There’s something about growing up off the beaten path that makes a person oddly proud. Don’t get me wrong, as I packed up the van 10 years ago with 3 of my closest friends headed west, “pride” was the last thing I felt towards my hometown. I was thrilled to be putting the Midwest in the rearview, and I didn’t look back. The west coast was the pinnacle of everything I wanted, and everything the Midwest was not. Younger, more artsy, actual changes in elevation, and a reputation for feeling deeply about the earth and its resources. Going from the land of Styrofoam and overflowing trashcans to Portland, a city known the world over for its green practices, felt like a step in the right direction.
Living in Portland for 10 years now, I can feel myself starting to develop a new respect for my upbringing. In Portland, I’ve found my network of like-minded people. Doing what we can do reduce our environmental impact, and feeling proud to be in a place that shares those values. It’s easy to forget that there is an entire world outside this place that isn’t as homogenous, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to look back at my upbringing and note some of the ways that it has shaped me and my work in sustainability. Here are just a few:
“Shut the door, you’re letting the heat out!”
We’ve all heard it. A relic of the Great Depression during which resources were scarce and longevity and efficiency were key. The “lowkey sustainable generation.” They were sustainable before it was cool! But do you think they were thinking “you’re letting the heat out, and the more heat we use the more energy we use, and the more energy we use the more we’re contributing to the change in our atmosphere’s chemistry!” Yeah, probably not. They were thinking “don’t let the heat out because it costs more money to heat a cold house.” But even more than that, I think there is a learned behavior from that era of resource scarcity. You shouldn’t waste things, and you should get the most out of everything you use.
We know that things were made more durably back in the day, but more than that their use was cared for and if something broke, you fixed it before replacing it. In a consumer first world, it makes sense that companies look to us to upgrade before we repair. Or sometimes just to buy the newest thing despite having a perfectly good one. “Our all new gadget has a 5% better battery and 0.2” larger screen! It’s a must have!!” And that’s a learned behavior that is creating a great deal of waste. Maybe there’s something to be learned from this mentality. To reuse and repair to the greatest extent possible.
Rural living and understanding the world
I love cities. Having a populated area with highly specialized workers living close to one another is extremely efficient. Fewer distances need to be travelled. Fewer changes in tasks and more time spent on your specialization. In a model economic environment, everyone would have their specialty and they would allow others to maximize theirs. You would spend your time on your highly specialized task, and there would be someone who’s specialization was to clean the house, do your laundry, your taxes, your car repairs…basically anything that you aren’t an expert in doing. Perfect! But there are drawbacks.
In more sparsely populated places, people tend to be tasked with a wider variety of things. They may not be as efficient as someone who specializes in each task, but they gain a more complete understanding of how things fit together. And this understanding can lead to a respect for the connected world we all live in.
Growing up, I saw my grandparents start and run a business, teach at an elementary school, sit on city council, and tend to the seemingly never-ending chores inherent in owning a farm. Not a shocking list for an active member of a community the size of a small Portland neighborhood, but still an impressive resume. Through these activities they experienced a more complete picture of how the community functioned. As a city council member, my grandpa understood the plight of elementary school funding, but also how the tax code affected the small business and farming communities. There were trade-offs that could only be seen with a complete understanding of the system.
It’s a little like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The story goes: three blind men stand next to an elephant. The first man stands touching the elephant’s trunk and proclaims “this must be a snake!” The second man stands touching the elephant’s leg and states with conviction “it’s a tree trunk, of course.” And the third man stands near its tail and described what feels like a rope. The moral of the story is that we tend to understand the world through our own set of personal experiences, sometimes quite stubbornly, without consideration to the parts we don’t see. Predictably, our experience with sustainability is no different.
As a city dweller, I find it miraculous that every week, for a nominal fee, I can take my trash and recycling to the side of the road and the next day it is gone. Because of the efficiency of the city, I am not responsible for taking it to the dump, or separating my waste into different categories, or really giving it a second thought. My parents, however, live in an area without a curbside recycling program, they are expected to do it manually. So they have equipped every spare cabinet with a bin for each type of recyclable material, which they then load in the back of the truck and empty into larger bins in an overflow parking lot. It’s less convenient, but can you see how this process would lead to a better understanding of, and deeper respect for, the process?
Simple Language = Broad Understanding
Scientists seem to have lost their messaging budget. Science is inherently difficult to explain to a public who, often times, prides itself on “not being science/math people.” In the science world, the importance of data and loudly stating all possible caveats is prized above all. In school, for instance, I was taught to distrust any science that claimed to “prove” anything.
“Science is working to show a higher and higher degree of probability that an outcome can be replicated, but nothing is ever proven to 100% as the millionth outcome might differ,” – all of my science teachers
This sentiment doesn’t lead to clear messaging to the public, and can sow doubt in a public who is looking for reasons to discount the findings.
The world of scientific academia has developed its own language. Many disciplines do this. (Just think endless acronym memorization required for any new job). This is great when your goals are to challenge, test, and genuinely review findings. But what about when your goals are to communicate those findings to the general population?
In this way, I’ve noticed a difference in regional messaging. In a self-described “green city,” people are versed in sustainability language and, even if they don’t fully understand it, will accept that it’s the right thing to do. Messaging in the Midwest seems to be most effective with more straight-forward and relatable language. They’re more likely to challenge a suggested action when it doesn’t logically make sense. Let’s take an examples:
Climate Change – let’s break it down…
“Climate” – The climate is a vast, intertwined system so complex that it’s studied as a discipline. Although the concept of the “climate” isn’t necessarily difficult to grasp, I would argue that the gradual effects of invisible gases on its chemical makeup is.
“Change” – The average worldwide temperatures are changing 1-2 degree Celsius in the coming years, RUN! To an average observer, putting climate change in these terms is far too abstract and doesn’t connect with their day to day lives. It’s easy to dismiss a change that happens so gradually.
Rating – Not terribly effective, as we’ve seen. If my goal was to confuse the issue and make it easy to demonize, I’d message around “Climate Change” and just wait for a snowball to be brought onto the Senate floor to disprove the whole thing…
Proposed Solution: “Air Pollution” Putting climate change in terms of the air you and your family breath is visceral, and easy to understand. Look at pictures of LA smog and tell me that’s a place you want to live. And why is it so bad? Tailpipe and energy sectors polluting the air we breath! Do we want to end up like Delhi or Shanghai? Do we want to have to wear masks forever?!
We don’t need to pander to the unscientific. Or delude the messaging to presume that people can’t understand. But when we are faced with an existential crisis, the impacts of which are seen over years not days and felt globally not locally, we need to talk about it in a way that is understandable. Even in smaller cases not threatening life as we know it, simple and direct messaging can help get the point across to more people. And that’s just it. An upbringing surrounded by resource-use maximization, hands-on solutions, and tendency to repair > replace has taught me that there’s an inherent logic in sustainability. To sustain! And it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
Change is hard and asking people to change their behavior is big. The most effective way to justify this ask is with simple messaging that highlights why it’s important to you. Why not buy that 6-pack of socks for $3? Because they’ll rip at the worst time. Why not buy those cheaper incandescent light bulbs? Because you’ll have to replace them 20x more than LEDs. Why not let your car idle as you wait? Because the air around your tailpipe is toxic, and it’s not fun to breath it in. It’s not about making you feel guilty, it just genuinely makes sense to make these choices! And that’s a message that works for everyone, no matter where you’re from or where you live now.
Small caveat: This is in no way arguing that the onus falls 100% on individuals. After all, if single-use plastics weren’t so ubiquitous, car manufacturers moved away from fossil fuels, and power companies invested in renewable energy as standard practice the burden wouldn’t be so heavy on us. Pairing individual actions with top-down approaches is Always the most effective course of action.