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Revisiting the Dangers of “Small Good Things”

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This past Monday, in my musing, I mentioned Kanu Hawaii–a nonprofit that recruits people to take actions that support “sustainable island living.” They are so good at what they do I signed up as a member–even though I’ve never set foot in Hawaii. (That thermal coffee cup I tote to Starbucks? That’s a result of a pledge I made on Kanu Hawaii’s site.)

So this Thursday I’m going to throwback to the post in which I first shared my enthusiasm for this little-nonprofit-that-could. As well as encouraging you to join 

A Hard Look at Sustainability: How Pretty Good is the Enemy of Good Enough
Originally posted Wednesday, December 1, 2010. 
What could be bad about these little, everyday, sustainable actions?

  • Recycling office paper
  • Banishing bottled water from your vending machines and installing more water fountains
  • Turning up the thermostat for AC in collections storage by 2 degrees
  • Composting your food service waste

“Nothing,” (I bet you are saying), “these are all good things!”

Yah, they are pretty good. But are they good enough?

The problem with small, good things is they can make us feel good. And feeling good can make us complacent. Complacency can keep us from assessing whether what we are doing, overall, is enough to achieve the intended effect. Like stopping global warming, or reducing human-generated environmental toxins. Or (big picture) building a healthy, sustainable, equitable society that will still be here in a few hundred years.

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I’m not arguing museums shouldn’t do these small, good things. I am saying that we in museums should consider, before diving into a recycling program or putting solar panels on the roof, the effect we want to have on the world, and assess how and whether our actions, overall, help reach that goal.

Reality Check!
How do we assess how we are affecting the future with the steps we choose to take? One way is extrapolation. Remember the classic admonition from childhood: “don’t do that! Just think, if everyone did that then….

Yah, just think…
If every museum in the United States turned off one office computer each night and over the weekend, the weekly savings in electricity costs for the country would be around $15,000 (a rough estimate using Department of Energy statistics and assuming a typical cost of 10¢/KWH).
That’s about 195 thousand lbs of CO2.

To meet President Obama’s goal of reducing US carbon emissions 80% by 2050, the nation has to shed about 4,670,705 thousand metric tons a year.

Suddenly I feel small and powerless.

Before museums feel too good about our efforts to save energy, we should remember that, with only 20,000- some museums in America, the cumulative effect of what we can do is still pretty small.

But—(cue optimistic, upbeat music) collectively we serve over 800 million visitors annually, and that’s not counting the people who access our information over the web. If we can change their behavior…now we’re talking impact. Then the question becomes, how can we influence their behavior? What actions can museums take that effectively catalyze the crowd?

That’s a tough question to answer, but I’m pretty sure some of the factors that need to be weighed are:

  • Are our “green” actions visible to the public, and do we explain how and why we do it? Modesty isn’t a virtue when you are trying to set a good example.
  • How many people will we reach? Are we targeting a programmatic audience, all visitors, the broader physical community, or (potentially) any user of the web?
  • Is the behavior we want to encourage simple and doable enough to overcome people’s innate inertia, or (alternatively)
  • Is it fun and compelling enough to get them to do it anyway?
  • Will the sum total of behavior change significantly improve some aspect of societal/national/global sustainability? This could be through direct action (installing solar panels, choosing sustainable foods, driving less) or indirect action (donating to causes, supporting policies, voting for candidates.)

Case in Point
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s
SeaFood Watch program is a fantastic example of influencing huge numbers of people to make everyday choices that improve the sustainability of aquatic systems. Poor food choices have contributed to the near-extinction of many species (Chilean Sea Bass), collapse of entire fisheries (the Grand Banks), and created new threats to water quality (commercially farmed salmon). In 2009, Americans consumed 15.8 lbs of seafood per capita, for a total of 4.833 billion pounds. Since MoBA’s program is disseminated via the web, text messages, and a really cool iPhone app, it can influence not just its 1.8 million annual visitors, but users nationally and internationally who may never visit the museum. So (to measure it against the criteria above):

  • It is highly visible and accessible
  • It reaches tons of people
  • The behavior it encourages (ordering off a menu, making a purchase at a grocery store) is very low energy
  • It is both fun and compelling
  • The sum total of its effect is potentially very significant.

What about the rest of us?
“Sure,” I can hear you say, “give me $50M a year and I’ll change the world, too!” But I believe you don’t have to be a huge organization like MOBA to have a significant impact on your community. One of my absolutely favorite environmental activist organizations is a pretty small nonprofit called
Kanu Hawaii. With a budget of ~ 300k it has mustered almost 13,000 people to make personal commitments to “sustainable island living,” by creating a vibrant social network that functions both virtually and in the real world, and is visible, doable, fun and compelling. (I particularly love that they project the cumulative impacts of the commitments their community members have made.)

I would love to write up “small can be effective” examples about museums integrating “green” into their operating principles. I do know of a lot of individual projects like installing solar panels or wind turbines, building green storage facilities, or helping other museums integrate green practices into their exhibit development. But I don’t enough about all the good green things being done in our field to profile them as they deserve. So here’s my challenge to you—tell me about what your museum doing to make us, as a society and a species, more sustainable. How does your suite of activities stack up against my proposed criteria? What is your goal for cumulative effect? Write in and share…

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1 Comment

  1. Elizabeth – this certainly is about influence and scalability.

    For example, The Phipps Conservatory's Center for Sustainable Landscapes has unlimited influence on sustainable design, teaching and inspiration for professionals and visitors.

    The New England Aquarium's Blue Impact program is just the public part of its work to change human behavior around climate issues. Their professional role is going to change environmental communication as a field far beyond just museum work.

    John Forti's work at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH, fosters partnerships among Slow Food, the Museum, and the community to share heirloom seeds, teach thoughtful foodways, and encourage local food and crafts. Heck – they have a beer of their own hops. Think of the people you can connect with over climate change by having an heirloom beer with them – from your museums' own heritage! Talk about scalability.

    The small good things are the first steps, and they are critical ones. We can take heart that usually those steps do not create complacency. Rather they are learning experiences that frequently encourage more learning. It's an addictive feedback loop that encourages those newly-awakened to the ease, the possibilities, and the community well-being that come with environmentally sustainable work, to take bigger and bigger steps.

    Phipps, New England Aquarium, and Strawberry Banke didn't start at scale, yet look how far they are taking us all.

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