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Learned: Sustainable Waldo

12/27/10 5:55PM By Andrea Learned
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(HOST) Commentator Andrea Learned has been wondering where people and businesses will find sustainability, once they've changed their light bulbs and mastered recycling.

(LEARNED) I've been thinking a lot lately about how to nudge more people toward sustainable living practices.  While switching out light bulbs and recycling as much as possible are both easy ways to start that process, what comes next?

I was recently interviewed by GOOD magazine about just this, and what came to me was that we may now need to focus on places where sustainability is hidden in plain sight.  The places where we can point out that people are already thinking sustainably, to help them realize it may be possible to do even more.

Remember the "Where's Waldo" books?  Darned if he wasn't right in front of your nose and you didn't see him.  So where are some sustainability Waldos?

One great example might lie in urban density and community transportation planning issues.  Humans may well respond to walkable neighborhoods or good bike lanes for other reasons, but - wow - does it ever make a sustainability difference to consider those options.  My point is that how we choose to get around can certainly be more about our personal health or social connections; but sustainability, like Waldo, is also in the middle of that picture - whether we notice or not.  

This may be especially key for reaching those people who are beginning to tune out sustainability messages.  Whether or not they agree with environmental responsibility, they've become sick of the barrage.  So, for them, it might work best to keep the sustainability part quiet.  Pitch the money-saving or health-contributing benefits of practices like biking and walking first.

Gardening is another activity where sustainability may be hiding in plain sight.  A lot of people grow vegetables simply because they like to.  The sustainability benefits of local food can sneak in through the back door.

And what about neighborhood involvement, as supported by services like Vermont's own Front Porch Forum, which host networks of online neighbor-to-neighbor help and information. Communities built on stronger interpersonal relationships and citizen interconnections help build more long-term, sustainable views on big, challenging issues.  Whether or not citizens see this as sustainability doesn't really matter.  They are responding to powerful, sustainability-promoting, shared values.

For me, the challenge is finding ways that the foundations of sustainable thinking can sneak into the minds of more people.  We may not think we care about seeing Waldo, but once we know he's already there - and doing some cool stuff - I'm guessing we'll be interested to see more of him.

Sure, only government policy or business requirements can effectively address the really big environmental problems.  But, for now, noticing what's already hidden in plain sight may help make sustainability more conceivable for the average person - and get the ball rolling faster.
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