• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Second thoughts atop a ladder.

Thinking about implicit assumptions.

June 11, 2014

My last post tried to explain how housepainting and  sustainability overlap, or at least how my experiences of them do.  What I wrote was all true, but it really didn't get to the point because, truth be told, I hadn't really figured out what the point was yet.  Maybe I still haven't, but I think I'm getting closer.

One observation that will seem trivial at first, but which points in the right direction:  I'd always thought of "conditioned reflexes" as something that hockey goalies have, or maybe badminton players.  Motion that happens too quickly and accurately to be consciously controlled -- that sort of thing.  But one thing I learned atop a ladder is that sometimes you need to condition your reflexes not to respond to stimulus.  When your base of support is somewhat tenuous, a buzzing insect -- no matter how threatening and response-worthy under other circumstances -- is not something you want to react violently to. 

Scaling that up a bit (and coming down from the ladder), neither is a deer jumping in front of your fast-moving car.  A lot of people react under those circumstances by swerving to avoid hitting the deer.  But at least half of the time, the deer's dead anyway -- even a minor brush with a 3000-pound vehicle will do critical damage.  The real question -- and when it arises you don't really have time to think the answer through -- is whether you're going to survive.  Get startled by a deer, swerve reflexively, roll the car, risk your own life and the lives of anyone traveling with you.  That's a lot of value to put on a deer which, in the wild, probably has about a four-year life expectancy.  The son of a former co-worker was on his honeymoon, killed himself and his bride swerving to avoid a deer.  I don't know whether the deer survived or not; it seemed insensitive to ask.

The point of all this is that, in a whole lot of cases, what most affects the outcome of a situation or an undertaking isn't the conscious decisions we make, it's the stuff we take for granted.  Our expectations and habits of thought that are so ingrained we're not even aware of them.  "Don't get stung."  "Don't hit stuff when you're driving."  Hard to disagree with either of those as a general rule, but when they become fully engrained as reflexes, people die. 

That lesson got reinforced later in life (later than my housepainting career, I mean).  I worked on a large number of change-inducing projects, in a wide variety of organizations.  Without getting into boring detail, let me just say that most often what determined whether the project was adjudged a success or not wasn't whether the team managed to fulfill all the explicitly stated requirements.  It was whether or not we were able to fulfill all the customer's expectations -- the "unstated requirements", the assumptions and aspirations that underlay the specifications we were given, but which were never explained nor even mentioned to us.  In large part, because the customer wasn't herself/himself really conscious of them.  I learned to prod, and pry, and elicit stories, and risk conversations getting off the point because if I didn't do that I couldn't be really sure what the (implicit) objective actually was.  I learned that there are always assumptions, both in the minds of the project team and the mind of the customer.  And if those assumptions weren't at least generally aligned, success was unlikely.

So it was with housepainting.  My competitors conducted their business in accordance with one set of assumptions.  Most likely, those assumptions centered around some form of profit maximization.  Paint the greatest number of houses in the least amount of time, or bill for the greatest number of hours per house, or something along those lines.  I went in with a different objective.  I didn't need to maximize the money I earned each summer, so long as I earned enough to more or less get me through two semesters.  I needed to paint four or five houses a summer, not ten or twelve.  I needed to do a good enough job on each that my work was its own advertisement; I didn't have a lot of downtime to do promotion.  And I needed each job I did to be good enough that there was no risk of coming back into the same neighborhood three summers later and finding paint that was peeling off.  (It only takes one instance of that to ruin a small businessman's reputation.)

So relating this to issues of sustainability, it's not the conscious decisions we make, or the objectives we knowingly set for ourselves, that get us into most of our sustainability problems.  It's the implicit assumptions we operate on, the conditioned reflexes we exhibit, the expectations we carry around with us every day.  Truth be told, those assumptions, expectations and reflexes usually haven't been chosen and conditioned by us -- they've been provided and engrained into us by a whole system of social signals none of us is fully aware of.  Nobody sets out to pollute the air and water in China; we just expect to get our basic household goods at the lowest possible monetary price.  Nobody intentionally decides to get obese and drive their cholesterol level up, but doesn't that double bacon cheeseburger look absolutely scrumptious (and don't we deserve it)?  Nobody consciously aims to salinize and desertify California's central valley, but isn't it great to have fresh fruits and vegetables year-round?  Nobody I know aspires to burning three or four gallons of gasoline per business day, but a lot of people I know do just that.

How and why have you and I arranged our lives so that all these destructive, unsustainable behaviors are commonplace?  What assumptions and expectations got us into this mess?  Were those really the only options available to us?  Are they now?  And are they the best options available?

Radical questions, I know.  And probably more profound than I appreciate.  But they grew, in part, our of my experiences painting houses.  And they definitely inform the sustainability messages I share with students.  (Some of whom might, themselves, be painting their way through school.)


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