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If you want something very badly, you can achieve it. It may take patience, very hard work, a real struggle, and a long time, but it can be done. That much faith is a prerequisite for any undertaking, artistic or otherwise. 

—Margo Jones 

Success is moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

—Winston Churchill

In his 1984 book, Normal Accidents, sociologist Charles Perrow asserted that we should expect catastrophes because of the way in which our technology has outpaced our organizational ability to handle complexity. In numerous cases, including last week’s spill of nearly 60,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, we have seen this theory play out in our culture and around the world. Since this book was written, we have also seen a culture of sustainability emerge, first in specific circles and slowly growing to be embraced by various sectors and the broader public.

Perseverance is a quality that we can cultivate and apply to the transition that we are witnessing taking hold. Particularly in response to industrial accidents which require clean-up such as oil spills, there are countless individuals and agencies focusing their full attention on trying to limit the damage done. But there are also persistent threats that communities everywhere face where we must engage in consistent efforts to change practices and restore human and ecological health.

When we think about the answers that a sustainability approach might provide in cases where traditional industrial processes are still used, our ability to persevere-in both proposing alternatives to current practices and in working in partnership to develop solutions-is critical. The way in which we do this is also essential.

The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote: “The drops of rain make a hole in the stone not by violence but by oft falling.” Perseverance also requires that we conserve our energy for the long haul, that we work tirelessly, but wisely so that our energy and ideas will last as we answer the challenges we face in creating a more sustainable, humane society. Working with others is central in this quest. We still exist in a culture that values the primacy of individual initiative and organizational boundaries.

While respecting the unique gifts that individuals may bring, and the contributions of specific organizations, a commitment to working in a “trans-organizational” framework is critical, as author and organizational behaviorist Joan Roberts writes in her excellent book Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships. As a response to Perrow’s thoughts from nearly a quarter-century ago, working together in a cross-sector and interdisciplinary fashion may be an essential step in handling the complexity of the challenges we must address. It also uses the wisdom of the natural world many of us try so hard to conserve, protect and restore by applying ecological principles to human organizations. Rather than straight lines, we might imagine webs of accountability in our workplaces and communities.

Whatever the solutions are that we are beginning to design that reflect the deeper intelligence of nature in our own systems of organization, commerce and community, the spirit of perseverance helps to inspire us and encourages each of us to seek help and partnership in our work. If we are open to it, it can also focus our efforts and build new connections. And, equally important, perseverance also helps us to forgive ourselves for transgressions large and small, as we discover new ways to create healthier communities.

November 2007