What is individual responsibility in creating sustainability?


I think America is dependent on the expectation that someone else is going to fix our problems. Now that we have Obama in office, he’s going to figure it out and the government is going to take on big bad industry and big bad Wall Street and the government is going to fund solar and fund wind and fund the solutions that bring us into a greener economy than what we have. All we have to do is be supportive of the government and we will get the benefits of their largesse.

The whole equation needs to be flipped on its tail. In my world of having lived in Washington, DC for 16 years and done a lot of work through the federal government, my experience is that government follows, people lead. And that green building, my field, has been a result of consumer demand. It has not been a result of tax credits and rebates and incentives, but people have made the choice that living in a green home makes more sense for their family. As we look at the big picture of energy, our collective energy use, the $700 billion dollars that we export to counties that don’t like us very much, it all comes down to individual decisions. One car at a time, one trip at a time, aggregated into this enormous demand for fossil fuels of all kinds. If we are not taking our American heritage seriously, to “live free or die”, on an individual level, then we will never get to a level, the scale of change that we need to get to. It is up to us to improve the insulation in our homes, put solar on our homes; it is up to us to drive wisely. It is up to us to figure out, from our own lifestyle what makes the most sense, from a personal perspective, what is in it for me, as well as the health of the country’s economy, why should we as a country wean ourselves off of imported oil?

The biggest obstacle for people taking personal responsibility has been that we have grown so entitled as a culture. We have insurance companies that take care of our health so that we don’t have to manage it, We have public agencies that take care of our safety so that we don’t have to be prepared, as people do in many developing counties. People take responsibility for their personal safety and security. We are habitualized to flipping a switch and having something happen, to turning on a faucet and having water come out, so our habits are based on very antiquated policies and pricing structures… water is virtually free in most of America, and so kids never learn the value of water. They turn on the faucet and let it run, we wash dishes and let the faucet run….

We live in a magical reality because someone else has figured it out. But in the days of more than abundant water, in the days of more than abundant forests, in the days of cheap energy, we didn’t have to think about these things. We’ve been spoiled for entire generations. I was born in 1950 when television started and we already had switches that controlled everything and faucets that worked all the time. All of my adult life everything has always worked. The wonderful and tragic consequence of that is that we’ve had really good, abundant lives in America. The tragic quality is that it’s been on the backs of the rest of the world. So, as 4% of the world’s population use 25% of the world’s resources. Energy, water, materials. And because you cannot see it from our houses, most Americans are oblivious of that fact but the rest of the world is poignantly aware of it. It makes us the ugly giant in the room. We have to come to terms with ourselves on an individual basis, on a family basis, a community basis and really look at what do we need vs. what do we want.