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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.

Choir, please disregard
February 9, 2008 - 3:56pm

If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.

What most of us have been doing, all our lives, is making choices and forming habits which make sense, given our circumstances as we understand them. No one that I know consciously goes out of her way to make her life more difficult — when that happens, it’s usually as a result of lack of attention, lack of information or lack of good choices.

But the truth of the matter is that the choices we’ve been making, and the habits we’ve been forming, in the USA (and most of the developed world) aren’t ones that the planet can support for long. Flooding, fires, lack of snowpack, tornadoes in February, you name it — the signs are out there for anyone to see. Even Rupert Murdoch has figured it out, although the message doesn’t seem to have gotten to his employees at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

Now, there’s nothing harder to change than a habit, and nothing easier to defend (at least on an emotional level) than a choice previously made. Change is never comfortable, and rarely easy. That’s why Machiavelli said that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” But sometimes, change is necessary. It’s going to be one of those times for the next century or so.

So, some of the preferences we’ve all developed over the years are going to have to be rethought. The big changes will take a while to think through and implement. I’ve long felt that (in the classic formulation) if I can see my neighbor’s chimney smoke, he’s too #*$! close. But I still need to earn a living, which means showing up in a city more days than not, and the low population density out where I live makes public transit impractical. I don’t know what the solution is yet, but emerging technologies ( e.g., wind power combined with plug-in hybrid cars) may hold an answer. Or, I may have to rethink where I live. Or both.

The little changes, however, we can start making right away. Recycling. Compact flourescents. Not using electricity to do for us what we can readily do for ourselves. Walking up a flight of stairs or opening the door by hand isn’t going to save the world. But, if it’s physically practical, either one is a step in the right direction — the direction of forming new habits.

Long, long ago, I realized that I needed to quite smoking. It was more than a habit, it was an addiction. And it needed to change. I didn’t quit all at once, I quit in baby steps over about a year. First I stopped buying cigarettes by the carton. Then I limited myself to only buying one pack at a time. Then I stopped buying the brand I preferred. Then I started rotating my purchases among as many brands as were available (including the menthol ones — I hated menthol). Then I increased the menthol purchases to every other pack. Then I switched entirely to menthol. Then I made a rule that I wouldn’t smoke in the car. Then I made a rule ...

You get the idea. Change is work. We’re creatures of habit. Even small changes are uncomfortable.

But, if nobody changes, then nothing changes, and we keep getting what we’ve been getting.

(For perspective on the potential cumulative impact of individual change, click here.)


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