Is it possible that Earth Day, conceived as an event to raise environmental awareness, is actually part of our immense environmental problem? Let that sink in a minute, then let’s consider the facts:
Take almost any metric of environmental impact and look where the charts have gone for the past forty years. The water and the air are definitely cleaner, but those changes were mandated on a relatively few industrialists, because there are tens of thousands of times as many people as there are industrial corporations. But how about the metrics that involve us? Are we driving more? Are we consuming more stuff? Are we building bigger houses? Are we building them further out from where we work? Are we fatter? Is it because we’re consuming more food? Is that food coming from further and further away? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. So after 40 years of Earth Day, all the metrics of our own behavior are getting worse.
I clearly remember the first Earth Day 40 years ago; I was ten years old at the time, and in fourth grade. My school made a really big deal of it. I recall the great optimism of those days, when we thought we might finally be making a difference. My mother would shortly open a health food store, and she regularly had lecturers come in and speak about the more natural ways of doing things. Hopefulness hung thickly in the air.
So how could we have gotten it so wrong? Do you remember Earth Hour a few weeks ago? Everyone was supposed to cut off their lights for one appointed hour early in the evening. Did you do it? Did it make you feel good? But was it a bit inconvenient? Stubbed your toe on something you couldn’t see, or stumbled over something? Have you cut off your lights more often as a result? I didn’t think so.
Here’s the problem: Annual events that require us to give up something for an hour or a day in exchange for a warm fuzzy almost never result in long-term change. It’s simple human nature: we’ve filled our “warm fuzzy quota” for the environment (or whatever the cause is) and we’ve suffered a little bit. The natural reaction is to think “I certainly won’t be doing that tomorrow!” The net effect is that one-time events in which we’re inconvenienced a bit in exchange for feeling responsible may actually act like a vaccination against the very thing we’re trying to encourage! It’s a small dose that ensures we won’t get the big infection.
If we’re serious about making a difference, then several things must happen: Everyone must be involved. The manufacturers can’t get the job done just by making more efficient stuff. We won’t solve sustainability by going shopping. And if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us.
So our behavior ought to change... but there’s a big problem with things we ought to do. Simply put, we often do what we want to do, but only infrequently do what we ought to do. The bottom line is that if we really want people to behave differently, we’ve got to entice them to do it, not nag them to do it. We will not scold the world to sustainability.
So what should we be enticing ourselves to do?
Here’s the Earth Day Top 10 I did last year that has a lot of ideas, but really it comes down to this: to cut stuff off as part of our daily life. To need less heating and cooling, and less electrical light. Less driving. Sounds a bit like suffering, until you realize that it actually results in a condition I call Living In Season, where you live in a way that you can throw the windows open much of the year.
Doing this means you’ll need to spend more time outside, getting acclimated to your local environment. You might spend some of that time in your neighborhood park, or in your garden. And your garden doesn’t have to be just ornamental; it can also help to nourish you. If your neighborhood really is a neighborhood instead of just a subdivision in sprawl, it’ll be compact, mixed-use, and walkable so that there are actually destinations to walk to, and it’s pleasant along the way. New Urbanists have been figuring out how to do this for years. They’re meeting next month in Atlanta... you might want to check it out. Some of these things aren’t possible today in a sprawl subdivision, but they’re also working on ways to repair sprawl, and to re-write the rules for how cities are built to be far more sustainable.
Our homes and shops need to change, too. Buildings must first be lovable, so that they will last. We need to build them with materials for the ages, not stuff that falls off in the driveway in ten years. And this isn’t just buildings; the rule should be: “Choose it for longer than you’ll use it,” or “choose stuff you can hand down to your grandkids someday, and they can hand down to theirs long after you’re gone.”
If this sounds a bit like some sort of American Eden; some paradise this country lost long before Earth Day began, then you’re exactly right... that’s precisely what it is, and can be again. My Original Green book, which will be released May 7, puts all these things into a coherent story. But if we want these things, then we need to stop doing things that temporarily make us feel good, and begin enticing people to make real change by building places and buildings where they will love to live. Does this mean we’ll have to rebuild much of what we’ve built in recent years. Yes. Isn’t that wasteful? Yes. But don’t worry... it’s falling down soon anyway, because it was never built to last.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.
Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 10:58 AM
Great words, Steve! To live by. Thank you.
Here's what living the way you describe has meant to me personally in the last 2 years, in terms of dollars, hours, pounds of fat, emissions, energy use, and downright fun.
I don't mention there about living in a structure built in 1904 that has been re-purposed several times, and withstood fire, flood, and storm. Love the great feeling it holds, and definitely meets the Original Green's lovable, durable, flexible and frugal requirements.
Of course, I could still get way deeper into many of the nuances you discuss, so thanks for the encouragement.
Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 12:19 PM
Hi Steve, very inspirational and so true. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that to get men to build a ship- you don't talk about the plans, the tools, the wood, etc.- but you tell them about the sea. The earth is a fascinating home- God created it and it was good. There are a lot of good stories left to discover and share about this fascinating home.
Friday, April 23, 2010 - 12:21 PM
Kaid @ NRDC
Terrific post. I couldn't agree more that nagging is only self-defeating. We must make the more sustainable approach also the more appealing one. Keep up the great work.
Monday, April 26, 2010 - 12:06 PM
You have nailed it! "If our behavior doesn't change, the machines can't save us!"
Monday, April 26, 2010 - 02:04 PM
Been reading your site for quite some time, and am completely impressed with the tone and utility. I think the more people you can get onboard with your designs and green living concept, the more this way of thought will root and spread. I believe it's inevitable, and people like you will be extraordinarily valuable yet under appreciated -- more so than now. At any rate, keep up the strong work.
Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 07:20 PM
Thanks, Hazel! If anyone hasn't read Hazel's blog post, please do... it's well worth it! Daniel, I love the Stevenson quote! It's another angle on the generalists' way vs. the specialists' way. Kaid, you're right... and thanks so much for coming back here again and again! And Tommy, thanks for the link to your fascinating and provocative site!