Monday, February 1, 2010

Creating a Culture of Sustainability

Try to create any culture and you'll meet with resistance, ridicule, and persecution. Or worse: being ignored. Sustainability is a counter culture of epic proportions but it is what is necessary. How does one support a Business Culture that honors sustainability? Or a community culture that honors sustainability? or a household culture that honors sustainability? I spent three days immersed in rich conversations and lamentations (mine, not theirs) with culture change agents from Austin and San Francisco who were snowed in at my house.

Household sustainability is perhaps the easiest but within the limitations of the social restraints, community limitations, and a conventional business economy. Our city planners have made bike transport almost impossible without risk of life; every artery is four-lane and 45 mph. Business provides limited organic food or local produce or local products. Still, no one promised an easy hike. Even the summit is a fog, but we know the general direction we are called to strive for.

I find solace in reading Horton Hears a Who about the tiny dust speck that insist it is real. And I wonder where that final YOP will come from that will wake the sleeping world.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Economics and Ethics

"For an ethic is not an ethic, and a value not a value, without some sacrifice for it, something given up, something not taken, something not gained, . We do it in exchange for a greater good, for something worth more than just money and power and position." - Paul Hawken, Ecology of Commerce.

There is a line in sustainability where people rush like mad to reach then they spot cold in their tracks, cold in their hearts. This line is a master of men and has many names: breakeven point, point of diminishing returns, equilibrium point, cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Money makes a poor master and makes for a poorer environment.

The line ... she is imaginary. Those that cross it find themselves walking through a new world of ethics-based decisions. When we sell environmentalism on an economic argument, that is no great sale for it is no accomplishment to entice people to make money by avoiding expenses or waste. It allows us to bypass the ethics conversation, the conversation that is awkward but necessary to sustain the human species.

We do many thing in our lives that have no monetary motivation and in fact, actually costs us money. I shower daily though it is an expense; the intangible hygiene seems worth it. I do not sell my children into slavery though that would be an economically justified action. Ethics are not pesky, they are necessary for all that is good. It is time to expand that thought process to the larger decisions about the environment that our world faces..or more accurately too often neglects to face.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pursue Beauty - Resist Stupidity

I am rereading Ecology of Commerce for the Nth time and am once again struck by the design flaw inherent in our commerce system. Some human being, not nature, CHOOSES to include toxins in our daily products... CHOOSES to manufacturer products that can not be disassembled and recycled. And we, the oblivious masses, involuntarily CHOOSE to support this insanity by spending every penny we have to purchase these toxic products. But as Dr. Jerod Diamond says in his speech "we created these problems so we also have the ability to address and correct these problems." (paraphrased) Thus the second half of the bumper sticker "Resist Stupidity" but the first half is very important and often overlooked "Pursue Beauty."

Beautiful items last. They don't get put in the landfill. They are cherished, appreciated daily, and inherited.

Pursue Beauty - Resist Stupidity together is powerful. Too often we see the absence of it such as when a city council votes to remove a lovely tree-lined boulevard and replace with an "efficient" four-lane road. (Duck Street in Stillwater Oklahoma) Where was the voice of wisdom that should have cried out "HEY! We must not resist beauty and pursue stupidity!"

(Duck Street was a jewel of urban form: Timeless Victorian homes lined a street that boasted a canopy of trees. In exchange for this perpetual beauty we CHOSE to destroy it; we now have fast traffic and weekly car wrecks while discouraged walking, bicycling and street life. Let's rethink this trade-off.)

That elusive voice of wisdom is latent within us. Imagine what the world would be like if we all pursued beauty and resisted stupidity. Someday sustainability will just be the way things are. There will be no discussion required. No persuasion necessary. We will have a culture of sustainability or we will have no culture at all. The choice is simple but we have to CHOOSE it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Quiet Time of Year

The solstice is a time to sigh and reflect on what has been and what will be. Christmas is a ritual to endure and I'm always glad when the expectations pass and we can get down to the business of playing with new toys. The New Year is my most quiet time of year. It is when I ponder how to best approach a new crop of students. How will I reach them? What do they need? What have I learned that I can give to them to take on their lifelong journey?

I'm so glad I don't teach English. I like teaching about survival and prosperity. These seem important. In fact, it hit me that sustainability is on a species level not an individual level. We tend to think in terms of sustaining our household and our legacy but it is so much bigger than that. How does one teach something so big?

I'm reading an essay called "Survival U" in a 1970 Environmental Teach-in book. It is worrisome that they were right, we have faced this challenge before and failed to create a systemic change that would value the environment that supports human life. Times are different now so the question is how to leverage all that favors successfully teaching sustainability ethics.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Passive Solar at Work

The late afternoon sun streams through a bank of south facing windows to cast warm rays across 18 feet of living room. It creates beautiful shadows amid the warming rays. Passive solar design is primarily to allow the natural heat of the sun to warm the home but the natural light is also fabulous. This is what makes an ordinary home extraordinary. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Building on Beauty

Randy Veitenheimer was a guest speaker on the final panel at our OLLI class. People were intrigued by his discussion about the "community overlay" he has developed as an economic redevelopment tool for Tecumseh, Oklahoma.

His strategy has several tenets. One is based on increasing the amount of opportunities for social interactions. This allows for an exchange of economics of course, yes, but equally as vital, giving

Another is to build beauty. A beautiful structure is not diminished by people looking at it. No one saves an ugly building from demolition, but a beautiful structure will be repurposed and remodeled for decades or centuries if possible. Beauty gives. 

Rights and Responsibilities is another tenet interwoven into his approach. Your community deserves to be beautiful AND each member has an obligation or responsibility to provide beauty by whatever means they possess. Everyone can do something.

Randy quoted the Navajo poem "Walk in Beauty" as a source of inspiration. Google it and read aloud. 

Randy's house is 1,300 square feet but lives large. Infill. Fruit trees. 9 ft ceilings. The thoughtful details abound. It has taken 3 years to build because it is build to last a century. The intentionally is what sets this house apart from others. It provides shelter, it gives beauty, it is not a burden to its future owners. "It is finished in beauty," echoes the Navajo. 

When I see cheap thoughtless new buildings erected in my community I cringe at the permanent blight being forced onto the public realm. When the only metric is the economic dollar, beauty is cut from the budget. It is no small tragedy to watch selfishness manifested in the name of economic development. The track house, the metal building, the bare structure, these all favor only one but cheat the rest. We must be proud of what we do and what we build, it is a measure of our humanity. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009


"Notice" she slowly repeated with emphasis to make sure I had heard her use her newly found word. Sage, now two, began our conversation this morning with this statement. 

"I NOTICED my bow. noticed."

All day that "noticed" stayed with me. Isn't that how we gradually change our culture and develop an environmental ethic, by noticing? 

There is distinct perception and deliberate discernment in the word noticed. It implies that intrinsic value has been assigned. She appreciated something previously overlooked.

I was overjoyed. And inspired. She noticed something tiny and lovely about her blouse today. Noticed and celebrated and shared her discovery.
This made me smile and instilled a glimmer of hope.