5D: the transition to renewables and the human dimension

March 14, 2023 |

One of the reasons that the journey to net zero is controversial is that we can’t always read the signs. One man’s climate change is another man’s weak snowfall season. Anomaly or trend? Did this technology stumble, or is this real failure? Sequestered CO2, you can’t smell it, touch it, taste it, see it — is it really being sequestered?

When the irresistible force of climate change meets the immovable object of our way of doing things, what are we to do?

Turns out, it appears, we go through the 5 Stages of Transition, fossil economy to the new economy. But here I am not referring to technology, or development, or deployment. I am referring to people. People make the transition happen, each of us goes through a cycle from denial to change.

The five stages in the model I’ll describe are not exactly the same as the widely-known, Kubler-Ross model for terminally ill patients, but they are not entirely different. I call them the 5D’s. They are:

DenialAvoidance, confusion, shock, fear, sometimes about climate change, pollution, loss of economic power, sometimes about the value of remedies. Fossilities don’t think there’s a problem, the air looks fine to them, the sea levels don’t seem too high, the heat is just a transitory phenomenon.

DisdainFrustration, belittling. Fossilites tell you the technology will not work. When it does, they tell you the price is unaffordable. When prices come down, they tell you there is not enough raw material. When the raw material is sourced, they laugh at your concept of scale.

DisbeliefA period of struggling privately to make sense of conflictive data — what’s working, what will work eventually, what won’t work ever? Why are enemies of the status quo gaining so much power? How can they chuck an entire energy sector and a thriving local economy into the bin? In this period, we are susceptible to preaching to the choir, living in echo chambers, and responding to demagogues who blame-shift and belittle the future.

DiscountingWe feel overwhelmed by new options, we feel helpless to effect change, we believe that nothing will change because the technologies are too little, too late, too expensive, too controversial. We seek to define our new opportunities, but with hesitation, still looking for incremental improvement and 3-year payback, when we must look for transformational change and undertake great risks. We discount the failure rate of transformation because of our prior experience with the probabilities of incremental change. We call the successes one-offs, we redirect attention when possible to the failures.

DiscoveryExploring options, seeking and accepting opportunity, managing risk, moving on.

Perhaps part of the problem of the transition is that we tell it as a technology story and not as a human story. Who’s guilty of that? Government is, companies are, executives are, stakeholders are, advocates are, The Digest is, I am. 

Some times the choices we make, that seem to make no sense at the company level or the societal level, make a lot of sense at the human level. And we have to go on a journey from Denial to Discovery, and we have to endure the Disdain, accept the Disbelief, not mind the Discounting, because the better angels of our nature might recognize that the people around are going on their journey, and it is hard on them, especially those who do not stand to make money from the outcomes, or get raises at work or more staff to help or the pride that comes from having been right all along. 

When we become frustrated with our friends as they take elongated journeys from Denial to Discovery, we might remember to give them, the 6th D, their dignity, at every step of the way. No two people make the transition the same way, at the same pace, using the same language, and because of the same experiences and arguments. Time gives us all problems.

There is the impatience of youth, the disregard of older people who will not be around to reap the rewards tomorrow of hard sacrifice today.  It is hard for people living 75-year lives to enable 300-year transitions. It is hard for executives living 3-year assignments to enable 15-year development cycles.

A story of change

Let me tell you of a story of change, the sadness of days that fade, the joy of a new day coming, of something improved, something lost. A story of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

In my hamlet of Redmond, Washington, we never could get the name right. Some called it Environment Day, some called it E-Day, some described it as a teach-in.

Redmond wasn’t the urban center then that it is today. Back then, there was no Microsoft. Where the Bellevue Technology Center stands today, that was a horse farm with palominos running on the hillock. A few blocks past the modern Microsoft campus, you could walk the Bridle Crest Trail, down to the Sammamish Slough, fish for crawdads and hope for cutthroat trout. Walking home, the wild rhubarb grew by the roadside, and you could slip into our small village via the old pioneer cabin with a rusted out Model A, and newspapers on the floor from the 1920s.

That smell? That’s temperate rainforest, the smell of wet cedar and fallen Douglas firs, enormous fungi in bright oranges, pinks and whites living in the rotting boughs. Even when the rain stopped, the drops would fall from the top canopy to second canopy, and to the forest floor, for hours and hours, a mist infused with musty blackberry and pinene. 

You didn’t need a teach-in to become a conservationist. Everyone I knew was a conservationist, because they loved the beauty around us and it made us all want to protect it, young and old. Most of them had shotguns and a stack of double-ought buck on hand, they hunted or fished, or both. I fished. Every man jack went to one of the handful of churches every Sunday. All of the conservationists I knew growing up belonged to the Republican Party. I don’t remember meeting a Democrat until I was around 10 years of age. They were rainforest Republicans; they wanted to use the forest, but preserve it.

They sought to protect the wildlife and the streams and the ponds, though we could see the signs of approaching civilization, and there was not much anyone could do about it. People had to live somewhere — our family had arrived early on in the Puget Sound, in 1859, but what right had we to tell the next family that there’s no room left for more people? Were we against sharing? After all, the Salish tribes had shared with us, for many years we had spoken both English and Chinook, the old trading creole. I still know some.

The first Earth Day

Earth Day, it rained, as it usually did, and it was cold outside, as it always was. With the smell of wet winter coats and sack lunches. I spent most mornings in a state of nausea, looking out the one tiny window in our 600 square foot portable classroom, jammed with 24 children and a lesson on the meaning of a schwa, pining for recess. We were packed like sardines, double-shifted at the school, because a new floating bridge had been built across Lake Washington and people like us with no money were moving east, towards the fast rivers and foothills of eastern King County. My father paid $15,000 for a new 4-bedroom house, and we were a part of the problem.

I have to confess, I didn’t enjoy Earth Day much. I had to write an essay in the form of a letter to the planet, “Dear Earth, it’s wrong to pollute you,” that sort of thing, and it was as dopey as See Dick and Jane, See Dick Spot Jane. Run Jane Run. They published a few letters in the Sammamish Valley News, not mine. 

I was much more excited, I think most people were, that Redmond was getting its first really modern supermarket, Safeway was coming to town, it opened that week. Fruits out of season, a bakery with treats, better prices for chuck roast or chili-n-beans. That was gained.

What was lost? The home milk deliveries. Safeway put that idea out of business, right quick.

Our local dairy, Carnation Dairy Farm, was so amazing it was known all over the world. It was about nine miles down the road, past the Sammamish Slough; jog a bit to the north by the Tulq River and you were there. Home of Carnation Instant Breakfast, if you’ve ever enjoyed it. 

By 1970, Redmond must have had 2,500 homes by then in town; it was growing like a weed. That’s 2,500 people driving to and from the Safeway for their milk instead of the milkman making his deliveries. 

Consider the math of it. Here’s the circuit of 2,000 cars making a 6 mile round trip to the Safeway once a week — that’s 12,000 miles of driving, a week.

Consider the milkman’s circuit. The milkman makes his circular transit along a 3-mile radius or so — that’s 19 miles of driving per day and when you count all the delivery vans, they had a few dozen, it was less than 1,000 miles per week. 

Someone is going to mention that we picked up the milk at the same time we bought other things, and there’s no additional carbon expended. But, we went more often, we bought things at the newer stores that we hadn’t bought before. The grocery store was for dry goods; supermarkets were for perishables. Back then, we made clothes from patterns, everyone had to learn a sewing skill, I sure did. The fish we ate, we caught, the fruit we ate, much of it we gathered. We walked to school, we played in the yard. The milkman brought the eggs, milk, butter, cheese. With Earth Day came the Safeway, and with Safeway we did what most people did in an era of rising incomes and more obligations that involved distance. We bought a second car.

That’s a change in carbon footprint that is nothing short of profound. Why did people make the change back then? To be honest, it saved money and time. 

Today, we think of carbon, in addition to convenience and price. For reasons that have little to do with carbon but with convenience, delivery is on the rise again. Just count the number of USPO, Amazon and UPS trucks in the neighborhood some time. That’s a good thing.

I think about that number. 12,000 miles of driving, for a few thousand souls to do their shopping, how that could be brought down by a factor, say. of 12. That’s a long part of the journey toward Net Zero.

No one mentioned the milkman

I still have the newspapers from the weeks around that first Earth Day, no one mentioned the milkman. People thought about pollution, litter, dead lakes, plazas without trees, playgrounds without grass and shade, gas-guzzling cars instead of gas-guzzling habits. 

On many subjects, we become derailed by gaslighting, name-calling, moving the goalposts, playing on insecurities, guilt-tripping, trolling, smear campaigning, belittling achievements, magnifying failures, invalidating the feelings of others, and so forth. We have seen campaigners cloak themselves in titles, the seals of prestigious institutions, the approval of ‘authorities’. They selectively inform, nag, intimidate, rationalize the status quo, divert, evade, shame, seduce.

But I wonder if we should get so upset about it as we usually do. Yes, people are slow to recognize trouble, real trouble, they are fickle. Maybe it is just the 5Ds, people are making their journey from denial to discovery. If we recognize the journey they are on as a journey we have taken ourselves, perhaps we can think of that 6th D, their dignity and, like a good friend does, help show them the way.

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