Close the Door!

Blogito, ergo sum. Welcome to Gang Green. With a little over a month to go until the opening of Green Community, the exhibition I'm curating at the National Building Museum, this seemed like a good time to join the blogosphere, to share some of the backstory of the planning and development of the exhibition. And some of my thoughts on the difficult issues it raises. And just some pet green peeves...

I'm enjoying the onset of fall. I'm rarely comfortable in the summer heat unless I'm doing something where sweat is expected and acceptable. And I don't much like air-conditioning either, especially when it's set to absolute zero. So, yes, I'm complaining about the weather. Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it, right?

Well, plenty of merchants around my neighborhood in Dupont Circle are doing their part for climate change. Accelerating it, that is. One shop after another props its door open, belching ice cold air into the great outdoors. And woe be to the eco-conscious pedestrian who nudges one shut; indignant staff will rush to prop it open again, usually muttering some Nuremburg-esque defense about simply following orders: “management requires that we keep the doors open and waste the last drops of fossil fuel, foul the air, melt the ice caps, and then raise our prices to cover our profligacy."

Oblivious merchants who should have a better grasp on these matters of supply and demand are burning energy like there’s no tomorrow. We the potential customers are supposed to succumb to the cool seduction, to come in and spend some money. But I for one can’t even enjoy the vicarious cool as I walk by. I feel as if I’ve been slimed with oil or coated with coal dust.

Economists would say that those businesses probably have no incentive to change their behavior. It’s unlikely the building owners share any energy savings with the tenants, and employees probably receive no bonuses for being responsible. Besides, everyone else is doing it... This dilemma is often referred to as the "tragedy of the commons," a parable of the interplay among shared resources and self-interest most famously articulated by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. The gist of Hardin’s argument, based on writings by William Lloyd Forster in the 1830s, is that individuals will consume as much of a shared resource as they can. It’s not in their self interest to conserve because it merely leaves room for someone else to consume their share.

If your personal frugality yields no tangible benefits, why bother? Why conserve, if everyone else is going to use up whatever is left on the table? No special benefits fall to the sole merchant who closes the door. Worse yet, maybe shoppers can’t figure out that he sells shoes if the door is closed, walls of glass notwithstanding, and they might go to the next shoe store down the street where the door is open. Of course, in Dupont Circle, all the shoe stores happen to be the same. This ubiquitous chain, let’s call it Carbon One, is probably the most egregious chiller in the neighborhood and the least receptive to walk-by door closings. I freely confess: I have been a card carrying member of the Carbon One frequent shoe buyers club. I keep my carbon footprint small, size 6 in fact, by living car-free, using Smartrip benefits, and walking everywhere I can. These days the little devil of consumption on my shoulder is urging me to go in: it’s the end of season sale! But there’s a green goddess on the other shaking her head: you weak, hypocritical girl. She is more persuasive. So, I’m kicking the habit. Good bye, Carbon One.

Yet, I can’t isolate myself in a cocoon of my own cleaner air and my own stable climate. I can’t reserve my own puddle of oil and carefully make it last my lifetime. Carbon One won’t notice my absence. But, as Hardin also points out, “we can never do nothing.” That is, inaction is a kind of action, but it is the wrong kind.

The past eight years have been marked by federal inaction on energy and climate change-- the wrong kind of action--so it has fallen to states, cities, communities, and activists to take local and incremental action, whittling away at the tragedy of the commons, lowering the total bill as it were. Individual actions do indeed make a difference, and many individuals taking the same action can make a huge difference. Communities around the world have sworn off inaction, and their actions are recharging the commons, yielding tangible and measurable dividends. My decision to quit patronizing energy-wasting establishments makes a small difference. When others decide to do the same, things begin to change.

How do we get those "others" to join the effort? Aren't they us? Stay tuned...

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