A Conversation With Alan Durning, Director of the Sightline Institute

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AlanDurning-Post.jpgIn 1993, Alan Durning founded the Sightline Institute, an independent, non-profit communications and research center based in Seattle that aims to provide in-depth research and analysis that champions a sustainable Northwest. During his time as executive director, a position he continues to hold, Durning has authored more than ten Sightline books, including Home and the Practice of Permanence and Guide to a Sustainable Northwest. He is also the author of How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of Earth, which he wrote before founding Sightline, while working as a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Here, Durning discusses the surge in collaborative consumption or the sharing economy, in which people are renting and swapping cars, bedrooms, couches, and more; how, at least in the Pacific Northwest, young people are driving far less than their elders and per-capita gasoline consumption has dropped to mid-1960s levels; and why comprehensive climate policy that's adequately ambitious is impossible without filibuster reform in the U.S. Senate.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I usually give the full spiel: I direct a policy center called Sightline Institute. We're trying to make the Pacific Northwest a global model of a green economy -- a place that works for both people and nature.

Until recently, the typical response was, "Cool! Like wind power and stuff?" Nowadays, people are more likely to say, "Ooh! You have a job? Are you guys hiring?" I wish we were. There's so much to be done -- so many opportunities to pursue.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

One exciting trend is the surge in collaborative consumption. Across the Northwest and beyond, people are renting or swapping things they're not using -- spare bedrooms, second cars, outdoor gear, you name it. It's reinventing consumption (and old-fashioned sharing) for the smartphone era. Need to borrow a car for a few hours? There's an app (or several) for that: mobile and online services that will help you locate neighbors who are renting out their cars for an hourly fee. We're seeing the same basic idea in bike sharing programs, tool libraries, couch-surfing websites for low-budget vacationers, and more.

What's driving this? One factor is the sputtering economy -- it's cheaper to rent than to buy, and some people are delighted to turn their parked car into an income source. But there are other trends at work: the rise of social media, increasing environmental consciousness, and the file-swapping culture of the millennial generation, among others. Regardless of the reasons behind the trends, sharing is radically sustainable. It delivers high standards of living with dramatically fewer things: more fun, less stuff.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Few people realize that many worrisome trends have already begun to turn around, at least in the region where I work. In the Northwest, per-capita gasoline consumption has been dropping for a dozen years: we're now back down to the personal gasoline use levels of the mid-1960s. Traffic on Northwest roads has been diminishing since long before the recession. Young people are driving far less than their elders. The region is phasing out its coal-fired power plants. Life expectancy is rising. Family size is small and stable. Cities are gradually becoming more compact and walkable. We have tremendous challenges before us, but we've also made more progress than many understand.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The potential game changer this season is the dawning realization across the United States and the world that the extreme concentration of corporate and personal wealth has corrupted our politics and broken our democracy. Are we arriving at a political tipping point? This trend holds enormous possibilities, along with dangers. What's the role of a self-organizing, leaderless, cyber-anarchic uprising like Occupy in building the laws and institutions that we need to put a lid on carbon, for example?

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Greens tend to be too fatalistic about our chances of changing the rules of the political game. We just keep playing and hoping, as if the game weren't rigged. But it is rigged. Comprehensive climate policy that's adequately ambitious is impossible without filibuster reform in the U.S. Senate, for example. It may also require a constitutional amendment that limits the role of dirty money in politics. That may sound like a hopeless quest, but I believe it's possible. If we climate hawks and sustainability warriors united with other small-d democratic forces, we could unrig the game, and fix our system of governance. And then, many new things will be possible.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I spent most of my first decade in this work at a think tank in Washington, D.C., focusing intently on challenges in faraway, exotic, developing countries. It served my wanderlust well, but I only started having a real impact when I re-centered my attention on my own part of the planet, the Pacific Northwest.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Michelle Long, a former drug company sales rep from Ohio who built a local business alliance in little Bellingham, Washington -- a group with an unmatched commitment to sustainability and a membership far larger than the local chamber of commerce.

Jefferson Smith, a young state representative from Portland, Oregon, who bought a charter bus and turned it, as The Bus Project, into the most-happening youth political organizing outfit west of the Mississippi.

Tyree Scott, a hard-line labor- and civil-rights organizer from Seattle, who taught me before his death in 2003 to laugh -- hard -- at the absurdity of social-change movements, without ever yielding an inch.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I was once intent on being a classical trombonist, and I even earned a bachelor's in trombone performance. But thinking about the massive threats to our collective future -- mass species extinction, for example -- made practicing feel like fiddling while Rome burned. (And no, I don't play anymore, though I still move my slide arm involuntarily during the trombone solo in the Mozart Requiem.)

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

My organization publishes the Northwest's go-to source on sustainability solutions: www.sightline.org. Like the rest of my staff, I'm on it all day long. Facebook keeps me in almost constant contact with our huge community of allies around the Pacific Northwest. Pandora keeps me grooving through the long days of running the largest progressive think tank in the upper left corner of the continent.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Lizz Wright's haunting rendition of Bernice Johnson Reagon's "I Remember, I Believe," on the album Fellowship: "I don't know how my mother walked her trouble down / I don't know how my father stood his ground / I don't know how my people survived slavery / I do remember, that's why I believe."

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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