Can good intentions save the planet?

I’m permanently undecided as to whether the environmental problem is a consciousness problem (we all need to wake up, realize our resources are limited, and make some changes), or a legislative issue (we need someone to enforce the fact that ruining the planet is not a democratic right). On optimistic days, I lean towards the former. Today is not an optimistic day.

Although I applaud small changes and the attitude behind them (yes! shorter showers matter, if primarily metaphorically), I’m also a pragmatist. Real, measurable change matters more than how it happened. And I see a couple of serious shortcomings with an environmental movement that relies primarily on good intentions.

  • Problem #1. Good intentions are limited by our knowledge and/or interest. If we’re constantly told we can save the planet by changing a lightbulb or switching to reusable bags, we’re not going to look further for other stuff we can be — need to be — doing. I understand why the environmental movement has pushed the little, easy-to-do stuff, but I don’t agree with the attitude (good for you! you used a reusable bag! have a gold star) or with the idea that we can stop with the easy stuff.
  • Problem #2. As a species, humans are not known for our ability to resist temptation. I read in a study that we end up saving more resources when we switch to efficient appliances than when we try to use our current ones less. Fact: we’re just not very good at self-regulating. If there’s nothing but good intentions to stop me from taking a long shower, odds are decent that on some Saturday morning, when I’m busy working out a blog entry in my head, I’ll go way past my self-imposed 5 minutes. Ahem. Good intentions are easy to push aside, make exceptions to, and otherwise abandon.
  • Problem #3. Good intentions will not (generally speaking) push us into making difficult, inconvenient, or unpleasant decisions. I wish I could say that environmental concerns have pushed me into childfree-ness, but that’s not true. I’ve never wanted kids. Environmental concerns haven’t made me get rid of the car, find a job I can walk or bike to, or move to a place where I can garden and compost. And maybe that’s because I’m lame, but I think most of us are lame like that. We’re comfortable, and that makes it hard to voluntarily make big changes.

Good intentions are only half of the equation. We need fewer chances to make bad decisions. I see no reason, for example, why we should not be offered only energy efficient choices for cars and appliances.  Why we shouldn’t have to pay higher vehicle registration fees for less efficient vehicles, be rewarded for saving water and fined for wasting it.  As my friend Tracey puts it, make it easy for us to be good, difficult and costly for us to be bad, and we might actually get somewhere.

It won’t happen, of course. Democracy means finangling, compromises, filibustering, and all sorts of other issues that keep our government from acting decisively. In some ways, that might be a good thing. But when it comes to safeguarding our future on this planet, not so much.

19 responses to this post.

  1. How do we develop a sustainable civilization?

    By delivering the “holy grail of sustainable decision making” – a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit – The SLDI Code™

    The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

    “Sustainable Land Development” – The art and science of planning, financing, regulating, designing, managing, constructing and marketing the conversion of real estate to other uses through team-oriented, multi-disciplinary approaches which balance the needs of people, planet and profit – for today, and future generations.

    Sustainable Land Development Requires Collaboration…

    The World’s First Sustainable Development Decision Model is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

    SLDI – Sustainable Land Development Initiative – a cooperatively-owned stakeholder association, is now positioned to help transform the industry that creates the very infrastructure of our civilization. SLDI is dedicated to delivering sustainable land development technology and knowledge resources to promote and enable fully integrated sustainable land development worldwide.


    • While I agree that SLDI is conceptually necessary to attain a sustainable environmental future, I can’t foresee governments and industries ever embracing this model across the board. Similar economic models were widely discussed with much excitement at the Globescope Pacific Conference for Sustainable Development back in 1989…and we’re no closer today to implementing them. 😦


  2. I totally agree with you and your friend Tracey.

    When the condition of our planet is affected by our individual and collective actions and activities, society must take measures to mitigate harmful practices. Unfortunately, most governments will not implement nor are likely to be prodded into implementing measures to ensure adequate environmental protections.

    While there are piecemeal attempts to curb actions which harm “the commons” (such as laws against allowing a dog to crap on a public parkway), our society fails to recognize the need to regulate all human endeavors that have both short- and long-term impacts. For example, why should consumers purchase a slab of beef, one of the most environmentally damaging forms of protein, without some penalty or disincentive? The cost of all products, goods, and services should be affected by the measure of their environmental sustainability (or lack thereof).

    Although like-minded people such as you and me are motivated (most of the time) toward choices that minimize our environmental impact, the vast majority of people are clueless about the degree of harm their various everyday and mundane activities can have. While a much more enlightened population can only help, too many short-term needs prevent the scale of change needed to prevent a downward environmental spiral. And as you indicate, there’s also no sign that government will ever step up to the plate on earth’s behalf either.


  3. Hi Jennifer,

    I agree that we need a balance of both approaches. However, external solutions cannot fully uproot the source of the problem: our own inner environment. We need to change our own values and actions to fundamentally change the world in my humble opinion.


    • Agreed…I think I’m just frustrated it takes so damn long for people to awaken to the fact that things matter outside their own lives, and that we’re probably always going to be a minority. In the meantime, it’d be good if someone would make us play nice with all the other kids.


      • “it’d be good if someone would make us play nice with all the other kids.”

        Here you go, 😉

        Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization

        Everyone who has ridden a tricycle understands the fact that three wheels are more stable than one or two. In fact, a three-legged stool gives greater stability than one with four (or more) legs when the surface on which the stool sits is not perfectly level.

        We also have learned that the simple balance of three applies not only to working with the laws of gravity, but to all aspects of life, hence the triple bottom line of sustainable development. What is harder to understand is why humans have so much difficulty applying this basic scientific fact through better balanced public and private policy…


  4. I have just found your blog and read a few posts and I have to tell you that I have SUCH similar views… Sometimes it is so easy to be discouraged – how will we ever collectively “wake up”? I also totally agree that people are best motivated by economics. Here is an interesting thought exercise – what if we eliminated income tax and replaced it fully with carbon tax. Not just for corporates, but for individuals, based on the odometer on your car, electricity used in your house, gas/oil used to heat your house, and some measure on the goods you consume. Toss your income tax forms and pull out the ones that measure your carbon footprint. Corporations would have to pay it too, so it would be easier for Walmart to start locally sourcing stuff than getting it from around the world. A local tomato would have less tax than one shipped in 3000 kms away. Jeans made in China would be more heavily taxed than jeans made locally. It would shake up the whole system.

    An economist will say that the price of goods do not reflect “externalities”, which are costs that are not priced in. Perhaps a carbon tax will price in the true cost of a product, including the cost to the planet. People will still go for the cheapest, which would be good for all.

    Just an idea. Baby steps…


    • I think that may happen to some extent anyway as cheap oil becomes a thing of the past. Local products won’t get any cheaper, but imported ones will get a lot more expensive. At some point, I think we’ll have no choice but to realize that things have costs beyond their immediate price tags. It would be better if that happened now, on a voluntary basis, but it probably won’t.

      Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! I left a comment on yours as well.


  5. Great discussion here. There’s a few other issues when it comes to govt regulation. One primary issue is the fact that industry has their hand in govt regulation. I think most industries would balk at paying environmental externalities. Unless industry leaders, such as people like Ray Anderson, or Warren Buffet, step up to speak out, to challenge their fellow industry leaders to start doing things differently (aka embracing the triple bottom line), I can’t see industry turning around.

    And when it comes to new policy/econ ideas such as the one presented above, there are a multitude of GREAT ideas out there. The problem is that NONE of them will get implemented unless something changes in our current policy process that allows for the incorporation of these new, good ideas.

    On the people change side of it – while people could live their lives with less environmental impact, they most likely won’t unless they have social pressure. I read an article that said the #1 most effective way of getting people to change their behavior was to convince them that this is the ‘cool’ thing to do, that all their friends and neighbors are doing it. We’re human animals after all. Monkey see, monkey do.

    Economic incentives help, but people are usually too busy + ignorant to really figure out that they could save money by going green.

    I’m not sure what it will take – I’m thinking about talking about environmental rights, and framing it around that. If we agree that we have a basic right to clean air, water, chemical-free food, shelter, and clothing, will it then be okay to regulate industries which infringe upon those basic rights?

    Of course that’s another good idea the UN has talked about, but which no nation loves to adopt.


    • I totally agree about it has to be “cool” before the majority will buy in. This is slowly happening I think, but we don’t have a lot of time! I have often thought about the obsession of celebrity culture, and if we could tap into them, and make them eco-conscious, that others, especially young people, might buy in since it is the “cool thing to do”. Have you read the “Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell? I am going to do a book review soon on it. It is all about what it takes to tip a social movement, and how the biggest obstacle is getting the innovators and early adopters to translate the ideas for the majority to understand and apply. Right now they don’t understand! Or apply!

      Somehow it has to bubble up from the people, so the politicians can take action without risking themselves. I like the idea of rights a lot!


      • Lynn Fang said, “Unless industry leaders…step up to speak out, to challenge their fellow industry leaders to start doing things differently (aka embracing the triple bottom line), I can’t see industry turning around.”

        Sherry Greens replied, “Somehow it has to bubble up from the people, so the politicians can take action without risking themselves.”

        Sustainable Land Development Initiative Responds…

        Study Provides Revealing Look at the State of the Industry – SLDI recently conducted a survey of land development professionals designed to gauge the industry’s perceptions of who/what is responsible for the current economic situation, what will be needed to improve it, the industry’s overall acceptance of and receptivity to sustainable land development principles and practices, and the industry’s current level of implementation of the most common “green” programs currently available –

        SLDI & The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown’s new book, “The Lost Symbol,” is the fastest selling adult novel of all time in both hardback and eBook versions, eclipsing the initial global success of Brown’s earlier book, The Da Vinci Code, which ultimately sold over 80 million copies. This sequel (and the movie, which is already scheduled for release in 2012) is guaranteed to cause a tremendous and lasting groundswell of public interest in the book’s subject matter – which intertwines the history of Washington D.C., the secrets and symbols of Freemasonry, and the hidden meaning of George Washington’s life – each of which have deeply rooted connections to land development.

        Even as the book’s clever and fast-paced plot concludes, what may not be apparent to many readers is the connection between the SLDI mission and the meaning of “The Lost Symbol” – The Apotheosis of George Washington – painting on the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda.

        According to Brown’s story, “This ceiling’s spectacular collection of images was indeed a message… The founding fathers had envisioned America as a blank canvas, a fertile field on which the seeds of the mysteries could be sown. Today, Washington – a soaring icon – the father of our country, ascending to heaven – is hung silently above our lawmakers, leaders, and presidents…a bold reminder, a map to the future, a promise of a time when all people, like George Washington, would evolve to complete spiritual maturity.”

        “The Lost Symbol” connects the meaning of George Washington’s life to the achievement of our human potential as creators on earth. Now this is something to which we in land development can relate and aspire! Interestingly, SLDI made that very same connection almost four years ago. As first written in the December 2005 Land Development Today magazine article by SLDI entitled, “Breaking New Ground”: “When you look at the history of our industry in America, one is hard pressed not to conclude that George Washington, the Father of our Country, also grew to become what can only be described today as the Father of our own land development industry, as well as a visionary prophet of sustainability” –

        Further, the May 2007 SLDT magazine article People, Planet, & Profit, which originally unveiled the need and concept for SLDI, again documented George Washington’s unique leadership qualities, and addressed the multitude of problems facing our profession with this advice – “What Would George Washington Do?… Understanding the life and times of perhaps our country’s greatest hero, George Washington, can help to light our way down a path of true sustainability – one where people, planet, and profit all are considered equally in a decision model.”

        Now, once again following the visionary philopsophy of George Washington, SLDI is pleased to be able to disclose the “holy grail of sustainable decision making” – a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit – The SLDI Code™

        Your participation and comments are welcome –


      • I’ve heard of The Tipping Point but haven’t gotten around to reading it. It sounds like it would be useful advice! My difficulty with the social pressure angle is that it’s not something I respond to or instinctively understand. However, whatever works en masse I’m all in favor of!


      • I’m heard of The Tipping Point, it sounds intriguing. I also don’t really respond to the social pressure angle – maybe I’m too rational and am able to make decisions based on what makes the most sense to me. But I can see that most other people don’t operate this way.


        • I just put up a post of a book review of the Tipping Point! ( I think it is most relevant for young people, who are most influenced by trends (ie fashion, music, etc). The book gives several examples of tipping in action, such as the spread of a disease, the marked decrease in crime in NYC in the 90s and the proliferation of AirWalk shoes… I see no reason why the same principals cannot be applied to the environmental movement. I do think change has to come from the people, the majority even, before the government will take serious action.


    • I really like the idea of environmental rights, and it makes so much sense when profit isn’t seen as the ultimate good. But I wonder what would happen to people who abuse these rights and take up more their fair share — like pretty much all Americans?


      • That’s a good point. Many Americans do take up more than their fair share. Perhaps if Americans are sold on the idea of environmental rights, they can learn to not consume so excessively? It might take something like the voluntary simplicity movement to turn things around. It seems that regardless of how govt and industry respond to the environment, Americans will ultimately need a lifestyle change as their contribution to sustainability.


  6. […] Can good intentions save the planet? […]


  7. […] Not Easy To Be Green – Can-good-intentions-save-the-planet […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: