Voices from the Salon

More or less weekly posts from more or less experts on topics more or less related to climate change

Why I Changed the Buttons on my Sportscoat

Time Posted on January 11, 2010 UTC User Yoram Bernet Comment 3216 comments

Todd Vogel is Executive Director of the International Sustainability Institute, a Seattle-based not-for-profit dedicated to bringing world-wide best practices in sustainability to the Puget Sound region.

For the last two years, ISI has worked with the City of Seattle, University of Washington Green Futures Lab and Gehl Architects of Copenhagen to bring state-of-the-art methods to Seattle for making great people places. Gehl Architects’ Public Space and Public Life study of Seattle is the most in-depth study of pedestrian behavior and public spaces in any U.S. city. It promises to establish a thirty-year vision for the city and a statistical baseline by which Seattle can measure its progress toward becoming a walkable, sustainable city.

Cooperation between ISI and the Green Futures Lab led to mapping people spaces in Seattle’s Southeast neighborhoods. ISI’s work also has resulted in new public art on Seattle’s streets as well as a movement to invigorate the city’s alleys.

I look at the necessary carbon reduction to save the planet, and I circle through a couple of different responses.

First, I feel overwhelmed. Whatever that I do or that we do as a society isn’t going to help much.

Next, I move into what I call the "Discipline" cycle – “Oops, I should have put that in recycling.” “Bust, I forgot to turn out that light.” I watch my habits and try to change the wasteful ones. This can become an obsession that clouds the big picture. And what is that big picture?

Moving toward steady, long-term change.  Dramatically reducing our greenhouse emissions isn’t a race we will win in a sprint. If we sprint at our hardest, without thinking strategically, we’ll end up bent over gasping for breath.

Even if a sprint won’t take us to the finish line, we don’t have to look for only one small change at a time.  That won’t help either. Small things add up on climate change only if everyone buys in. Anyone who has been on a Texas highway lately, awash in big SUVs, knows that everyone hasn’t bought in and that we have a lot of work to do.

This means that we have to multi-task. We need to do two small things at a time. We have to change one habit, say, like biking to the store instead of taking the car, and then change something else, something that brings change on the structural level. This “structural change” can be on the personal level, meaning a change in how you organize your own life – or on the societal level, meaning a change in how society organizes itself.

What's a structural change? It’s a change that makes it easier to make the right low-carbon emitting choice in future decisions.  It greases the skids for making better decisions in the future.

To replace car trips with bike trips, I started by committing to biking to one more event each week. I quickly saw how convenient and fun biking was, and the habit began to stick. The days I rode quickly increased.

Perhaps the most important thing I did was to make the structural change necessary to feed my habit of riding a bike as transportation. Since I attend a lot of meetings around town, I want clothes that I can ride in and attend meetings. I made the buttons on my sport coats functional so that I can roll up the sleeves on a hot day. I bought slacks that suitable for leaning over the handlebars in comfort, and I replaced my pedals with two-sided numbers that allow me to both clip in and wear street shoes. The result?  I don’t have to change clothes to get on my bike and go. I am ready to ride almost any time. And the more I ride, the more I hard-wired my life to ride. Lights are permanent fixtures on my handlebars. Panniers always stand at the ready, and my wife and I organize our condo storage unit to serve as a bike repair and staging depot. We make bike riding easy on ourselves.

The concept also works when we move from down-home examples like these to broader questions about how we, as a society, organize our lives. I’ll address one example in a future blog entry.

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