Wednesday, July 14, 2010

7 Ideas to Change Our Thinking about the Environment

I recently read Guy Dauncy's report Seven Ideas to Tackle Climate Change. I subscribe wholeheartedly to where he is coming from. His ideas like "Change the Story" and "Integrate the Issues" (climate change, Gulf oil spill, etc) and "Create Descriptive Models of a Future Green World" and "Communicate with the Public" are all socially-based ways to re-organize society's ways of thinking about climate change. So much attention is given to technology fixes (which are needed) and raising awareness or disseminating information (which is also necessary) but few people I see are talking about changing the way we think and relate to the environment (paradigms). I wanted to use Dauncy's work as a launch pad and come up with some smaller scale ideas that will help Americans think about the environment in different ways. (I focus on Americans because I am one and I understand the cultural context better. These ideas may or may not be appropriate for Sweden or Ghana. Likewise, something that might work amazingly well in Brazil for instance might fall on its face in the US.)

You know, there are some people in the US who are religious. Even for people who are not, they still know some of the main stories and what the point of them are. Oral traditions like these have been society's way of strengthening social memory. They are designed to be handed down through the generations to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is a great idea! This can be a very powerful way of re-framing disaster for example and teach each other life lessons about resilience. For instance, I grew up Catholic and we were told the story of Noah's Ark. Basically, a gigantic storm surge flooded the earth and Noah built a boat and put two of everything on it and repopulated the earth after the flood subsided. Saved! This is a powerful story that has been used in relating modern anxieties about biodiversity loss and used as a comparison for ideas like seed banking. We can make up whole new morality stories about Katrina and Haiti and the tsunamis. The media does this for us a little, but doesn't complete the sentence. Journalists are good at giving us some of the "facts" during the event, showing us how some people think about it and even offering some short-term action ideas. But the media is awful at helping us process the information in a meaningful way and doesn't even attempt to establish social memory by building on past stories to inform what's going on today. Does this have to happen through the religious sector? Not necessarily. I'm just saying they've been good at doing it for a long time and we can learn from them.

Speaking of disaster, we've got to stop saying "all disasters are local." When people say that, they mean that disasters are felt the most by the people who live in that area. That may be true, but I encourage you to think more broadly. Let's take again the example for a flood. Usually during a flood, people evacuate the area. And, sometimes they don't come back. If you're focusing on the locality of the flood, you're only looking at where the flood is, not where people are going. Then people who show up at your doorstep and you are completely unprepared. My solution is that cities should build into their planning not only the ways in which they are going to take care of their populations, but what they would do if, as in the case of Houston during Katrina, 100,000 people moved in overnight. Where would you put them (libraries, churches)? What kinds of social services would be available (psychologists, child care)? Or would you turn them away because you don't have the capacity (as in the case of Gretna, LA)? First of all, the Stafford Act which disburses funds when disaster is declared at the federal level in the US does not cover expenses incurred by "receiving" or "host" cities. I'm not totally clear if and how this is changing after Katrina, but some cities should be able to make a case for it. Secondly, there are some models to look at to see how cities can plan for accelerated demographic changes. I interviewed some FEMA officials and one guy told me that Missouri is awesome at this - that cities actually get together and plan in advance where they will move people whenever the Mississippi River floods. I'm thinking this could be a good model for a "Sister City" approach where cities can negotiate in advance how they would handle it. We know that people generally stay within 200 miles, so cities can look regionally to plan for disaster. As far as long-term planning, New York City has dealt with wild demographic changes because of the amount of immigration it receives. Their education system, for example, has to handle fluxes of children as families move in and out. So, there are ideas out there to deal with this that can be translated into climate change/environmental disaster adaptation strategies, you just have to hire me to put it into action. ;)

Dear teenagers of today: I'm sorry you missed out on being a hippie in the 60s and a grunge rock star in the 90s, but we gotta end the American tradition of acting out against our elders. Now, I am all for questioning authority, don't get me wrong. But, we're not getting anywhere from dismissing each others' ideas and experience. So, I propose that we become more resilient by shrinking the generation gap. This is going to mean that youth respect adults, but also that adults respect youth. One way we might be able to do this is through age desegregation. Our youth and our adults rarely have opportunities to interact and exchange information. You can't participate in (the vast majority of) politics until you are 18. It's even getting harder and harder for kids under 21 to get credit cards, isolating them from the economic sector. This is the way our society is structured, with kids on one side and adults on the other. We can think of many ways how this came to be. But we can think of just as many ways to re-think the structure and find ways in which kids can learn to be critical thinkers and contribute to society instead of always being protected from it. We can think of ways when it may be appropriate for adults to learn from kids, especially in the internet era. Likewise, we can think of ways to aid elders in engaging with youth to transfer social memory and resilience (otherwise known as "passing down through the generations").  Would putting a kid and an adult in the same room and saying "respect each other" change anything? Maybe not. But, on the other hand, maybe it would.

Kids spend alot of time in school so most ideas of how to change the world end with "we need more education." I'm not totally clear on why this is the end of the conversation and not the beginning, but let's make the (fair) assumption that school plays a significant role in behavior and attitude development. Ergo, one solution for changing our behavior and attitudes could happen in classes. Here's an idea called "mainstreaming," or, making sustainable behavior a part of what's already established. Take Driver's Ed for instance. Now, we all know what driving does to the environment. How can we integrate ideas about carbon emissions with driver safety and gruesome cinematography? First, the name alone suggests we prioritize driving over all else (we do, but we want to change that). So, let's rename it "Transportation Ed." The new curriculum will include how to drive safely when there are cyclists and pedestrians on the road. The cycling Rules of the Road will be taught and students will learn to safely ride a bike in their town. They can make walkability maps of the city and identify dangerous crosswalks. Advanced courses may be crossed with other subjects, focusing on the chemistry of heavy metals in fuel, biological habitat disturbance of the road system, the politics of SAFETEA-LU legislation or the psychology of owning a car as a status symbol. Meanwhile, students would learn to drive a car safely, but also learn what is involved in driving and alternative modes of transportation. Will it change anything? The only way to find out is to try.

It has already been suggested by others that we return our packaging waste and reuse items to those who gave it to us in the first place - the corporations. Why are we not doing this? (ok, I know why, because Walmart doesn't want to be in the sanitation business) Seriously, though, even though I could use a little more worker love on the part of NIKE, I do appreciate that they take back their shoes and turn the rubber into basketball courts. We need to do far more of this. The only reason we ship everything to burgeoning landfills is because we set it up this way. Let's set it up a different way. Hire me.

6. RENT EVERYTHING (or, at least some things)
Okay, ownership is a very powerful concept, I get it. When we feel we have ownership over something, we tend to take better care of it. But renting has its virtues too. For example, it's a great way to share things and save money on things we use infrequently. Renting maximizes the amount of times a product gets used, which means it's less likely to be thrown in the trash before it's worn out. Think of all the things you have owned, didn't really use alot, and then threw it away. Or, have you ever bought something, decided after one use you didn't like it and then stash it away for a couple of years? What if you could have rented it instead? One system we already have as a model is a library even though it's paid for by taxes (our new store doesn't necessarily have to be). You walk into a room filled with used products that you check out, use, and return. Some people have thought about doing the same with tools and bikes, even live Christmas trees! What if we rented out experiences? For example, instead of buying fancy kitchen equipment that you rarely, you could rent out a restaurant if you wanted to cook dinner for a party. See the possibilities? I used to work for a car-sharing company, and we found that when people rent cars on an hourly basis, they drive less overall, reducing carbon emissions. And they were able to save money because the system allowed them to go from being a two-car to a one-car family household. The other thing I want to mention, in terms of being resilient, is that renting allows us to be more mobile. If you don't own alot of stuff, it's easier to move. I'm not suggesting we get rid of the ownership system altogether (although I enjoy reading Capital as would any true sociologist), I'm just saying, re-thinking ownership can be a good adaptation strategy.

Okay, I'm stretching for the 7th here. I know how this should be, but I don't have any concrete suggestions. I'm no linguist, but I know that language is key to societal structure. And quite frankly, we don't have a sustainability vernacular in the English language. Perhaps we need 7 different words for "chicken." The one that is given to us by corporations: "free-range," "organic," etc. are misused and inaccurate. BTW, kids love making up new words and ways of communicating, LOL. Maybe we should charge them with this task.

8...Your ideas?

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