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Monday, July 14, 2014

Random acts of sustainability

 People deride this generation as selfie absorbed and over indulged. 
But that sounds more like me than the students I see.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

The "Free Trees" mobile tree jail in north Boulder, CO
The little sign said, “Free Trees.” Not knowing that trees had been wrongfully incarcerated and needed to be set free, I turned into the north Boulder neighborhood to help with the jailbreak. Do my duty as an expert and certified tree hugger.

Came upon the rolling jail seen at left to clearly see trees were not imprisoned; instead they were being given away to anyone who would give them a good home. 

Why? Climate change. 

These deciduous trees grow up, sequester carbon, purify the air, create shade that lowers home temperatures naturally, and lose their leaves in winter so we can bask in winter sun. These and many other relevant facts were posted on the mobile tree jail.

In the sustainability bible, trees are climate saviors.

There was no place to donate money. The signs made it clear they only wanted you to take the trees and plant and nurture them as you would your own children. I saw people inside the adjacent home. I kind of hung around and looked interested hoping they’d come out and chat. Nothing. These folks didn’t need me to tell them how righteous they were. They were just happy to do this thing.

OK, the sign did say they wanted their gallon plastic pots back.

But before you say “only in the Peoples Republic of Boulder,” look around. Random acts of sustainability happen all over the place.

A friend told me recently about her trip to a StarBucks drive through in another town. When she got to the window her double shot caramel macchiato was free. The car in front had paid for hers. So, she paid for the coffee going to the jalopy behind her.

These random acts of kindness happen even at StarBucks, McDonalds and Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods).  In fact, there’s a national organization of do-gooders like this with chapters all over—and zillions of inspiring ideas anyone can do. 

I suspect many of you have been doing these things for some time.

"Give it away, give it away, give it away now:" A new business model for kindness

Kindness is even evolving a business model. Panera Bread is in this new kindness business. They now have five stores nationally that price their menu on a sliding scale from zero to whatever you want to pay. Or you can clean up a store for an hour or two.

In an industry that typically make single digit margins, Panera stores that deliver 75% of average retail volume have to return other value to keep the lights on. Panera’s answer is local job training for under-represented communities. Puts people into jobs so they have money to buy coffee.

A business model for random acts of sustainability.

One World Everybody Eats restaurants in the US (2014)
Even better, it has gone viral. In fact, it’s not a business plan, it’s “spiritual franchising,” says Denise Cerreta, founder of the One World Everybody Eats Foundation. She grew her one person sandwich shop into a national organization that has helped startup sliding scale restaurants coast to coast.

Many doctors, lawyers, and yes, even our esteemed institutions of higher learning have offered quiet sliding scale options for years.

Human compassion is not a new quality; however, sustainability concerns are highlighting new ways for it to manifest. Random acts of sustainability are defining new ways to do, er, well enough by doing good.

"Oh think twice, it's just another day for you and me in paradise"

What separates sustainability acts like 'free trees' from peoples’ wonderful acts of kindness towards other people may be the intent. The intent of the 'free trees' folk is to help the planet and thus help people. The kindness acts go straight to people and thus help the planet. All good.

Likewise, the anonymity of these random acts seems to bolster our willingness to engage in them. Why?

“Doing something good for a stranger is a refreshing change from the way people usually connect in society, said William Talbott, philosophy professor at the University of Washington.

"In the modern world, we have a lot of relationships that provide reciprocal benefits: I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine ... those sorts of contractual relationships."

Although those relationships are fine — society couldn't function without them — people who do anonymous good deeds show us that we're not limited to self-interested relationships with one another, Talbott said.

"We can say, 'I just want to do something good for you without the expectation of getting anything in return at all.' And what a thrill it is to be on either side of that statement — the giver or the receiver."”

Random acts of sustainability benefit the planet and people we will never meet—and make the perpetrators feel good in the process.

For instance, our students' hunger strike in protest of sweatshop produced logo apparel was among the noblest acts I have seen. Students literally put their lives on the line for complete strangers. The strike went nearly three weeks before the university capitulated and agreed to buy only logo athletic apparel from sweatshop-free vendors, join the FLA, etc. 

I asked one of the students later what he felt about the whole thing and he remarked that he felt an inner satisfaction about helping change a system of injustice—but that he was worried this might be the high point of his life. “Don’t know what I can do that will be more sublime,’ he said. “But I have time to figure it out.”

Boulder Food Rescue students
Other of our students volunteer to bike-pedal untouched surplus food direct from serving lines to hungry people. Boulder Food Rescue solved many problems of so-called “post consumer” surplus food that normally has to be discarded or composted. Through speedy bike delivery direct to hungry mouths they bypass the food distributor networks that slow food delivery down thus triggering restrictive health regulations. And they do it on bikes in less than 2 hours from kitchen to the hungry—no fossil fuel vehicles even in the Boulder winters—in the name of climate preservation.

They are not alone. Bike-based food rescues are in every major Colorado community—and maybe in yours.  Part random kindness and part random sustainability acts, they betray the huge hearts and innovative brains our students have. People deride this generation as selfie absorbed and over indulged. But that sounds more like me than the students I see.

'She calls out to the man on the street: "Sir, can you help me?”'

Then there’s Rito.

Rito is the senior stock clerk at my local King Soopers grocery store. Rito knows where everything is—and is a really nice guy. Been working there 22 years. He works a lot, but clearly not getting rich stocking shelves.

Chatting with him a few weeks ago I asked if he ever takes time off. He lite up his big smile. Taking a week vacation soon, he said. Asked what he was doing on vacation, his grin widened more. Fixing up a local children’s shelter, he said. “They need some help.”

Sheepishly recalling my Facebook, I thought about all the self-indulgent selfies I have posted of good times in faraway places when I was on vacation. I wasn’t schlepping on a service spring break, I was partying in Florida—and posting selfies.

Rito doesn’t take selfies; he doesn’t own a cell phone. Rito showed the love to people who needed some. It wasn’t random and it wasn’t anonymous. They just “need some help.”

The words “trust” and “respect” come to mind when I think about these actions. Perhaps we respect ourselves more when we put ourselves out there.  Rito the 'lowly' stock clerk is a dignified man with plenty of self respect and respect for others.

Trusting strangers feels good too. I was trusted by the 'free trees' people. I felt good that they trusted me. I presume they felt good extending that trust.

Typical "Honor Honey" stand
Maybe you have seen an honor honey stand? There’s one around the corner from my house. A little stand by the side of the road open 24 hours where I can buy honey and leave cash or check in a little box.

They are all about trust—and sustainability. People are worried about disappearing bees. Supporting beekeepers supports the planet. No bees, no food.

A recent Kickstarter project was funded so that a small beekeeper could expand his hives, build an honor honey stand, and give hives to local farmers to help pollinate crops—all are very solid sustainability outcomes. Farmers are increasingly selling their produce this way too.

Trust sells.

"Feeling good was good enough for me"

OK, this is typically the preachy part of my blogs—but not this time, maybe. All I am saying is the above stories make me feel good. Break all the psychobabble down and that’s what left. Likewise, we seem to be happier when we help people and the planet. Sustainability identifies new challenges and new people so our creative, compassionate selves rise up. 

The Dali Lama says the purpose of life is to be happy. Service to others seems to be a universal, low cost path to that end. And if we advance sustainability along the way, then we feel good.

Feeling good is good enough for me…


Coda: Alert readers have already noticed this blog’s name change; “The Department of Changed.”  Definitely appreciate the emails suggesting new titles after my last piece, “The existential sustainabilista.” Several great name change options came in. Thanks all.

Going in this direction for several reasons, maybe one of them good.

First, change requires a new vision. What’s the changed system going to look like? So instead of interminable ramblings bemoaning the lack of meaningful change, my new special sauce is to offer interminable ramblings about Camelot. What does ‘changed’ look like? What’s the better vision of the future we need --- and where is it already happening? "Be the change" and all that...

Second, after the NDE described last time, this new blog title reminds me of the life systems I have allegedly changed--or am trying to. Need to keep myself accountable. Fat chance, but here’s trying.

Finally, I was once taught to work on things where a small push created a big result. One letter change; completely different paradigm.

Thanks all.
2X Coda: As in previous blogs, sincere apologies to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Phil Collins, and Janis Joplin for stealing lyrics from their songs and putting them in a context that only defiles their work...