The World Saving Habit You'll Hate (And the Great Puzzle of the Well-Intentioned Do Nothings)
Posted Feb 19, 2010 by Tod Brilliant
Last week we received a letter at the Post Carbon Institute office from Scott B., a sports car owner/engine rebuilder/computer programmer, whose frustration is boiling over at the lack of attention paid his Big Idea to Save the Planet (BISP).
Scott’s letter presented a very, very simple idea, one that has been gnawing at me since I read it, forcing me to take a closer look at a perhaps unsolvable equation (more on the Great Puzzle below). Scott’s idea:
Cap the national driving speed limit at 34 MPH (55 KMH).
The idea is so simple and so perfect, that at first blush it seems impossible. While Scott isn’t the first to suggest such a bold plan, he’s the first to put this particular BISP in front of me. His writings on the subject can be found at http://maxattainablespeed.blogspot.com/
The obvious benefits of this proposed national slowdown:
• Massive reductions in oil consumption
• Immediate and significant C02 reductions
• Smaller, lighter vehicles = less materials consumption
• Instant surge in demand for high-speed rail (with vehicle docking stations)
• Large drop in tire-related particulate pollution (650,000 tons/year in U.S. alone)
• Plunging traffic fatality rates + reduced health industry expenses
• Constriction of suburbs
The list goes on, but you get a taste.
Every morning I take my son, Justice, to his school located seventeen miles across the county. Adhering to Scott’s rules will take me ten extra minutes each morning. I don’t see this as much of a penalty to do the right thing by my boy, his classmates and the rest of the planet. The tradeoff is a no brainer.
But, Do Brains Matter?
Slowing down is an obviously great idea, one that is perfectly logical and hard to argue against using facts and logic. Some may gripe about ‘lost productivity’ or some such nonsense, but let these stone throwers first curtail their daily at-work Facebook excursions or email addiction. In fact, many studies show that many of our ‘productivity’ tools like email and smart phone applications actually create more work and chew up more time than their technologically inferior antecedents. In slowing down, we can gain time, free up mental space and increase clarity.
I digress. No matter the power of this idea, most of us will rail against it. Why? For starters, because most of us, myself included, are terrifically f$cking stupid. Stupid when and where it matters most (look around if you need confirmation). What good is our human intellect when we consistently disassociate it from our actions?
I invite you, gentle readers, to consider your very first thoughts on Scott’s idea. What was your immediate reaction? Skip your well-thought, logical answers, as the merits of the idea are inescapable. Rather, I want to know about your emotional reactions, because these seem to have a greater impact on our everyday habits and decisions.
Now reread Scott’s idea above. Though you’re pre-armed with knowledge of the concept, odds are good that it will still elicit some sort of reaction. There. Did you feel it? Did you chafe at the idea of such a drastic slowdown? Did you shudder a bit, deep down on the inside? Did you reach for an immediate compromise (“How about 50 mph instead?”)? Be honest. I really want to know.
[Let me take a split second to head off a potential distraction: To the O.G.’s who have been car-free for years: Bravo. I commend, respect and admire you.]
The next task is to explain your emotional reaction. Assuming, of course, that you’re being honest with yourself about your reaction (this type of honesty can be surprisingly difficult to achieve).
The Great Puzzle
I’m hoping your insights will be the critical hints that will help solve the Great Puzzle of the Well-Intentioned Do-Nothings (GPWIDN). To solve the GPWIDN we must learn to bridge the deep chasm between passionately professed beliefs and real-world actions. Much more than simple hypocrisy, this disconnect is in no small part responsible for the lack of movement in, to take one trite example, the reduction of greenhouse gases despite the awesomely urgent need. While some embody GPWIDN in the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’, I prefer awkward acronyms linked to barely defensible positions.
Regardless of how we define it, if we can crack this puzzle, or at the very least locate a backdoor workaround, we’ll transform conflicted, impotent WIDNs like me into powerful agents of rapid and immediate change.
In Mass Mind
The makeup and rules of the political arena are far from my area of expertise, and daily I pray for this to remain so. Yet, in thinking on Scott’s crusade, I’ve been trying to imagine how damned difficult it must be for a well-intentioned politician (yes, I also believe in unicorns and omnipotent invisible creatures who live in the clouds), an elected representatives of the mass mind, to champion a good idea if that idea in any way conflicts with the creature comforts of a largely self-entitled populace. Magical legislation that would slash per capita emissions 80% but increase the price of HBO? You’d have an easier time electing the ghost of Harvey Milk to the Presidency. And that’s just damned sad.
While I’m daily frustrated at a lack of commitment by the U.S. government to tackle the overwhelming, overlapping resource and climate crises that threaten to obliterate life as we know it, Scott’s letter has reminded me (I’m a slow learned and very forgetful) that I can’t expect top-down change until the bottom-up folks get well and truly serious. It’s easy to envision great and heroic personal sacrifice for a cause. Many of us think of think of ourselves as leaders in and members of a resilience building army. But the moment we have to step up and truly embody the mission, a lifetime of conditioning dulls our charge.
And so today if you ask me if we’ll ever, ever voluntarily make the changes required as a society in time for them to be meaningful, I’d say there’s no way in hell. Thanks, Scott. Way to put a hitch in my giddyup. Fortunately, the odds are pretty darned good that tomorrow someone else will show me an inspiring example of mass behavior change, and I’ll be reinvigorated as I zoom down the road at 75 in my gas-guzzling Volvo wagon.
For the record, I’d vote the Milk ticket. With Lenny Bruce as his running mate, I’m seeing shades of Perot/Stockdale.