Donna Morton, founder and executive director of the Victoria-BC-based Centre for Integral Economics, has been passionately working on environmental issues for a quarter of a century.
“I started thinking in terms of stopping things going wrong, stopping destruction. It was the work where you’re basically saying no to things that are harming people in the planet,” says Ms. Morton, who was an activist with Greenpeace in her youth. “Somewhere around 10 to 15 years ago, my work started to shift towards the things that we can say yes to. There was something exhausting for me — and I think it’s very true of many activists — that focusing on stopping things is actually very hard on your heart and spirit. It’s very negative work. And there comes a point in which even if you’re looking at what’s broken, you start to look at what are the things that can be done well, that actually feed people and are good for society and how can I play a role in being a craftsperson who can contribute to reinventing the world in a way that takes care of people and places and looks to the future with some kind of integrity.”
In many ways, Ms. Morton’s changing approach has evolved alongside that of the movement, which began with activists such as herself protesting environmental issues and has grown today into one of widespread societal awareness of the importance of sustainability. “There’s a huge shift taking place, a real paradigm shift,” says Tima Bansal, a professor of Strategic Management at the Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario and executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability, a non-profit located at the university. “We don’t have simple solutions but there are a lot more people asking the questions. It’s also a very exciting and innovative time because the frontier is unmapped.”
The frontier is being mapped by an incredible array of people, businesses, organizations and governments all looking for solutions. Ms. Morton, who worked for three years at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank, knew she wanted her role in that search for solutions to be through a combination of think tank and practical, on-the-ground application-and it had to be back home in Canada. “I realized, particularly living outside of Canada, I had this identity that was important to me. I think a lot of Canadians don’t know who we are until we live somewhere else,” she says. “I think it’s because especially in that kind of activist world, it can be very critical about what’s broken in Canada and that external view gives you a greater sense of the wonderful things about this country.”
The Centre for Integral Economics is a registered charity that works with businesses, organizations and communities to promote what Ms. Morton describes as innovative, market-based solutions that reconcile economic prosperity, social justice and environmental integrity. Part of the centre’s think tank side has been looking for insights and solutions in the people whose wisdom, she says, has been typically ignored or unheard by most in society. “In the last years, I’ve put a concentrated effort into looking at the people who are innovating in the margins, the wisdoms of those left out. That’s part of what brought me to working more and more with First Nations communities. I thought, wait a minute, there’s people who actually lived here for ten thousand years without trashing the place. Why don’t we at least have some degree of appreciation for that body of knowledge?”
Ms. Morton and her team at the centre are currently working on a five-year project with the Hesquiaht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “We’re integrating it all in a way that is also culturally respectful,” says Ms. Morton. “It includes a 100% renewable energy micro grid, which is pretty leading edge, although the individual technologies are not but the way they are being assembled is highly innovative,” says Ms. Morton, who was awarded an Ashoka fellowship in 2003. “The fact that the community is going to own it, maintain it, run it and fix it is much more innovative than a project that would be dropped in on a community with outside people running it.”