than separate from it and better than it. Doing these things can create ripple effects that will improve people's lives and make the world more just, safe, and healthy.

What kind of legacy do you think you’d like to leave behind?

“Legacy”, that’s a big word. I don’t know. I just try to do my best, and I hope other people do the same. When enough of us step up and try to make things better, they’re going to get better.

What advice would you offer to a young entrepreneur interested in working in the climate space?

It might seem silly because it’s so basic, but one of the most important things is to be kind to everyone. This cannot be understated; valuing people and assuming positive intent is critical. I learned this from one of my first bosses, which has stuck with me ever since. It helps with communication and even day-to-day life. For example, if someone cuts you off while driving, it's much nicer to assume they're going to the hospital to have a baby rather than assuming they're just being reckless. I think assuming positive intent helps with relationships and working together and your own peace of mind.

It's also important to celebrate the wins and appreciating how far you've come instead of always focusing on the future and how far you still have to go. That definitely makes a difference and I’ve learned that a bit late. Additionally, assuming that things will take twice as long as you think they will might also help with peace of mind.

Being authentic is also hugely important, as well as being really intentional about who you surround yourself with, especially regarding teammates, partners, and your community.

If you had one last message to share with the world, what would it be?

I would say climate change really is the greatest challenge of our time. And it is scary. But it is also a huge opportunity for us to make the world better. We’re living in a very broken, dysfunctional, and harmful system, even if we don’t always acknowledge it. But there's an opportunity right now because we do need to change everything and we are seeing how broken it is. Things are going to change no matter what, and it's still in our power to choose how that change is going to look— it’s still in our power to choose what the future is going to be.

Everyone has way more power than they think. Whoever is listening to this or reading this: you are powerful.

What you do and what you say and what you think— it all ripples through your network and the places you belong to. If you change your home to make it more sustainable, your neighbours take notice. If you make your school or place of work climate-positive, other companies in that industry will follow suit.

Everyone has a lot of power, but when you organise and work together with other people, that power multiplies, and it can change the world. This type of work also brings a lot of meaning— there’s a sense of community and purpose, which is lacking in society right now. Doing this work is good on so many levels.

There is a vast difference between the best and worst-case scenarios, and much of what we end up with is still within our control. And what you do will make a hell of a lot of difference. If we succeed in building the safe, healthy, and just world we want, it will be because people like you and me stepped up.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. We hope your message of inspiration reaches as many hearts and minds as possible around the globe. The work of people like you will empower us all, in the end, to take positive action.

If you would like to learn more about Ryan’s work at Crowdsourcing Sustainability, sign up for his newsletter, or join the community, please visit www.crowdsourcingsustainability.org.

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