A Conversation With Alan Durning, Director of the Sightline Institute

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?

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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