How I seduced my neighbors into going green

I didn't want to be an eco-jerk. So I consulted a "global warming negotiator." That's when the fun began.


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James Glave
November 27, 2008 6:40PM (UTC)

Each night before climbing into bed, I went through the same routine. I shut down the laptop, killed the TV, fired up the dishwasher, checked the doors, and switched off the lights. I peeked in on the children, then headed to the bathroom and reached for my toothbrush.

Then, as I scrubbed a lifetime's worth of crowns and fillings and my precious few remaining lumps of intact enamel, I would idly wander over to the bedroom window and spend the next two minutes staring at my neighbor's floodlights.

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Five of them were mounted across the front of his house. I had not inspected them up close but each likely contained a 65-watt incandescent bulb. As far as I could discern, they illuminated his front yard for no particular reason.

Security is certainly not an issue. We live on Bowen Island, a 25-square-mile glacial hiccup just off Vancouver, Canada. Crime is minimal, and on my street, there's no shortage of nosy neighbors -- including two police officers -- who note the comings and goings of those who belong and those who don't. We also share a moat three miles wide. The last ferry pulls away from the island's dock at 10 p.m. each evening, marooning any would-be visiting cat burglar until morning.

I am a mildly obsessive man. For many nights, I had been lying awake in the silent blackness thinking about what those lamps represent. Here on Canada's West Coast, the electricity is not as thick with hidden greenhouse gases as it is in many other parts of North America; a scant 10 percent of our juice contains CO2. But those five beacons across the way were still doing atmospheric damage. I had already done the math on what we might delicately call my neighbor's nocturnal emissions, and as best as I could calculate, the lamps were kicking up something in the range of 95 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

In the grand scheme of things, that's atmospheric chump change. It is the equivalent of about three return trips to Grandma's house in my father-in-law's hand-me-down Lexus SUV, and I easily find ways to justify those excursions. Hell, I probably endanger more polar bears just by vacuuming the house and doing my laundry, which amasses around my house in great fuzzy piles like Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise.

It was unfair of me to pick on my neighbor, whom I shall call David. But there was something about his all-night Light Show for Nobody that I couldn't quite keep my mouth shut about. In my head, his lamps had come to symbolize all the little things we all could be doing to save ourselves from extinction if we only knew better. If each of us took all the baby steps to overcome unconscious bad habits we didn't even know we had, we could dial back the planetary thermostat. We could unleash staggeringly good changes.

I am far from faultless. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's an eco-pariah. But knowing what I do about the mess we've gotten ourselves into, knowledge has become a lonely burden. Each of us is at a different point on the road to green, and sometimes I find myself biting my tongue in the name of keeping everything copacetic.

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But the lights, the lights ... I just couldn't let them go. They were the low-hanging fruit, rendered in glass, tungsten, copper and aluminum. Just by embracing darkness, David could make a difference. Both of us would feel better -- well, OK, I would, at least until I found some other hapless slob to blame for our looming mass extinction. For nights when he felt the need for a little illumination, he could pull out a stepladder and replace the bulbs with compact fluorescent versions, which would slash the juice for the same job to a slow trickle.

The trouble is, there was no easy way for me to communicate either option to David without putting him on the defensive. If I approached him, the first thing he'd doubtless do would be to rightfully point to the SUV in my carport, which leaked many times more pounds of carbon each year than the fixtures mounted on his cedar siding. But I was working on that. I was trying to ditch it, via Craigslist, although so far my efforts were going nowhere. I knew I was no emissions angel. But how could I break the ice with David without crippling our healthy, over-the-hedge relationship?

I needed help. Technically, I needed what green-activist groups call an "engagement strategy." It was time to call in the big guns. I started working the phone, dialing friends of friends involved with enviro groups. I was looking for someone with advanced negotiating skills -- someone who grasped both the stakes of our global situation and the depths of my domestic obsession.

That someone turned out to be Solitaire Townsend, cofounder of Futerra, a consulting firm in London, England, and a leading authority on the tricky business of talking about global warming in a way that inspires action, not antipathy. Townsend recently coauthored a fascinating pair of documents chockablock with strategic advice about climate-change communications: "The Rules of the Game," commissioned for the government of the United Kingdom and released in 2005, and "New Rules, New Game," released the following year. Both papers are rooted in lessons learned, rather than assumptions made, about how we might talk to one another about this stuff.

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My hunch that a casual driveway chitchat with David might turn ugly, as it turned out, was bang on. Rule 18 of "New Rules, New Game" flags the "sod-off" factor, which researchers more properly call psychological reactance: "This means that many people's automatic reaction to 'You must do this' is a simple 'No!' "

Meanwhile, another pointer cautions, "Don't criticize home or family."

Clearly, I had my work cut out for me. So how could I motivate David to turn off his floodlights once and for all? To save the world, it seemed, I needed to start thinking more strategically. I needed to operate more like a PR guy.

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I sketched out my quandary to Townsend, who cooked up a game plan for me on the spot. "One of the first things to realize is that the things that have motivated you to act may not be the same things that have motivated him," she counseled. "One of the big problems of this movement is that it assumes everyone reacts in the same ways. Unfortunately, and wonderfully, people are motivated by different things."

What prompted me to start doing something about global warming was my preschool-age offspring. But the first bullet point in Futerra's first study is "Don't rely on concern about children's future." Indeed, my neighbor and his wife have no kids.

"The first thing to ask yourself is, 'Why does he have the floodlights?'" continued Townsend, a former actor who went on to complete a graduate degree in sustainable development. "It could be that he likes seeing what is outside. To understand where people are coming from, their reasoning has to be understood. He may be emotionally attached to the floodlights."

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That was certainly not out of the realm of possibility. I am emotionally attached to a source of 24-hour electrical illumination -- one that my wife, Elle, and I had installed in our living room wall. We own an instrument called a Geochron, a wall-mounted rectangular box about the size of a large atlas opened up flat. It reveals, in real time on a slowly scrolling world map, where the sun is shining on the Earth. The Geochron is a cool gadget, nothing more -- a wedding present from an old friend. It runs on a small electric motor and a pair of slender fluorescent tubes.

At night, the Geochron casts a faint blue glow across the main floor of my home. Its light spills out my windows, such that my neighbor can see it from his place in what is otherwise my pitch-black house. Like his floodlights, perhaps, it serves no useful purpose other than decoration. Unfortunately, the damn thing is not nearly so easy to switch off. To do so, I need to partially pull it out of the wall, a delicate operation. If it were as simple as hitting a button, I would simply power it down each night on my way upstairs like everything else.

"The second thing to know," continued Townsend, "is 'Thou shalt not' or 'Thou should not' is the wrong way to do it. So is, 'I am perfect.' The best situation you could have is that he chooses to get rid of the lights without you having ever said anything about it."

It seems I needed to sell David on the benefits of blackness, even while I cast useless light into my own living room and balcony all night long. I needed him to think that we're all in this together, that we're each doing the best we can. If I played it right, I'd start to see those bulbs burning less and less when I wandered over to the bedroom window at night. If all went well, he'd think it was his idea.

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As a journalist, I find this notion a little uncomfortable. I've dedicated my career to countering spin and questioning advertising, to exposing manipulative and persuasive language. Now I was supposed to embrace it?

Townsend was sympathetic, to a degree. "If we genuinely and truly believe what is happening with the climate is, in fact, happening -- if we are convinced of that -- then we have to pick up the tools of marketing and communication that have been used exceptionally well to sell us a huge set of behaviors for a long time," she said.

"A lot of people are very coy about picking up these tools. Because, yes, they are manipulative. They feel that if we just educate the public enough, then people will change. It doesn't work like that. It may feel strange to you. But if it takes a bit of social engineering to have a conversation with your neighbor about changing his lights, then that's what it takes."

"It feels more than strange," I replied. "It feels disingenuous. But I suppose at least it's disingenuous for the right reasons."

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"One of the issues we face is that most of the people who are very good at influencing other people's decisions have gone into marketing," she said. "So either we pry them out of there and make them come over to our side, or we are going to have to suck it up and learn how to do it ourselves. We are not always going to be in our comfort zones with this stuff."

No kidding. To get David's lights off, I was going to fashion myself into a leader of sorts, a new kind of suburban activist -- one armed with the latest global-warming sales-and-marketing tactics. I was not going to use images of pending doom; I was just going to make darkness seem sexy and desirable, just as Cameron Diaz has done for hybrids. And, by taking a page from "New Rules, New Game," I was not going to do it alone. I was going to use what Townsend's paper calls a change group.

"The hardest thing you are going to do is change just him," she said. "Invite a few neighbors over and decide to do things as a group. Find a way not to be the dominant force in the discussion. Have somebody else lead it, so it will feel less like it is being forced on him. And if you can, hold your tongue when they decide to do a few things that you know maybe aren't so good or useful. You should applaud those ideas all the same."

"What if I worked the money-saving angle?" I offered. "What if I installed a compact fluorescent bulb in my own porch light and raved on about my savings?" This is precisely how many green-savvy companies, including Home Depot and Wal-Mart, are carefully and tentatively advancing a sustainable agenda. There's nothing about greenhouse gas emissions on my curlicue-light packaging. But there is a little blurb about how much money the bulbs could save. Is this the best route?

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"The power bill can be a really helpful gambit," offered Townsend. "But the trouble with economic signals is that they can change. For example, power may get cheaper." That makes sense: take away the reason for the change -- saving money -- and you might take away the change.

We returned to the idea of peer pressure and having somebody other than me playing emcee.

"Food helps," said Townsend. "Having food and alcohol at a meeting really helps. And biting your tongue. If you offer a really nice evening, maybe trying a whole load of local foods, and they have eaten your food and drunk your wine, then -- and only then -- do you introduce the idea of changing habits as a group. You could approach it as a challenge to the next town over. But however you approach it, wait until they have eaten your food and drunk your wine. Then they'll feel beholden to you."

"This is starting to sound like a press junket," I said, feeling queasy, "or worse, a time-share presentation."

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"Don't hit them up for what you want until they have already been wined and dined," she stressed. "If you try to talk to them first -- if you try to use the meal as a reward for action -- they will only do the minimum that they feel the food is worth."

So a few days later, I e-mailed around an invitation to a potluck dinner. I asked guests to bring something local to eat or drink and invited them to rent "An Inconvenient Truth" beforehand. Then I added the following:

"We would like to host an after-dinner discussion the same evening on the theme of how we can as neighbors reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, even in small ways. Perhaps we can share rides to the city when we need to go there, or even just a lift to the preschool one day a week. Perhaps we can commit to walking to the village or picking up things for each other. We all have different situations and challenges -- some of us commute regularly, others schlep kids all over the place -- I hope by putting our heads together, we can come up with a few ways to cut a little more carbon dioxide out of our daily lives."

I closed the message with a few stats on where most of our town's emissions come from (cars). I did not mention vanity-driven exterior lighting.

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When people find themselves in a socially awkward situation, they often react with humor. Sure enough, the RSVPs were full of comic relief. "I'd be glad to pick your kids up in the new Hummer we just got," responded Marty, our compulsively sarcastic veterinarian friend. "Bright yellow. Like a school bus. Perfect."

Marty cc'd the whole invite list, and others ran with the ball. "We're taking the kids kayaking to hunt for the last albino baby seal," replied John, an actor friend who lives down the street.

Then the next-door neighbor who unwittingly inspired all these shenanigans in the first place chimed in: "We've been having problems with predators at our salmon farm, so we're scheduled to join the sea-lion hunt that day. The good news is that if we can make it back in time, we'd love to join you and will make sure to bring some fresh meat."

The change group was already working its magic.

I wanted to serve a local dinner. Of course, winter is about the worst time to try such a stunt. But Townsend had told me to make my neighbors comfortable, show them a good time. So I trucked down to my local Whole Foods and asked the butcher for some organic beef that was as regional as possible, within reason.

"All of our beef comes from an open-range ranch in British Columbia," she said, offering me a pamphlet with a picture of what looked like an honest-to-God cowboy on the front. The steer pictured inside looked happy enough; a few dozen of them browsed in a grassy field.

"I'd like to do a roast for about eight people. What are my options?"

"The prime rib is our best cut, lots of marble in the meat," she replied. "That would be very tender, really nice."

"How much?"

"Eight people?" She did the math. "You're looking at about $85."

I like my neighbors, but not that much. "What are my other options?"

"Chuck roast is a leaner cut," she explained. "But it'll be very nice if you cook it for a long time at a low heat."

Sounds easy enough. And at $26, I could afford to buy it, with enough left over for hundred-mile-compliant carrots.

"Keep a lid on it, keep it moist," she instructed, as she handed it over. "You'll do well with that."

Everything in the Whole Foods vegetable section was from California, so I dialed Capers, a natural-foods market a couple miles down the street that I knew specialized in local produce. "We've got Jerusalem artichokes and celery root," the produce manager offered. "Not too much else from around here at this time of year. Everything is sort of finished."

I had no idea what to do with either. "I'll be right over," I said.

Saturday rolled around. I couldn't quite remember, but I think the butcher instructed me to cook the beef for four or five hours at 275 degrees. Dinner was at 7 p.m. I carefully installed my precious planet-friendly roast on the oven's middle rack early in the afternoon. I placed it under a tent of foil with some water in the pan. A couple of hours later, as delicious aromas filled the kitchen, it was time to check on the meat's progress toward perfection. I extracted the evening's piece de resistance, pulled back the foil, and stuck my friend chuck with a meat thermometer.

Hope turned to dread as the red needle instantly zoomed past "beef-rare," "beef-medium," and "beef-well." Like a runaway boxcar, the thermometer's pointer only picked up speed from there. It moved onto other animals, rocketing right through "lamb" and barely pausing at "poultry." Finally, the gauge ran out of livestock options altogether and, after pulling a double-jointed full rotation, came to rest off the scale, in an unmarked zone that should properly be labeled tanned goods.

In panic, I reached for my mobile and dialed Beef 911. My wife, Elle, answered, and after listening to me describe the symptoms, pronounced the roast dead over the phone. "It's lunch meat," she said, clearly disgusted with me. "Go get something else and start over."

I hopped in the SUV and drove to my island's gourmet butcher shop. There I shelled out $60 for a prime rib roast from Alberta, for eight people, proving once again that when it comes to sustainable consumption, you can always do it almost right the second time -- for more than what it would've cost you from the beginning.

From there, the meal went together fairly well, for the most part. Although the geographically desirable carrots, celery root, potatoes, and onions all roasted up wonderfully -- alongside the not-so-local prime rib -- the knobby Jerusalem artichokes bordered on the bizarre. The only workable recipe I could find required peeling them -- an immensely tedious and dangerous task that Elle cursed her way through -- then layering them with sliced ginger in a gratin. It was awful.

Nobody seemed to mind. Five couples showed, and everyone got into the spirit. We quaffed Gulf Islands pinot gris and a fantastic meritage from the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's answer to Sonoma. Organic chocolates rounded out the picture, crafted by an artisan operation on Bowen called Cocoa West Chocolatier, less than a mile from my kitchen.

With everyone suitably sated, I kicked off the discussion by introducing a special guest. Fellow islander Paul Welsh runs a public-relations firm and helped launch the City of Vancouver's climate change public-engagement program. The OneDay campaign is about small moves to change your routine for the better -- such as cycling to work, if that is realistic -- for just one day out of the week, or even one day out of the month. It stresses the easy stuff: Turn off that idling car, dial down the thermostat a degree or two, adjust the pressure in your tires. And, critically, turn off unnecessary lights.

"The OneDay program builds off one of the key tenets of social marketing theory," said Welsh. "And that is, if you can make a behavioral 'ask' of people that is easy, obtainable, and simple in its beginning, you can build momentum and make the 'ask' bigger a bit at a time. Make it small from the start, make it easy, and get emboldened by success early. Then you can ask for more."

OneDay is a clever, broad-ranging program. Anyone in any city or district anywhere in the world can download, for free, a OneDay start-up package that contains everything needed -- from logo typefaces to strategic brand advice -- to localize the scheme and roll it out in his or her town. The legwork has all been done; Welsh and others have engineered OneDay for self-replication. It is a virus of change looking for receptive hosts.

And it finds one in my living room. "Imagine OneDayBowen," suggested Welsh. I had all kinds of ideas. Our community could grapple with a dog's breakfast of climate challenges, such as low-density development, sporadic bus service, utter dependence on a carbon-spewing ferry and narrow, steep roads poorly suited to cycling. What if our Web site could form a hub for like-minded souls, a place to brainstorm and organize on-the-ground solutions like a network of community gardens or a car co-op?

Preprimed as they were with delicious food and wine, my guests were all over the idea. I'd invited Paul over hoping our friends and neighbors might like to not only turn off superfluous lights like the ones inside my Geochron, but also sample a few more of the program's baby steps ("wash laundry in cold water").

But within the space of an hour, the assembled would-be-greens went much further. It was as if I'd opened a faucet of pent-up forward motion. Shackled perhaps by the thorny social dynamics of the greener life, everyone had been looking at each other, waiting for someone to say, "Go." Someone just did, and that someone was me. At the urging of Jen, a contract business consultant, my guests committed on the spot to launching the whole program here as OneDayBowen. Another attendee -- Stuart, who works in the shipping industry -- went ahead and registered the domain name the very next day.

I handed each departing couple a swirly light bulb on the way out the door, and after the last guest had put on his coat and left, Elle and I started cleaning up in pleased silence. In the space of a few hours, what began as a contrived and manipulative plot to push my neighbor to switch off a few floodlights turned into the seeds of a grassroots movement. Townsend had warned me I'd be operating outside my comfort zone. She was right, but for the wrong reasons.

It wasn't that I felt like a slick marketing exec that evening. Welsh had played that role quite capably -- hey, it's what he does for a living. But I was still in psychological terra incognito. After a career spent looking on from the sidelines as a wise-cracking skeptic, safe as a neutral and "objective" journalist answering to nobody except my editor, I found myself drawn toward something else. Something unfamiliar, but also invigorating. Something we might call "culdesactivism."

That night, as I brushed my teeth at the window, I looked out across the yard. The lights were dark.


James Glave

James Glave is a former Outside magazine senior editor and one-time editor of Wired News.

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