Feb 16, 2010

Scaling sustainability

Local green: making a difference?

Symbolic victories won't win this war

Let’s talk light bulbs. Name the individual quoted as having said the following:

“We can't solve global warming because I f***ing changed light bulbs in my house.”
a) Barack Obama
b) Glen Beck
c) Bill O’Reilly
d) Rush Limbaugh

Ok, now let’s do it again:

“The danger is you think that if you change your light bulbs to compact fluorescents you've solved a problem. You haven't.”

a) Thomas Friedman
b) Steve Forbes
c) George W Bush
d) Sarah Palin

The correct answers are: ‘a’ and ‘a.’ Candidate Obama was caught by an open microphone during an ’08 debate walk-thru; and opinion meister Friedman (Hot Flat and Crowded) made his views on household conservation upgrades known in a Time Magazine submission several months later.

So, when such remarks flow from the lips of acknowledged greeniacs as this pair --- and not from the usual suspects from the drive-by schools of logic and science --- one pauses to ask: “WTF, bro’s?”

What’s really going on here can be summed up in one word: scalability.

The gentlemen both seem to be expressing frustration with the huge amount of capital (of the mostly human capital variety) being devoted to personal responsibility, or do the right thing, type acts such as changing one’s bulbs. Instead, the need is to think --- and go --- bigger.

Friedman even went on to describe such actions as being mostly symbolic, saying that “today's leverage points are not in consciousness raising” and that “we need leaders that can give you change at a scale we need." Obama, too, made the same call with a follow-up of needing “something collective.”

Such an argument has come into sharp focus for myself personally in recent weeks as I have interacted with two New England version of the many localized green or sustainability or eco or similar groups that have sprung up across the nation in reaction to the pressing environmental concerns before us. All are filled with good and caring citizens, but they also tend to be exercises in futility.

First; sustainable (or sustainability) is one of those ambiguous words that needs to be ditched by those groups that are using such in either their title or their mission statement. Unless one is prepared to go off-grid and spend the rest of his or her natural life foresting on local fauna and feasting on the occasional rodent, local sustainability is an impossible end to fulfill. That is IF one elects to use the pure and traditional definition of the word, where one of the requirements is to achieve an existence that is free of the need for external lifelines. Do any of these folks really envision an ecosystem where the need for imported goods such as medicine, fruits, consumer goods and so forth are optional?

These initiatives typically become biology experiments, with targeted outcomes like “reducing green house gases” or “encouraging energy efficiencies” within the local footprint becoming the norm. This translates into specific initiatives such as “acting as a clearing house for green products and processes” or “setting the standards for smart local building design.” Good stuff; but does it make a difference?

What if, for example, a local group achieved grand success and reduced its community’s energy consumption/CO2 emissions by, let’s say, 10%. An economist would toss some cold water on their celebration party, predicting that this lowered demand would lower energy prices, which would soon thereafter be met with new rise in consumption -- especially in neighboring communities not necessarily influenced by the same school of green thought. Operating in a local vacuum, then, can be counterproductive.

Which brings us back to the scalability thing; when the president calls for that collective action, he is not talking about making a transition from one light bulb changer to a town of several dozen light bulb changers. He’s thinking bigger and wider. To really make a difference, we need top-driven policies, incentives, legislation, programs and funding that gets the ball rolling—faster and better. There lies Freidman’s call for that leadership to make it happen.

Is there any place, then, for localized action in this good fight? I’d argue in the affirmative, but only if these groups can get out of that aforementioned biology experiment mode and instead simply concentrate on making their communities a better place to live, work and play. Because as strange as that seems, such a goal seems to be missing from the agendas of those very organizations I have been observing.

Here are two specific examples of actions within two groups in Massachusetts that occurred last week:

Group A announced a Green Star program, where retailers would be recognized for their individual conservation programs. Among the first three designees were two large, national big box outlets on the edge of town.

Group B went about highlighting on its website and newsletter the good deeds of a local developer that was now building into its residential designs a requirement that a home’s largest windows face the proper direction for maximizing sunlight exposure.

Certainly, both initiatives would meet a goal of encouraging green practices, energy efficiencies and reduced Co2 levels. But doesn’t anyone care about those big box retailers having each sucked up several acres of former farmland with their store/bunkers and parking lots and that their product-packaging practices contribute untold tons of plastic into local landfills annually? Or that the honored developer is the region’s dominant supplier of suburban tract housing, with all of its associated waste?

These events simply point out the traps associated with the simple reduction or best practices approaches to this issue. The focus needs to be directed towards developing strategies wrapped around “better quality of life and living” ambitions. Specifically, to those initiatives that can actually make a demonstrable, actual difference.

For example: lobbying for a comprehensive change in a city’s planning, zoning and design review standards so as to encourage inner-core living (vs outskirts) would deliver much greater results (if successfully adopted) than the full menu of “moss on the roof of city hall” style projects typically undertaken. The same goes for transportation infrastructure, local trade and proper economic development approaches. Better yet would be to put in motion these types of goals under the framework of regional (vs local) planning.

But such missions seem to be foreign territory to most local sustainability initiatives. A group in eastern New York can be heard on a podcast transcript of a recent planning session addressing the suggestion of a stronger and more vibrant local-economy, but with one speaker basically poo-poo’ing the concept as being outside the organization’s core mission; alluding to it as being a distraction. Nothing could be more wrong than this philosophy.

The problem, of course, is that such a suggested course of action is both complicated and messy. In particular, one is more likely to encounter political opposition from friends and neighbors in this new battleground: no longer is one playing footsie with local developers, but possibly suggesting local ordinances that will be perceived by many as mindless government interference.

Boiling Point author Ross Gelbspan put it best when saying: “soft approaches do not normally prevail in hardball competition.” Getting tough is truly the order of the day; IF one is interested in making a difference.

Lose the symbolism, pick up that hardball and get ready to throw it --- high and tight.

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