Closing the Sustainability Gap

By Dan Bertolet April 2, 2010

As we noted yesterday, a renegade crew of Seattle's green rock stars have organized the "Climate Neutral Seattle Unconference," which will take place tomorrow from 9am to 3pm at the offices of Mithun. Unfortunately, the event is full, so sorry if what I say below is just a tease.

First thing—it's totally awesome that this group is has volunteered their time to keep the momentum going on Seattle's fledgling commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. The goal is a lofty one, and it's going to need all the help it can get.

And in fact, the massive amount of restructuring that will be required to create a carbon-neutral Seattle in just 20 years is such a daunting task that it risks alienating even the most diehard enviros. For example, check out this back and forth between Sightline's Eric de Place and Alex Steffen, the guy who catalyzed the whole Seattle carbon-neutral debate.

Overall, my take is that aiming high is a smart approach when revolutionary change is necessary. When people are faced with what seems impossible, they often end up searching for  solutions beyond their usual limits. And that's when brilliance happens.

Regarding the Unconference, the one session in the program that most captured my imagination is "The Sustainability Gap: Driving Outcomes," on which Sightline's Roger Valdez has written here and here. It's about the disconnect between what many of us know we can and should be doing, and what we actually are doing. And I think that this starts to get at the heart of the most significant barrier to progress on climate change: It's no longer a technical problem. It's a political and cultural problem.

We already know how to design buildings that are incredibly efficient. We already know what urban areas that make car-free living an attractive option look like. We already know that building communities around high-capacity transit stations is our best strategy for sustainable growth.  Etc, etc.

The problem we desperately need to solve yesterday is: Why has been such a struggle to make these things happen? For example, how can it be that in a state that has committed to a goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled by 50 percent by 2050, leaders are strong-arming no fewer than three multi-billion dollar car infrastructure mega-projects, when at the same time transit is funding perenially on the chopping block, and ped/bike plans can't be implemented due to lack of funds?

The political and cultural roadblocks are much bigger than the technical roadblocks. In fact, dare I say that sometimes it feels like we're talking well known technical solutions to death?

Our best chance for climate stabilization lies in rapid deployment of the multitudes of great solutions we already have. Time for the Sustainability Gap Unconference.
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