Nate at the Ready Last weekend I was honored to address the League of Women Voters of Thurston County’s Education Fund Annual Benefit Luncheon. Below are my comments pretty much as I delivered them. We had some pretty good back and forth. Much thanks to the League for the opportunity to speak with them.

Let’s go to the movies! 

Imagine with me taking a trip to your favorite local movie theater. You buy some popcorn and a soda and find yourself a seat. But before the movie starts another theater goer sits in front of you, a few rows down. Then this person lights up a cigarette.

How would you feel? What would you do? How would the situation resolve itself?

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  • I worked at Public Health Seattle King County for six years, and during that time I became what some derisively called the county’s “Tobacco Tsar.” Part of my job was to plan for the implementation of Washington’s statewide smoking ban. For some people the smoking ban was really scary, and I used this example often to demonstrate how social change happens. How did we go from a culture that accepted smoking just about everywhere to one that now drastically limits the behavior?

    Change happens in three domains: social norms, systems, and policy.

    That feeling of outrage you’d get at someone smoking in a theater? That’s in the social norm domain. Norms are basic, commonly accepted rules we expect people to follow, and when they don’t we usually feel outraged and have a profound sense of disapprobation for the offender.

    If that disapprobation doesn’t change the offender’s behavior we can rely on a system—like alerting the theater’s manager. Systems tend to be institutional or economic and are pretty predictable. Systems are most often where we turn first when we have a problem.

    And finally smoking in a theater is against the law. But in our example it’s probably the last thing you’d think of calling upon—a last resort almost. Laws provide the structure and order of our society through penalties or incentives. But generally they tend to be invisible unless we somehow run into them. I would guess 911 calls for smoking in theaters are pretty rare.

    So what accounts for the big changes in smoking behavior? Why did it take so long? There was a time when smoking was ubiquitous but now isn’t. How did that happen? If a legislator or city council member proposed outlawing smoking in theaters back in 1950 people would have thought he was crazy. Now not lighting up in theaters is the norm and we’d be dismayed if it were different.

    We’ve seen other big changes over the same period. Civil rights legislation and court decisions ended segregation and protected voting rights, for example. And consider women getting the vote. These changes took time. In some cases decades; 60 years for smoking, 100 years between the end of slavery and the passage of the civil rights act of 1964, and 72 years for women to get the right to vote. Washington gave woman the right to vote then took it back and then gave it again. This month is the 100th anniversary of Washington becoming the fifth state to grant women their right to vote. Our region has been a leader in this country on this issue and can be a leader on sustainability as well.

    When we talk about smart solutions for a sustainable Northwest we’re also talking about similar big change. And in order to make change happen we have to be able to measure it—that is, we have to know where we are now, figure out where we want to go, and then be able to check how well we’re doing on getting there. For example, Sightline has developed seven indicators of sustainability:

    • Health
    • Population
    • Economy
    • Sprawl
    • Wildlife
    • Energy
    • Pollution

    In each of these areas we track whether we’re getting closer to our goal or further away. Consider our health indicator for example. The people of Cascadia are living longer than ever before—a sign of robust and improving health. Cascadians’ lifespans have grown to 80.1 years—only just short of the goal age of 81.3 years which is the lifespan in Japan—making health the best performing of the Scorecard’s indicators. If recent improvements continue, we can get to that longer lifespan within 7 years.

    But what gets in the way of change? What slows it down? What speeds it up?

    Sometimes we don’t know how to solve a problem. But more often we know exactly what to do. When we consider climate change for example, we know where climate changing emissions come from and we have a pretty good idea how to reduce and in some cases eliminate them. Policies like cap and trade would put a price on carbon and begin ratcheting down emissions over a long period of time. We also know cities and compact, walkable neighborhoods are better.

    But why don’t these things happen?

    It’s because of something I’ve called the Sustainability Gap—the distance between what we say and know about becoming more sustainable (including reducing carbon emissions)—and what we actually do.

    Elected officials have perhaps the most severe case of “Gapitis.” For example, our state has committed itself—by law—to reduce the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) on the one hand but on the other hand is spending billions of dollars on new highways. Can you see the Gap there?

    The legislation is House Bill 2815. It requires an 18 percent reduction in per capita VMT by 2020, 35 percent by 2035, and 50 percent by 2050. But we’re spending $3.6 billion on the Columbia River Crossing project, more than $4 billion on a mile long tunnel in Seattle and at least another $4 billion for a complete rebuild of the 520 bridge. That’s more than $12 billion dollars; that’s almost twice the entire transportation budget of the state for two years! Where do you think the state’s priorities really are on reducing VMT. The state is not putting its money where its mouth is.

    Another example is population growth and density. The Partnership for Puget Sound, which the legislature established to assess the health of ecosystems in and around the Sound, reported that “essential to our ability to protect [the Sound] will be encouraging density in urban areas, protecting rural working lands, and avoiding sprawl.” The partnership calls for policies that “focus growth away from ecologically important and sensitive areas by encouraging dense, compact cities.”

    This call for density comes at a time when our region is considering how to accommodate the 1.7 million people
    the Puget Sound Regional Council projects will be arriving in coming decades. Sightline Institute’s Cascadia Scorecard puts our region 57 years away from achieving the important goal of 62 percent of the region’s people living in compact, transit friendly neighborhoods.

    The best science is telling us growth is coming but we aren’t doing enough to create the compact communities we need to protect the Sound, which provides habitat, jobs and part of our identity. And that is largely a function of what some call NIMBYs—an acronym for people who say Not In My Back Yard—people who resist the change that comes with growth. But a big problem is elected leaders who listen to NIMBYs, placing the anxieties of a few neighbors above critical regional needs.

    Crowd Builds

    People like Donna Ewing, who is being honored here today and the League, are helping to close the Gap. The series of public forums on global climate change in Olympia and co-sponsored by the League have helped make climate change a priority item on both the state and national League levels.  Donna’s efforts to lobby our legislature are foundational to making a dent in climate change.

    But we have to keep up the effort. I suggest that the League consider tracking the Sustainability Gap. The League is an ideal organization to do this. You are non-partisan and have a long history of studying public policy issues as they play out during election discussions. One thing that would help all of us would be holding elected officials accountable when they make statements like “what we need is real leadership on global climate change.” But then when it comes to building a new buried highway in Seattle that same official says “This is not a solution for tomorrow. This is a solution for the next hundred years. . . This is not about replacing one road. This is about building a 21st century city.”

    Who should you trust?

    Having an objective organization track these kinds of flips and flagging them for voters would start to make it bad politics and policy to say one thing on the campaign trail and another thing once in office. My point is that if an issue is complicated and not easy don’t make promises that you’ll fix it to one group—say environmentalists—and then say just the opposite to other groups—say the cement industry.


    What is at stake is our future as a region and a country. And while the change will take time the best way to keep it moving is by working in all three of those domains we talked about earlier, working not just on policy but on changing systems and norms. Remember that as we push one domain it starts to affect the others.

    A big part of that is holding elected officials accountable and making it simply unacceptable to make the unsustainable choice when making big decisions affecting the future of our region. And when leaders do take big risks—opposing a bad highway project or a good rezone—we should support them enthusiastically and recognize them. That’s how we can close the gap and make big change happen faster.

    Some material for my comments came from an opinion piece I wrote for the Seattle P-I.