Profile of MARILYN MEHLMANN

PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #1 Release date June 1, 1996

Marilyn Mehlmann became the general secretary of GAP International in April 1995. GAP is helping people in 13 of the highest consuming Northern countries bring their lifestyles into balance with the planet. Five more countries, including Poland and South Korea, are now in the process of launching programs. Several Southern countries have expressed interest.

The GAP program organizes participating households into EcoTeams to provide group support in analyzing consumption patterns of each household and implementing improvements. An easy-to-use Household EcoTeam Workbook provides step-by-step guidance in addressing six action areas: reducing garbage, reducing water use, improving home energy efficiency, improving transportation efficiency, becoming an eco-wise consumer, and reaching out to engage others.

Evaluation studies consistently record extraordinary results. A recent Dutch study found that nearly 100 percent of participants continued some change six months to a year after completing the program-compared to a figure of around 10 percent for most personal behavior change programs. Even more remarkable, some 43 percent had taken additional steps to reduce their burden on the planet following completion of the program. Results from teams in all participating countries show an average 49 percent decrease in garbage, with the biggest changes coming from adoption of composting. Participants are also getting significance reductions in CO2 generation. According to Marilyn,

We help people see that by becoming more conscious of your lifestyle you save money and that frees up your choices: either your time or the money to purchase other things of greater value to you. The handbook's purchasing habits chapter suggests that if you are out shopping and have an impulse to buy something, stop and ask: Why am I doing this? I remember once when I was in a department store. I saw a pile of fleecy towels and wanted to buy them. But I stopped for a moment. I thought, 'I have a lot of fleecy towels at home. Why do I want more?' Later I realized that whenever I feel guilty about neglecting the family I have an impulse to buy fleecy towels as a way of saying I care about them.

Each team completing the program is expected to create two new teams-with the result that the program grows organically like a process of cell division. Each team has a coach, who has completed the program and then received special training. The coaches are also organized into networks to share experience and ideas for strengthening the program.

While the explicit focus of GAP International is on the environment, Marilyn says the program is really about overcoming the sense of helplessness people are feeling.

I find it everywhere. The propaganda urging Swedes to vote to join the European Union conveyed the subconscious message that we are powerless and have no choice but to join the EU. I see it in the companies where I consult. Everyone feels the power to act lies elsewhere.

GAP gives people both a sense of control over their own lives and a realization that they can do something that contributes to creating a better world. I see GAP as a path toward creating citizen participation as an aspect of everyday life. We encourage people not to get hung up on the things they cannot do, such as trying to convince people that can never be convinced. Rather we urge them to look for things they can do and to concentrate on people who can be convinced. With time they find there are more and more things they can do. It is a conscious strategy and it is very powerful.

It is a common experience that once GAP teams have done what they can at the household level, they start thinking about things they can do in their community. For example they may start a campaign for bicycle paths or establish a local farmers market for organic produce.

GAP is now promoting its programs to governments as a policy instrument. Many European governments are taking environmental issues very seriously and acting to reduce national environmental burdens such as CO2 emissions and garbage. While governments can provide incentives and facilities for greater use of recycled materials, the success of these efforts depends on household level actions-which is where the GAP contribution comes. Many localities that face constraints on land fill spaces, water, and energy production have embraced the GAP program and provided funding to support its expansion to local households as an alternative to costly investments in garbage disposal, water treatment, and power generation.

Marilyn offered the following observations on the state of the movement.

A Swedish researcher pointed out that at each point in time there is a mainstream idea and a number of counterpoints. At some point there is a switch, with one of the counterpoints becoming the mainstream and the mainstream becoming a counterpoint. When the mainstream is threatened, it takes increasingly extreme measures to protect itself. The establishment of the World Trade Organization might be seen as a grotesque and desperate action signaling the breakdown of a dying order.

There was a radical shift in our counterpoint movement around 1987. Before that we were very isolated. Almost everyone among us felt pretty lonely. About 1987 we started finding each other and began coalescing into a counterpoint with a potential to become a new mainstream. We are not the only counterpoint, however. There is also a neofascist counterpoint--an elitist movement dominated by fear that is also coalescing. And there are presumably other of which I am less aware.

If you are familiar with The Course of Miracles it says that everything we do springs either from love or fear. We have a lot of fear-based systems around. The last person who seemed to seriously say that we should have a love-based system was Jesus Christ. Still it seems the essence of our movement. We don't all manage it all the time, but there is somehow in our counterpoint a striving, a longing, for a love-based system. A love based system doesn't deny fear, but allows fears to come to the surface and be expressed. When I speak from love, I can speak openly of fear. But when I speak from fear it is difficult to talk about love. So the only way to own both sides of ourselves is through a love-based system. I try to speak and act out of love in so far as I can, while acknowledging that I will not always be able to do it.

Our challenge is to grow in love fast enough. It requires a new kind of leadership. Ram Dass speaks of servant leadership. We are each growing in our ability to practice servant leadership. If we fall into the trap of old paradigm leadership, which is very tempting, then we are no longer counterpoint. We then become a facet of the mainstream and will go down with the mainstream when it goes down. It is an enormous challenge to develop capacities in ourselves and others to empower others-to help everyone with whom we come in contact grow a little in their own sense of their innate ability to act, to set the direction of their own lives in ways that also strengthen and empower others. We need to be more conscious of this process within ourselves. We need opportunities to be with one another in settings where we can step back and observe ourselves to advance our awareness and understanding of what we are doing-both in our own growth and in our contribution to the growth of others.

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Marilyn Mehlmann is a contributing editor of The People-Centered Development Forum and general secretary of GAP International, Stjärnvägen 2, S­182 46 Enebyberg, Sweden, phone (46-8) 758-3145; fax (46-8) 768-8397; e­mail: gapinter@ett.se. Contact GAP International for more information. This profile was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum.

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