Can We Build a Sustainable Society Ourselves?

Alan Durning, the guiding force behind Seattle’s influential Sightline Institute, may be the most famous sustainability activist you’ve never heard of. The man who coined the phrase “green-collar jobs” has written at least a dozen books, including This Place On Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence, and How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of Earth, that have shaped the way we think about green policy.

On the heels of The Year of Living Car-Lessly, Durning’s latest project is Making Sustainability Legal, an effort to find and eliminate old zombie laws that may have once made sense, but now forbid people from taking basic steps that can lower their environmental impact. Over the past 20 years, Durning's innovative ideas have found their way into state-level policy and legislation throughout the Pacific Northwest states and provinces, and many have since rolled out into the rest of the country as well.

AlterNet caught up with Durning at Sightline’s sunny offices in downtown Seattle.

Sara Robinson: Progressives operate under the delusion that most change comes from sweeping federal policy. What’s interesting about your work over the past 20 years is that you’re consistently looking for things we can do at the regional level, the city level, even the level of homeowners’ associations — small stuff that’s not that hard to do, but makes a big impact. “Making Sustainability Legal” is the latest iteration of that, but everything you’ve done has had this thread running through it.

How did you come to this, and why do you think that idea is powerful?

Alan Durning: I do believe that national policies and international agreements are important, but I also believe that stories change the world. National policies are so hard to affect. Local change is more promising as a way to create stories, living example, models that may inspire others to follow along. And I suppose the hope is that ultimately, the smaller example will move national and international change.

SR: Have you seen signs of that?

AD: No! The American system of government is kind of broken, so the uptake is not good. The influence-buying in politics. The overuse of the filibuster in the Senate. But we certainly see change spreading from one locality to another, one state to another, and that’s pretty exciting.

Let me tell you about my story, because that will explain the choice I’ve made as much as any abstract reason or logic. I grew up in a family with roots in both the environmental movement and the civil rights movement. I grew up around campaigns, some of them candidates for office, some of them issue campaigns. But I myself found myself more drawn to the big ideas and the analysis than to organizing. I’ve always felt like the work that I do is less important than the organizing and the mobilizing, but I think that there’s a role for thinkers.

So after finishing my studies, I went to in Washington, DC. I started at Worldwatch Institute, a global-issues think tank. I was always fascinated by the ways that those at the bottom of the heap organize themselves to try to improve their lives. I went to South America, where I studied indigenous tribes’ struggles for self-determination, protection of their resources, self-help, development movements in various parts of the world. I also looked at the emerging environmental movement in Eastern Europe. I was always interested in the ways that change could start away from the centers of power. And then in the early '90s, after the book How Much Is Enough? — which is kind of a summation of my work -- I left DC to come back to the Northwest.

The way that happened was really about a particular experience I had in the Philippines. I was working on this project with indigenous people, and was staying with members of a tribe in the south. There was an old woman, a traditional priestess, who asked me to tell her about my homeland. And I didn’t know what to say to her. I don’t have a homeland; I have an apartment. And this desperately poor old woman looked at me with a kind of pity — this older, wiser woman, and this younger man — and that experience wouldn’t leave my memory.

It haunted me for months until I realized that maybe the real world wasn’t in the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Maybe the real world was in communities like hers — and maybe the path toward progressive change (or at least my path toward change) might be through this idea of groundedness in place.

So, a year later, I left DC to return to the Northwest, and started this organization, and committed myself to try to see what a sustainable future could look like in a bioregion — in my case, the Cascadia region. So that’s sort of a rambling answer to your question. There was this one experience than changed my life and direction. It was an emotional, almost spiritual calling, not a strategic realization.

SR: Sustainability has become a controversial word. Even in the environmental community, there are people who don’t want to use it any more. How do you define the word? Do think it still has utility? Are there better words we should be using?

AD: I still use it proudly. The controversy around the word is a reflection of our confusion. A sustainable society is one that meets its needs without jeopardizing the prospects for future generations to meet their needs. But I think about the word a kind of an analog to the word “justice.” Justice means “a right relationship among people.” We know what it means, though we don’t always agree on what it looks like — there are different varieties of justice. And applying those theories of justice to individual cases is complicated: a lot of political philosophy is about that. Our whole legal system is constructing procedural systems to try to ensure something approximating people’s intuitions of justice.

SR: It’s an ongoing conversation that we have.

AD:  Right. So I think that sustainable means establishing a right relationship between people and future people. So of course this controversy about what it means in particular instances — there are as many different theories and flavors of sustainability as there are around justice — I don’t think it diminishes the analytical or ethical power of the word. I think that fighting over what it actually means and what’s the best route to it is stupid. Though, at any given moment, there may be tactical reasons to use other language to reach particular audiences. But for conversations among ourselves, it’s a good word, and we should keep using it — just like we use the word justice.

Sometimes, for framing purposes, we should also talk about opportunity, because the opportunity frame is more powerful than the justice frame. In our campaigning, some days, we talk about opportunity. But when it comes to being aware of first principles, it’s an essential concept. I don’t know any other word that covers its full meaning.

SR: You’re talking a lot about the power of stories, narratives and frames. What do you see as missing most in our change efforts right now? Do you see things we could be doing better, are overlooking, or don’t understand well enough?

AD: There are at least three shortcomings we have as a movement for sustainable change.

One is that we’re not very good at telling our story. We need a healthy, vibrant process to do a better job of that. We tend to talk about issues and facts. We tend to be much more reductionist about all the political choices than conservatives tend to — they speak about values and morality, that twisted patriarchal control system. We have so thoroughly adopted a materialistic understanding of what motivates individual citizens that we assume that we should appeal to pocketbook concerns — that voters make choices about candidates the same way they make choices in the supermarket. As opposed to — they make choices because of their identities and their aspirational values. We’re complicated beings, and self-interest is only part of it.

The second shortcoming is that we need to do better at holding public institutions accountable for delivering the kind of services that citizens deserve. We’ve been forced into the position of defending public services from attacks by the right, which makes us not always as good as critics. Making Sustainability Legal is one of our attempts to make government work better.

The third category where we’re weak is about the design of governing institutions. Issues like the filibuster, or money in politics — they’re fundamental structural challenges that limit the chances of progress on many different issues.

The combination of these three things currently has us in a losing cycle. I don’t think we should beat ourselves up about this: any of these three is a hard problem, and working on all three at the same time is especially hard. But it seems like a tremendously powerful opportunity if we can start telling our story better, be seen as the movement that’s going to get government to more effectively deliver, and focus on fixing broken government institution so that our prospects for the next fights are improved.

SR: So what are we going to do about it?

AD: I’ve been reading Lawrence Lessig recently on his ideas about a Constitutional convention as an unlikely but necessary path. He said that there are four solutions. Three of them are impossible, and the fourth is merely implausible. I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about the Senate filibuster, and I’ve done quite a bit of work about simple-majority voting in Washington State.

The fundamental challenge we’re up against is that the federal government has become a supermajority system. In Washington, Oregon and California, tax and spending issues at the state level also require a supermajority. Because of the political polarization that we’re in, this feeds a cycle that means that no substantial change can happen. We’re basically stuck. And this feeds the cycle of distrust and cynicism among voters and the public about government in general — all of which ultimately helps our enemies, because they’re saying that you can’t trust government to do anything, and we should therefore defund it, eliminate it, shrink it down small enough to drown it in the bathtub.

So the consequence of the federal filibuster is to perpetually run down our collective belief in democracy. The experience of an average centrist or progressive voter is that you get your hopes up because some new bright light comes along. And then they cannot deliver, they compromise and compromise and compromise, until they lose heart. It’s not an encouragement to get involved as citizens, because it seems like the system cannot work.

Typical voters look at this as a personnel problem. "If we send different people, we’ll get different results. We won’t get fooled again. I thought that maybe Candidate X was the right one." But it’s not a personnel problem. It’s a structural problem. It’s a system that’s designed to prevent change. And layered on top of that now is this extraordinarily corrupting system of money, lobbying and campaign financing. The combination of these things is what social scientists are calling “wicked problems” — it’s hard to imagine a real solution to it.

Yet, at the same time, unless until we can make some headway on those problems, it’s hard to see how we’re going to make progress any of the big challenges we’re up against — whether it’s a comprehensive form of a tax system, whether it’s comprehensive immigration reform, whether it’s limiting the prerogatives of Wall Street to gamble with other people’s money, whether it’s an issue like climate change or inequality.

So we have to work on it, but it’s hard. Most progressives aren’t really thinking about it. So what I’ve been trying to get my head around is what we can do to create a positive circle of growing trust — one improvement after another in the effectiveness of republican institutions, reduction of the influence of money in politics. I don’t have it figured it out. I’d like and sort of plan to do some more thinking and writing about this, but I don’t have the answers yet. I don’t think anybody does.

SR: Let’s get back to Making Sustainability Legal, because this is a very solutions-oriented kind of thing. What I find enchanting about it is that this is stuff that can be done at a very small scale, and have a tremendous impact. Talk to me about what you’re most excited about, and some ideas that you think have good potential to change things.

AD: A year ago, because budgets are shrinking and because of the intense polarization of the legislative bodies at the state and federal levels, it became clear that big reform is not going to happen. So a little chunk of our work became this project called “Making Sustainability Legal.” We asked: “Are there some relatively modest barriers in our regulations and laws that prevent people of goodwill from doing common-sense green things?” The metaphor we used was: “We know we need to remodel the house, but nobody has any money, and we can’t agree on the remodels anyways. So while they fight, we’re going to clean out the fridge.”

And it turns out that there’s a lot of rotting old stuff in the fridge that is making everyone a little bit cranky. So we started in, and we’ve now done 17 or 18 case studies. And probably a third of them have turned into legislation in Olympia [Washington’s state capital] or Salem [Oregon’s state capital] or at the city level.

An important thing about this project is not to do it in a way that runs down government, but instead talk about rules that have outlived their sell-by date, that had a strong rationale at some point but no longer do. For example: there’s a regulation in Washington, as in most states, requiring that the phone companies deliver the white pages to every land line address in their service area, every year. No one is allowed to opt out. At one time it made a lot of sense. The phone companies were a regulated monopoly, very little competition, there was no such thing as cell phones, there was no such thing as the Internet….

SR: …And it was the most-used book in the house.

AD: Exactly. And the network effect of everyone having access to a phone and to the information to use the entire thing made the whole economics work. Well, now, a few things have changed, and we have the Internet, and many people have cell phones. Allowing people to opt out makes very good sense. There really isn’t a constituency in favor of phone books for everyone any more, but there’s no campaign happening. The way politics work now, there’s usually an industry, occasionally a public interest group, pushing hard to change something. Things don’t just change because some legislator is sitting there combing through the law books trying to find laws that ought to change.

So that was the first one we got started on. I don’t think they’re going to get it done this session in Olympia, but probably in the next one, we’re going to get it fixed.

Another one that we’ve been working on is bans on clotheslines by homeowners’ association. This is an idea that actually came from a reader — when we launched the project, we said, “Send us all your ideas — barriers, regulations that get in the way of things that you’re trying to do. Someone wrote in saying that clotheslines were banned at High Point, which is the model affordable-housing green community in West Seattle. They’ve got swales and energy efficiency and low-VOC paints — but clothelines are banned there. So we used that as the poster child for this argument that you ought to have the right to hang your clothes out to dry — particularly if you’re living in a low-income housing project.

People started writing in about clothesline bans, and now we’ve got 117 on the map we created to track them. Now, we’re beginning to build the legal case. A number of states have laws on the books allowing access to solar energy. They were probably written for solar hot water heaters and PV cells and so on, but a clothesline is a solar collector. So we’re making the argument that these laws ought to cover clotheslines as well.

There’s legislators in both Oregon and Washington that are interested in this. There’s a city council member here in Seattle who’s going to introduce legislation this year to try to ban bans on clotheslines, to say homeowners’ associations cannot prevent you from hanging your clothes outside. I think six states have passed right-to-dry legislation.

So those are two examples of legislation we’ve written up already. In each case, it’s a relatively modest change that had a pretty substantial benefit.

SR: Another one that homeowners’ associations often get in the way of is growing food on your property — having a little vegetable garden. Especially if you try to put it in your front yard, they get really upset.

AD: We haven’t done anything with that, but there are homeowners’ association problems for clotheslines, for solar collectors, for rain gardens, for vegetable gardens, for chickens, for wind…in any event, all those things are logical candidates.

SR: That’s got to be exciting, though, because it suggests that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there waiting to be picked. And the beauty of these small projects is that once you get a little team of people together and get one through — and it’s not all that hard, it’s basic organizing -- you get people together for six months and get it done. That’s a trust-builder, it’s a confidence-builder, a skill-builder. And that team can go on and do the next thing, and that’s how trust grows.

There’s a certain overlap in the Venn diagram of political ideology between you and the libertarians. Has there been any dialogue or support?

AD: On a couple of issues, we’ve been able to cooperate with them. In general, libertarians spend most of their time working on the rights and freedoms of corporations, as opposed to individuals.

I’m strongly convinced that markets are incredibly powerful, but that they’re better tools than they are masters. So when there’s a way to use a market tool to achieve a shared public purpose, we ought to do that. I do not believe, as libertarians believe, that the market is the way you find out what is right and good in the world. But I don’t distrust markets.

SR: A lot of your work has been focused on our relationship to stuff. One of our biggest issues as we come up against the limits of a finite planet is that everybody wants to live like us — and of course, that’s not possible. We’d need several more planets for that to happen. Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that not even we can continue to live like us. How do you see us adapting to this new reality? What’s it going to take for Americans to change that gear?

AD:  There’s an easy way, and a hard way. The last few years have experiments with the hard way: high oil prices, collapsing real estate values, forced austerity, increases in poverty. The easier way is to do it on purpose, by choice. We can plan to build high-density communities with the kinds of services that allow us to have a higher quality of life without as much stuff.

As an example, we can build communities that require every adult to have an automobile at their disposal at all times to accomplish the basic necessities of life, like getting to work or school or stopping off at the market to pick up some groceries. Or we can build communities where you have viable alternatives like walking or transit or cycling or carpooling, taxis and jitneys and all kinds of other things, in which you do not need to have and do not notice the lack of a private car for every adult. The difference in terms of the quantities of stuff is absolutely enormous.

People in Manhattan use about a tenth as much gas per person as people in Houston. It’s not because people in Manhattan are Democrats and people in Houston are Republicans. The difference is in the way the cities are designed. So the easy way is to build the systems that allow people to have a high quality of life.

Maybe it’s making lemonades out of lemons, but younger generations of Americans are much less interested in owning cars, have much lower rates of holding drivers’ licenses, are much more interested in European-style cafe neighborhoods, smaller dwellings, being in public more of the time, being outdoors, and all the rest. People in their late teens are more interested in their iPhones than they are in their drivers’ licenses. This is a kind of dematerialization that’s going on in the economy. Some of that is because opportunities are few, but some of it is a reflection of a spreading realization that this stuff does not provide the quality of life we thought it would.

SR: There’s a generational aspect to this: the younger generation has different attitudes on house size, car choices, family size….

AD:  …and food choices. Vegetarianism is weird among people over 50 (not so much in the city of Seattle) and utterly normal among people under 30. Attitudes towards same-sex relationships and marriage are also radically different if you’re under 40 or 35 or something like that. I don’t think my kids know anybody who’d vote against same-sex marriage.

SR: Once we’ve changed out our light bulbs, bought bikes and transit passes, and joined a CSA, what are the next steps we should be taking to make our lives more sustainable? Where do we go once we’ve made the personal adjustments?

AD: I had a philosophy professor in college who said that students discussed endlessly the morality of different diets, and the morality of investing in companies that do business in South Africa — but very few students considered their choice of career as a moral choice. It’s a choice about fulfillment and security, but not a moral choice. But it’s the one of the most important decisions we make about how we spend our life’s energy. It’s scary to think that we have an obligation not to give our labor to the machine.

I have friends who work at big corporations who feel so proud of themselves about moving their money from Chase Bank to Umpqua Bank. But I’m like, “Yeah — but you’re working for The Man, so where you keep your money — who gets the 1 percent on your deposit — it’s not as important as what you pour your heart and soul into.”

SR: What keeps you up nights? Where’s our biggest potential for disaster?

AD: The science on climate change. It seems like every passing year, the predictions get worse. Climate advocates like me tend to soft-pedal how bad it is, because we know it tends to shut people down emotionally. But it’s really scary. We don’t have very much time to get off of carbon.

Human genetic engineering scares the crap out of me, and there’s no movement to impose principled regulation on genetic engineering. Nanotechnology scares me similarly: it’s also largely unregulated.

But going back: the thing that scares me most of all is that our democracy seems to be broken. We seem to be unable to make it respond to these challenges — even the ones that are right there in our face. Our education system is woefully out of date — and we can’t even deal with that, let alone regulate the cutting edges of biology and materials science.

So you put those things together, and that can keep you up.

SR: What gives you hope, and keeps you going?

AD: I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people on Earth. I get to work in this community, in the Cascade region, with thousands of people who are spending their time and their treasure to make this place a global model of sustainability. I work 60 hours a week with a staff of a dozen, and another dozen members of the board, and a hundred donors that we’re particularly close to, and hundreds of other individuals we have relationships with, and scores of organizations and legislators who are doing innovative, cool, problem-solving things.

So while the facts that I know about are frightening, I am enmeshed in a community that is rising to those challenges. So I mostly feel lucky. I think it’s people who are not engaged, who are not in a community that’s struggling with change, who get shut down.

For some of Sightline's ideas on Making Sustainability Legal, check out AlterNet's sidebar here. If you have ideas you'd like to contribute to the project, contact

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