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  • Getting to Green

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

Breaking hab - its hard to do
November 15, 2008 - 7:17pm

Over the last year or so I've gone to 1 or 2 conferences, taken 1 or 2 training classes, visited a number of campuses outside the Backboro metropolitan area. Traveling always presents me with a quandary -- do I really need to go? if I really need to go, what's the most ecologically responsible way to get there? is being ecologically responsible worth the hassle?

In years past, I used to travel a lot. My business took me regularly across the country, and occasionally around the world. In my best (?) year, I got credit for 100K miles on one airline, and 50K miles on each of two others. When I didn't get a free upgrade to Business Class, I was pretty much assured of an exit row aisle seat with free drinks for the duration. Not a bad way to fly, at least in pre-9/11 days.

Now, I try not to fly. First, it's a hassle. Second, it's ecologically injurious. Notice that, even as a sustainability geek, I put the hassle issue first. I've lived on farms for most of my life, and I'm used to making do, to finding a way. But the farms I've lived on have been in the USA, and I'm as imbued with the culture of convenience as any other American citizen. There's no amount of grief and aggravation I won't put up with, to save myself some grief and aggravation.

So riding a bus or taking a train or carpooling is something I justify to myself, at least in part, on the basis of avoiding the hassle of flying. The hassle of ground transportation (including actually driving part of the way) is easier to justify emotionally if I compare it to the hassle of air transportation. In my mind, I build up the air transportation hassle because it makes it easier for me to break the air transportation habit.

See, breaking habits is hard. (Like you didn't know that.) But since we're all products of modern society, the things that modern society makes easy are at the root of habits we've all formed. Still, the fact that something's a habit doesn't make it healthy. (Ask any smoker.)

Flying is a habit, especially if the destination is more than a couple of hundred miles distant. Getting a retail receipt is a habit, and think of the tons of paper used each day in the USA to print receipts no one's ever going to look at. (Even if rational Chinese restaurants and mom-and-pop grocery stores have made a habit of turning the receipt-printing function off.)

Privileging familiar brands is a habit. If I've heard of a brand, and especially if I've formed a positive impression of it, then I'm more willing to believe that the product bearing that label meets a minimum acceptable quality standard. No guarantees, of course, but the Levis jeans do get some preference over the never-heard-of-it label. Mea culpa.

All this came to mind today, as I was hearing on the radio about the government's efforts to bail out the "Big 3" auto makers. The radio commentator was going on about how it was bad news that "the votes aren't there". So, no massive quantities of low-interest loans. It was presented as a tragedy. And, if you're an auto worker who gets paychecks from one of those companies, on a micro- level, it is.

But on a macro- level, the best thing that could happen to the auto industry in this country is that one or three of the existing carmakers should go belly-up. If you look at the products they turn out -- both the SUV's they've insisted on producing for years after marketing intelligence told them the game was up, and the "green" vehicles they promise are just over the horizon -- the car companies we've got are not the car companies we need. The USA and the world don't need two-ton single-person transporters. If we're going to continue transporting solo drivers (and there's every reason to believe we are), we need to find a way to do it which minimizes vehicle weight. Moving 4,000 pounds of steel and plastic in order to transport 175 pounds of human is inherently inefficient. And, if we're going to build 500-pound personal transportation pods (for example), there's no evidence that the existing car companies know any more about how to do that than the average man on the street. In fact, rather the opposite.

Look, technologies change. And when they do, the companies that benefited most from the old technologies rarely make the most of the new ones. Western Union was offered the rights to Bell's telephone patent, but thought the price was too high. Studebaker was a premiere coachmaker, but an ultimately unsuccessful car company. IBM absolutely dominated the world of computing until the PC came along, and then failed to make the most of its own invention.

In the final analysis, Mother Earth doesn't care whether the next generation of personal transport vehicles have a familiar logo on them or not. What's going to make a difference in the long term is whether we (and, to a disproportional extent, "we" means Americans) find ecologically sound solutions to everyday problems. Whether those ecologically sound solutions have familiar brandnames associated with them is merely a question of whether or not we manage to change our habits.


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