Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Helping Others Eschew Oil (How to Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017, Part IV)

Part I:  Taking Stock
Part IV: Helping Others Eschew Oil

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” - Buckminster Fuller

So you’re working on reducing your own oil use but maybe you’re downhearted. Maybe you figure, why bother? I’m just an oily drop in an oily nation. What does it matter if I cut my own oil use if everyone around me wallows in the stuff?

First off I would argue that each of us has to do what’s right because it’s right. If I don’t want to support fracking, polluting, stonings, and beheadings, I have to stop abetting ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia through my oil use.

But never fear, there are many ways to also influence others to reduce their oil use. You won’t impact everyone, but you can do your part to nudge/cajole/enjoin American society towards a less oily future.

Swat those pesky facts
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Americans are curiously fact-resistant, especially when it comes to anything concerning the environment, the climate or the economy. We might lament the current state of human intellect, but it’s always been the case that most people don’t find data and factoids nearly as persuasive as emotion. Trial lawyers know this, preachers know this, con men know it, and though it frustrates the engineer in me to no end, the novelist in me is not surprised. It’s part of the business of being human. Now, I know you are persuaded by facts. You love a good fact for breakfast and dine on three more at lunch. After all, here you are reading a post about energy, sustainability and climate, proof that facts have already reached you. I have no doubt you were one of the three kids paying attention in your eighth grade science class, too. But we have the other twenty-seven to consider.

Emotions! Bah, you say! You want to read how to help others eschew oil, not some namby-pamby squishiness about feelings. Wait! Don’t click away! If we can’t reach someone through facts, emotions may very well be the ticket, but in a different way than you might think. In order to convert to an oil-light life, most people will need to believe that such a life will bring them status and pleasure. You might think that health and happiness would be enough, but remarkably neither are as psychologically powerful. Below we'll look at sixteen ways to help others eschew oil, some aiming at status and pleasure, others political or practical. Let's begin.

(Credit: Josef Beery)
1.) Walk the talk. You cannot expect others to do what you won’t do yourself. Model oil use reduction. In Gandhian fashion, exemplify the change you wish to see in the world. And let it transform you. Yes, initially people may see your new habits as crazy, pointless, etc., but as your life gets better and better—you gain health, you save money, your personal life satisfaction grows, you become pleasantly grounded in your neighborhood and community, slowly your friends and family will take notice. So walk, bike or take transit to places others think impossible. (This isn’t hard: most Americans think walking half a mile impossible.) Arrive invigorated with your trusty stainless steel water bottle, full of amusing stories of your adventures along the way. Sate your hungry ghost. Clear out your excess stuff. Replace the plastic in your house with fewer but more beautiful things. Celebrate local goods and foods. Give them as gifts, and when you have guests to dinner or when you bring food to other homes, point out the tasty, high quality local food the meal contains. (Bonus points for food you grow in your yard.) Through your vitality and obvious satisfaction, you’ll show rather than tell how a life with less oil can be better than one saturated in it.

2.) Become a roving ambassador for walking. Thirty years ago I read that the best way to improve your neighborhood is to walk around the block. I think this still holds as good advice. Walking not only puts eyes on the street and creates social cohesion through interactions between neighbors, it’s the best way to encourage others to walk. So walk. Don’t be afraid to be noticed. Being seen is the point. Realize that everyone likes to be approved of and admired, even by complete strangers, so approve and admire away. Smile and say hello to the people you pass. Chortle about what a fine day it is. Make eye contact and nod at other pedestrians like you’re both members of the Grand Secret Walking Club. Offer praise, simple encouragement (you don’t have to go overboard) or just beaming glances of approval. Do yourself a favor and get a pair of attractive yet highly comfortable walking shoes. And dress well! Athletic gear is okay for a morning power walk, but we’ll never raise the cachet of walking if it only looks appropriate for people in t-shirts and sweatpants. You could wear a hat and carry a natty walking stick, but that’s not required. If you’re up for it, you could do a David Sedaris and pick up litter. (You might even get a garbage truck named after you.) Use a wire handcart to walk groceries or other goods home to show it can be done. Lead community walks if that happens where you live. Tell store owners you walked to get there. (They’ll assume you drove.) Your job is to raise the status of walking, to encourage those who don’t walk to try it, and to help those who do walk to find it so enjoyable they’ll do more of it.

Day view
3.) Pamper your local pedestrians. Adopt a stretch of sidewalk and make it a place pedestrians feel happier walking through. As I described in Building Community One Bench at a Time, we put a decorated bench in front of our house. We also strung up solar-powered light strings to make our stretch of sidewalk friendlier at night. Since then I’ve also started sweeping 75 feet of sidewalk belonging to three sets of neighbors. Why, you ask? My neighbors live up a whole bunch of stairs and can’t keep their compost bins at street level. I have a garage at street level and so can more easily discard sweepings. For years I was annoyed that they didn’t keep their sidewalk clear and pedestrians had to trudge through leaves, branches and litter to get by. Now I just sweep it. It takes about twenty extra minutes a week and the sidewalk looks much, much better. I challenge you to choose a stretch of sidewalk beyond your own to sweep or keep snow-free. You’ll be helping out not only a neighbor but also our planet. If you have the space, plant flowers or lovely shade trees along your sidewalk, put in garden gnomes, stone lions, whatever might interest or amuse pedestrians as they pass. Walking naturally feels good, but you can make it that much better.
Night view

4.) Become a roving ambassador for bicycling. First off, if you’re a serious bicyclist with an awesome road bike you’ve spent major bucks on that is fantastic for hundred mile rides, good for you. But you also need a town bike, one suitable for leisurely, conspicuous, happy bicycling. For this assignment, being duded up in Lycra hunched over your handlebars while barreling along at 30 mph just won’t do. I recommend an upright bike because it shows your face, which, of course, will be beaming due to just how much fun it is to casually bike around town. People like to look at faces, so you’ll attract more attention, which is the point. Make your bike festive! I have a wicker basket decorated with silk flowers. I get lots of compliments; however, I didn’t put on the basket for compliments but rather to make bicycling look as appealing as possible. Guys might not be wild about flowers, but a tweed-style approach to bike riding is always eye-catching. Women, don’t be afraid to wear fashionable clothes while cycling. Looking stylish while pedaling very much raises the status of biking, and it’s easier to ride a bike in heels than to walk in them. (My husband and I ride our bikes to the ballet and the symphony.) Cargo bikes and box bikes can be great fun to decorate (involve the family!), and every single bicycle can benefit from festive lights at night. (I love the Monkey Lights on both my bikes but there are many sparkly, twinkly options.) Festive lights are not only safer, they attract attention in a positive way. On a bike it’s easy to strike up conversations with other bicyclists and pedestrians at intersections. Be cordial, be genial. Give out compliments; help the people biking around you feel great about what they’re doing. If you have a kid-toting cargo bike, be sure to regularly park it in a conspicuous place in front of your kids’ school and chat up anyone who asks about it.
My about-town bike

5.) Change the story. As we discussed in Part III, the average American gets a phenomenal amount of brainwashing (aka advertising) persuading them that cars make them powerful, sexy, and free when actually most of their time in a car is spent in traffic stressed, alone, and unhappy. The story most Americans have running in their heads about bicyclists and pedestrians is that they must be poor and stupid (so pity them) because anyone with money and sense has a car. It’s the American way. So your job is to convey with every stride and pedal stroke that not only do walking and bicycling save you money, not only do walking and bicycling improve your health, walking and bicycling are highly pleasurable. It’s the people in cars--getting more stressed, obese and diabetic by the hour--who should be pitied. Now I know there are days when you think, “Walking and bicycling would be bliss if it weren’t for all these crapola drivers trying to run me over.” However true this may be, if you’re going to change the walking/biking story, harassed fearfulness is not the sentiment to convey. You want your body language to exude the joy of walking, the fun of bicycling. You want to express that this is one the best parts of your day. Beam, smile, emote. That’s your focus, that’s your mission.

Now don’t expect instant change--we’re trying to alter the collective unconscious here. Most likely your joie de vivre will intrigue some people and give those waffling on the edge permission to give walking or biking a try. If you want to be a roving ambassador for transit, go for it, but depending on how well your local transit system works, it may be harder to convey great happiness about it. (Train buffs, on the other hand, have no problem waxing euphoric about riding the rails.) At least don’t trash talk your local transit. Instead, offer encouragement/admiration/ positive reinforcement to those friends and family members who take transit. Always be respectful, kind and polite to your fellow passengers on transit and act as if you approve of and admire them. The psychological field you radiate can actually make others around you feel calmer and more content.

Live, die and even be buried in your car.
6.) Combat American car culture. Car culture in the US has long been bonkers. Maybe our love affair with the auto has dimmed a little since the fifties when we ate cheeseburgers and saw movies in our cars, but we still congratulate people when they get a new car almost as much as when they have a baby. And getting a driver’s license is still a rite of passage almost as important as graduating high school. This is nuts! To counter this, never admire a car and do not congratulate anyone on buying a new car ever. You don’t have to say, “Gee, the value must have dropped $4000 when you rolled it off the lot.” Just don’t say anything. Instead, compliment people on their spiffy bikes, their awesome water bottles, or how nice their sidewalk always looks. When teens you know get to driving age, chat with their parents about how much safer it is for kids these days to take Uber/Lyft (or transit or protected bike lanes if you have them), how it really cuts down on teen traffic fatalities, the number one cause of teen deaths. Enough said.

7.) Gifts. If you give gifts at holidays and birthdays make them count! Every dollar you spend has influence. Certainly give non-oily/non-plastic presents, but if you can also help your loved ones eschew oil, why not? At this point my family knows my eccentricities (and hopefully forgives them), but I have been known to give LED bulbs, low-flow showerheads, and stainless steel water bottles as Christmas presents. I am absolutely not kidding. (With kids I’m less dogmatic and usually give non-plastic things on their wishlists.) Next year, I swear, I’m going big with wool dryer balls. If you can’t think of anything your friends and family would appreciate, try consumables (preferably local food) that at least don’t add to their pile of stuff. You could also give gift memberships to a local CSA, bikeshare, or carshare. Strategically support with your gifts any interests or inclinations your friends and family have already shown in reducing their oil use. 

8.) Holiday Gatherings. Get there by non-automotive means if possible. Bring local food in your non-plastic dish to share. After the meal go on a walk (so good for the digestion) and invite/prod/cajole others into coming with you. Make it fun, a great opportunity for pleasure and adventure. (See flowers! Birds! The sunset! Stars!)

Helpful hint: it’s quite possible to walk and bike at a leisurely pace without sweating. But if you’re prone to sweat, bring a shirt to change into or invest in some merino wool t-shirts and wear them as a base layer. They’re marvelous at absorbing both sweat and stink. Truly, you’ve got to try it to believe it.

Guerilla plumbers strike again!
9.) Make walking/biking safer. Support daylighting, the removal of one parking space just before crosswalks. It makes pedestrians much more visible to car drivers, and makes it easier for pedestrians to see if a car is really going to stop for them. In addition, speed kills. Support lowering speed limits on residential streets to 20 mph ("Twenty is plenty") and adding speed humps to enforce this speed. The main reason people give for not riding bicycles is safety. The underlying emotional reasons are the fear and stress that come from biking next to cars. Support protected bike lanes that create a peaceful, stress-free biking experience even if it requires giving up parking or a lane of traffic. If you really feel gung ho, you could do some guerilla bike lane creation, using plungers to mark off protected territory like a group did in Wichita.

Don't be evil
10.) If you must drive, drive peaceably. I live in San Francisco where half the people drive responsibly, another third are texting, and the rest are freaking maniacs. This shows up in the high number of pedestrian/bicyclist fatalities we have caused by inattentive, speeding drivers. Where you live, drivers may be calmer. (I hope so!) Still, most people justify speeding and rolling through stops because “everybody does it.” So don’t be that everybody. All cars have blind spots, and pedestrians and bicyclists make mistakes. At every single stop sign and every time you turn before you proceed make absolutely sure you’re not about to run somebody over. When you get to intersections busy with pedestrians, slow down rather than blast through. Follow the speed limit however much it pisses off the car behind you. Never double-park in a bike lane. (So evil!) And never, ever honk at a bicyclist just to tell them “you’re there.”

11.) Advocate for electric buses, electric shuttles, and electric trains. Now that electric bus technology has advanced to the point where range is not a problem, write to corporations like Google, EBay, Genetech and Apple that use corporate internal combustion buses and ask them to use electric ones instead. These companies are rich and can easily afford it. If you ride to work on a corporate bus, you should especially make your voice heard. If company buses routinely pass down your street (like they do mine) politely request of those companies to switch to electric models made by American companies such as Proterra so as to reduce the noise, vibrations and particulate matter that internal combustion buses inflict on your neighborhood. If your employer uses any kind of shuttle, these too could easily be replaced with electric ones. Though the initial cost of an electric bus or shuttle is higher than an internal combustion equivalent, because of reduced maintenance and fuel costs, they are actually cheaper to operate over the life of the vehicle. Many cities are now using electric transit buses, reducing the toxic levels of pollution they are dousing their citizens with. Yours could too. And vigorously support electrified trains everywhere. In a few years we’ll all be extremely grateful for every single mile of electrified rail we have in this country. (Oil glut or not, peak oil and falling oil EROEI are still with us, folks.)

12.) Ask for drinking fountains and water bottle refill stations in public areas. Drinking fountains used to be a common public amenity, and they can save each taxpayer hundreds of dollars a year in oily bottled water costs. Public access to drinking water is not an unreasonable request.

13.) Support biking/walking/street safety programs, weekend street closures, as well as congestion charges/HOV lanes, etc.  This is the traditional approach to helping others eschew oil, and all of it is certainly worth doing. Participate in or otherwise support bike to work days, walk to work days, walk/bike to school days, safe routes to school, Vision Zero, Summer Streets, Sunday Streets, etc. Get upset whenever a bicyclist or pedestrian dies in a traffic crash. These are not accidents. They are almost always the result of poor driver behavior or poor street design. Street design that properly protects pedestrians and bicyclists saves lives and encourages non-automotive transportation. The Netherlands has the most bicycling per capita in the world, no one wears helmets, and yet they have almost no bicyclist fatalities and very few injuries. What they do have are careful drivers and excellent bicycle infrastructure.

14.) Be a YIMBY. Say Yes in My Backyard. Support accessory dwelling units, such as granny flats, in your neighborhood. Support infill development of multistory residential over office space or ground floor retail, especially if it will replace car infrastructure such as parking lots, parking garages, automotive repair shops, gas stations and car dealerships. Support adding density especially when it allows new residents to live in ten-minute neighborhoods (see Part II).

Ditch the SUV
15.) Be an early adopter. If/when bikeshare, carshare or scootershare programs start up in your town, sign up even if you’re unlikely to use them extensively. They usually don’t cost much and could use extra support the first year to get them off the ground. If new light rail starts up near you, make a point of at least trying it out. And if you can afford it, get one of an explosion of new models of electrified cargo bikes available these days. They’re a blast to ride and really can replace your car for the lion’s share of errands. The more of these on your streets, the more likely others are to get one too.

16.) Advocate for sidewalks. Sidewalks are the most basic way to make our lives less oily. Unless you live extremely rural, your neighborhood should have them. If it doesn’t, petition or advocate for them. Your town/community might feel they’re expensive, but if paid for over ten to thirty years (completely valid for capital improvements) they’re not all that much. The cost of not having them is far higher.

Okay, at this point you may be saying this woman is batshit crazy. We’re never going to get the world off oil in these tiny, incremental ways. We need big action, on a federal level, and that is completely not going to happen anytime in the next four years. All is doomed, the arctic permafrost is going to melt releasing a methane climate bomb, and human extinction (as well as extinction of a large portion of the animal world) is next up on the agenda.

Massive carbon absorber
I’m sorry but this line of thought is both untrue and will freeze you into passivity like a deer in existential headlights. We human beings haven’t even tried to truly deal with climate change yet, not in any kind of concerted way. There’s still time; there’s still hope. There’s still time to cut our energy use in half, largely through electrification and efficiency. There’s still time to prudently use natural gas as a bridge fuel while we build out renewables. Massive amounts of carbon can be still sequestered through biochar, reforestation, wetland restoration, regenerated grasslands, and regenerative agriculture. World population can slowly ebb by educating girls and giving women access to contraception. Yes, all this must be done on a scale we humans are nowhere near to approaching, but what’s necessary is not beyond our reach, have we but the will. The issue at hand is entirely human culture, which in turn is entirely a creation of our collective minds.

Not the best choice.
But (you might say) we don’t have a functioning collective mind! Our politics are insane and brainless! We are Thelma and Louise, driving off the cliff!

Seriously, if the human race drives off a cliff without making any real effort to deal with the problems that we ourselves have created, then we deserve extinction. Take comfort in that.

Physics lesson
I am not so hopeless. Let me leave you with an image. At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum about art, science and human perception, before it moved to the Embarcadero (let me complain about the loss of the old museum and how, like all good San Franciscans, I hate change in my venerable institutions like cats hate rain) there was an exhibit called the Resonant Pendulum. It featured a massive hunk of concrete and metal weighing in at 350 lbs as it hung from the rafters of the Palace of Fine Arts. Imagine its bulk in front of you. You are given the challenge to get the pendulum moving, but you can’t touch it. Your only tools are a bunch of pathetic little wires with puny magnets at the end of them. You throw the magnet at the metal on the pendulum and it sticks, but when you pull with any force, it pops right off. Schoolchildren flitting by are indignant. Moving this colossal pendulum with such teensy implements is impossible. A complete waste of time.

But. But. If you throw your puny little wire with its puny little magnet at the pendulum and five or ten others do also, and if you pull just a little bit, not enough for the magnet to detach, and if those on the other side pull just a little bit on their puny magnet when the pendulum shifts almost imperceptibly in their direction, then slowly, slowly, the massive weight begins to move. Slowly, slowly, if tenacious children and inquisitive adults pull in time to reinforce the pendulum’s natural frequency, the humongous object begins to swing. Slowly, slowly it really begins to swing. And all of the sudden it’s making a huge arc across the floor.

Though there are all sorts of physics lessons here, there are many more about what is possible, how it is possible, and when it is possible. Timing, weight, cooperation. Magnificent.

Perhaps the moment will come when it’s appropriate to despair, but that time is not yet. The enormous pendulum of human culture can still be moved if we are but wise enough to coax it.

Be the puny magnet. Change the emotion, change the story, change our culture. It’s a worthy endeavor.