Incrementalism and Sustainability

April 11, 2008

I haven't been reading WorldChanging so much as I used to, as much due to my lack of time as anything, but when I stopped by yesterday I was reminded why I love this site, and contribute towards its upkeep: Alex Steffen's Neighborliness, Innovation and Sustainability.

My first reaction was — I've read this before. But then I realized that there were some new combinations in ideas, some new permutations, and new personal reflection resulted. So, fine, no worries if Steffen has written about the same concepts several times. They need to be re-iterated again and again. From them, I noticed two things: I need to find my next steps to move past a green-substitution lifestyle into something more sustainable, and though coming from a humanist perspective, Alex is converging on some of the same ideas that underpin Bahá'í notions of the social changes required to move society from our present unstable course into a higher, sustainable one.

This post will address the first of these two items — incrementalism. I'll return soon to the second theme.

Beyond Green-Substitution

Steffen writes about "green-shopping", calling it "the Swap." We trade one product for another; "people have accepted that something must change, but have not really gotten their heads around the idea that everything must change." Continuing his critique, he says about the Swap that

"It's an attractive fantasy — instead of diving a Hummer, living in a McMansion and shopping at the Gap, I can drive a Prius, live in an EcoMansion and shop at Gaiam — but it's still playing make-believe, because the systems that support and enable those choices are themselves unsustainable. Highways are destructive, even when full of hybrids; sprawl is unsustainable, even when the individual houses are green; we don't even know what sustainable clothing would look like, much less how to make conventional retail green."

I had a feeling he was going to say that about my Prius.

Compared to my habits of five years ago, quite a few changes have been made (most of the time): organics, cloth bags, hybrid, CFLs, wind power, and more. We all know that our individual actions are negligible, but we also know once we step into society, we automatically become models for other people's actions (hence "be the change you wish to see"). And it just makes us feel good to doing these incrementally more sustainable things.

The key point that Steffen is bringing us back to is that these are merely more sustainable actions — they do not in themselves do much to advance a truly sustainable lifestyle. Toyota has this silly little sticker on the side of the Prius that labels it a "partial zero-emission vehicle." Well, the Chevy it replaced was also, compared to a Hummer, a "partial zero-emission vehicle." There is no partial in zero-emission. It is somewhat useful to think in these terms, as we move from full emission to lower emission, but we cannot rest on our laurels and be happy with a small reduction in emissions. Likewise, we cannot rest just because we are slightly less un-sustainable.

Without radical social and policy changes overnight, incrementalism is unavoidable. It becomes dangerous when it is complacent and shallow. Incrementalism needs to be continuous and serious. So it is time to ask — what can I do next? Driving may be my least sustainable action. I've looked at riding the bus to work — I could do it, but it would cost me nearly three times as much as the gas used in the Prius, and take three times as long. Maybe I'll try it some day anyway. Being around ten miles away from work (sweaty), and not having a good place to store it, I've resisted riding my bike. In the meantime, thinking incrementally and building up my will-power, are there any other ways I can reduce my driving? Well, I drive a few miles there and back to the grocery store every weekend. Perhaps I could pick up a rack and start bicycling. Good for my health too. Thus instead of substituting one car for another in the grocery shopping trip, I would replace car with completely zero-emission bicycling.

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