Revitalizing the ‘s’ word

On the importance of sustained will


May already! Can’t believe it.

With a full third of 2024 behind us, I’ll take today’s newsletter to reflect on the concept of ‘sustained will.’ In short, are we collectively setting the foundation to work on the things we’re all working on—many of which include indispensable desired outcomes—for the long haul?

The newsletter in 50 words: Nick argues that the 's' word, sustainability, deserves a touch of reimagination and revitalization. Sustainability should call to mind much more than 'green' and 'climate-y' things. Sustainability should also encapsulate the sustained will required to work on anything in an enduring, successful fashion. Which matters to climate a great deal.


I recently asked Rob Hanson, the CEO of Monolith, what keeps him up at night towards the tail-end of a podcast I'll release this month. His answer blew me away, not only because it revealed how thoughtful an operator he is with respect to Monolith's business. I'll save that component for the podcast and a future newsletter on the business. Rather, his broader macro observations and thoughts on climate tech, the energy transition, and more really hooked me:

...maybe because I lived through the first climate tech boom and bust, I worry about the commitment that we collectively have as a society across all aspects: customers, finance, government, policy, and so forth. Are we really committed to solving this thing? Or are we going to, you know, veer off and say, 'Oh, AI is pretty interesting. Let's investigate that. Climate was so, you know, 2023, 2024.' 

I worry about that. The sustained will it's going to take for us as a society to rebuild our entire energy infrastructure into one that still delivers what it needs to, but without the emissions. Do we have that in us or, or are we going to chase the next shiny object?

Rob Hanson - CEO, Monolith

Rob's introduction of the sustained will idea has reverberated in my brain for weeks now. The 'S' word, sustainability, gets overused to the point of meaninglessness. So much so that it's fallen out of favor in a variety of circles, a fact I intuit purely based on the relative prevalence of other monikers like 'climate' and ‘climate tech.’ Hence, I see an opportunity to revitalize the ‘s’ word. Especially if we return to the root of what the word means and the type of conscious work and engagement it should inspire.

Revitalizing the ‘s’ word

Sustainability isn’t just about doing ‘green’ things. It isn’t just about climate, or the environment, or circularity. At its core, sustainability means, well, being able to do things for a long time. Forever, ideally. Without running out of a core input, whether power, palladium, patience, perspective, or perseverance. And without creating externalities that rear their heads, later on, to cut and erode at the foundation of whatever is being worked on or pursued.

When I think about sustained will, for instance, I return to the most basic level of all people currently applying themselves industriously to climate tech, energy transition, and environmental work in general. Are we positioning ourselves to want to work on this for 10 or 20 years? Speaking for myself, at many points in the past four years, if I get really honest with myself, the answer is no. I’m not saying that I won’t. But, again and again, I’ve teetered closer to burnout and the apathy and anxiety that comes along with it than I’d care to repeat.

Coming home to sustainability as inclusive of more than stats about clean electrons, greenhouse gas emissions, and even broader equity, has been helpful for me. When I say more, I’m talking about things like, say, what does my day-to-day life look like? We do ourselves a disservice when we take ourselves out of these equations and conversations. As much as clean power generation, for instance, matters to a sustainable future, whether or not you and I have ‘clean’ power – which is to say, access to our individual enthusiasm, health, and an appreciation of our individual gifts (and sometimes, deficiencies and blindspots) — is just as important. So often, like new clean energy projects at the back of a permitting queue, we grant ourselves permission to cultivate, discover, or even simply revive, our own power last.

What sustained will enables and requires 

What does sustained will in climate work require? Perhaps it’s better to frame this question by first starting with what sustained will enables.

At the most basic level, sustained will enables all parties involved in climate and energy transition work to, well, continue. To carry on in pursuit of whatever the specific end goal for any individual, organization, company, country, or species may be. 

At a still basic level, sustained will enables climate companies to build sound businesses that execute economically, do right by customers and employees, and deliver on more sustainable environmental outcomes as a result. Absent any of those attributes, things start to fall apart. Whether evidenced by companies folding, employees leaving, or the downstream impact all those things have on capital and resource allocation to climate, unfortunately, we’re starting to see the signs of unsustained will in 2024.

I’d be the last person to worry too much about funding for climate tech and energy transition work to peter out a bit. Markets are always somewhat stochastic and go through cycles of enthusiasm and disillusionment. Macroeconomic forces weigh on the scales of these emotions. But capital constriction isn’t inherently ‘bad.’ In fact, a less-than-rosy moment, whether in terms of ~vibes~ or funding dynamics, is often the perfect time to return to the foundations of sustained will. Capital constriction drives creative destruction; it forces all stakeholders in an ecosystem to get more parsimonious and thoughtful about what they’re doing. One of the worst things for any company or any sector is raising too much money too quickly. Too much money, attention, or hype isn’t beneficial for sustained will; often, it breeds excess and rash decisions that are quite unsustainable.

Still, I’m under no illusion that we’ll collectively make sufficient progress mitigating and adapting to climate change without more money. But evidence of sustained will precedes more resource allocation. It’s not that investors don’t have money to allocate to climate work (see below). It’s that, in addition to waiting for indications of real markets and profitable business models, all the proverbial energy going into climate right now still has a lot to prove with respect to its ability to endure.

So, what does sustained will really require? I won’t pretend to know in full, as I often struggle with this myself. Indubitably, the answers are incredibly multivariate. As a starting list, I’d offer that it requires the following (and finding places and peers to help with all of it, too):

  • The capacity to navigate the overwhelm, whether of anxiety, overstimulation, or an overabundance of choice (whether in business models, GTM strategies, or other shiny objects that come in from stage left to distract us, like, say, AI or crypto).

  • The capacity to apply oneself industriously to problems and opportunities that may not be en vogue and the resolve not to take shortcuts.

  • The capacity to apply oneself industriously to problems and opportunities in a world that often screams at us, “It’s pointless, and you can’t make an impact.”

  • The capacity to reflect on what’s actually working, independent of prevailing narratives.

  • The capacity to get honest about your blindspots, about how you get in your own way, whether as a CEO, investor, policymaker (or friend, family member, or lover).

What else would you add?

The net-net

If this looks like a view you’d like to enjoy as you reflect on questions raised by this newsletter with 20+ other climate practicioners, well, read on.

At the risk of ending on a ‘sell’ here, the entire ethos of Camp Keep Cool – a sort of climate ‘decelerator’ we’re hosting in September in the Colorado Rockies – is to convene outstanding people to navigate questions like the ones posed in this newsletter. 

How do we iteratively create and cultivate peer groups and support systems of sustained will around issues that matter, whether inside or outside climate?

How do we create dedicated spaces to decelerate—from work, climate anxiety, and our attendant anxieties, unproductive patterns, and less-than-helpful stories about ourselves—so we can accelerate again in the future?

How do we make it fun?

I struggle with all this as much as anyone, which makes helping build and lead an event like this scary! But also makes it the perfect challenge and opportunity for me to walk the walk and take my own medicine here, while also making this gathering dramatically ‘flat’. All who join us will be equal parts participants and co-creators in the experience, learnings, and benefits. 

Apply here if any or all of this calls to you.


Juniper Zero Incubator Applications are Live!

Looking for the perfect incubator for your climate-focused biotech business? We know just the place for you. Run by VC fund Climate Capital Bio, Juniper Zero is a free, virtual incubator for early-stage founders developing technology at the intersection of climate and biotech. Their program aims to help founders build companies from scratch and to seamlessly connect you with countless investors and other key industry stakeholders. If interested, please fill out this quick 10-minute screening application by May 21."

Having started to work with some of the folks at Climate Capital and gotten to know those working on the Climate Capital Bio side, I’ve got nothing but good things to say. Def check this one out if you’re an early-stage or idea-stage startup in the space.


Here’s the latest from the Keep Cool Podcast: Nick & Vibrant Planet CEO, Allison Wolff dive deep on how Vibrant Planet is building tools to create a ‘common operating picture’ for nature-based solutions work.

On the heels of what feel like endlessly tough wildfire seasons across the world over the past few years, Allison went into detail on how AI and machine learning, paired with age-old, nature-based practices like proactive land management and even reintroducing beavers, can rapidly advance climate action efforts.

She also spoke to concrete, collaborative success stories, ranging from the Truckee Fire District to Southern Oregon, which I particularly appreciated it. Tune in here.