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(Sustainability): The Millennial Challenge

social issues


University of Virginia


(Sustainability): The Millennial Challenge


“Yeah, unfortunately I won’t be able to be in tomorrow,” I said to my boss. My boss and I exchanged goodbyes and went our separate ways. Will she fire me? I shrugged -- I guess we’ll see.

Departing from the office and gliding across the 8th floor of Lenfante Plaza I stepped into a closing elevator, steadied myself, and descended 120 feet en route to the metro.

When I finally approached the metro, I caught a car and after stepping in, found the nearest open seat. Feeling excited for my upcoming adventure tomorrow, I whipped out my laptop and opened a document I had written two months earlier for a class. The paper was titled “The Business Case for Solar.” As the metro began to move I braced myself for impact and dove into the paper.
There seems to be an inherent issue with sustainability – a reason why our nation can only produce 9.9% of its energy from renewables, 90.1% of our energy from carbon emitting, greenhouse gas producing fossil-fuels, and have a need to flip the two figures. Maybe this comes from our nation’s inability to balance anything -- we can’t balance our government, can’t balance our budget, and we sure can’t balance our energy usage. In a Ted Talk by climate scientist and Columbia Professor James Hansen, one of the overlying points of discussion is the issue of our energy imbalance. Energy imbalance, a figure representing the extra-unnecessary energy going into earth, is now about 6/10th of a watt per square meter – a figure when added up over the whole world, Hansen points out, sums up to the energy produced from 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding every day, 365-days a year. If we cannot stop this imbalance, it will result in a 3-degree rise in average temperature by 2050, in turn causing a 3-meter rise in sea level and unchangeable environmental damage.

But we’ve all heard some of these crazy facts about global warming. So why should these facts make us feel different? And why even with all the facts regarding our need to combat global warming do we still make decisions countering progress of the Sustainability Movement?

Sustainability & The Human Condition
The answer is that honestly, those facts shouldn’t and don’t make us feel any different. Novelist Luigi Pirandello once said, “A fact is like a sack – it won’t stand up if it’s empty.” And Pirandello is right – absolutes are like kryptonite to humans and our ability to take action.

Simon Sinek best explains this phenomenon in his book Start With Why. The novel examines why we can rationalize absolutes and business cases but not take action on them. In fact, dismissing rational logic isn’t even our choice; it’s a tenet of our biology. Looking at a cross section of the human brain, there are three parts, the newest part, the neocortex, and the two inner parts that make up our limbic system. The neocortex is responsible for rational, analytical thought, and language; it helps us to do math, science, and measure in absolutes. Conversely, our limbic system is responsible for all of our feelings, behavior, decision making, and it has no capacity for language. Because our limbic system control’s our decision making, we can do things like see a car commercial and understand that the car may have better MPG and horsepower than our old one but not buy the car saying “the purchase just didn’t feel right.”

Absolutes and facts really just don’t do it for us humans. We are irrational creatures not by choice but rather by our predetermined biology. Consequently, Pirandello has merit in believing facts will always just be empty sacks – they mean nothing unless if we have ideologies to frame them in.

If you look at the formidable movements before the Sustainability Movement such as the Civil Rights Movement, the LGBT Rights Movement, the Arab Spring, to name a few, they were all built on ideals rather than facts. These movements were concerned with the changing of legislation that governed people’s hearts and minds in addition to actual legislation that ensured equal rights for all people, races, and creeds.

The steps of all these movements are generally two-fold and occur in the following order:

Step 1: Peoples' Ideologies Change

Step 2: Legislation Changes

And then Step 1 continues to occur as new ideology replaces the old commonly held beliefs.

So here’s the irony behind the Sustainability Movement that sets it apart from movements before it: Humans don’t care all that much about facts or absolutes and yet unlike previous movements it requires a resolution measured in absolutes.

The need for a resolution measured in absolutes may answer why the sustainability movement is still unable to succeed – because after all, the Sustainability Movement has the proper legislation in place and has nothing short of a harem of followers. The nature of this required resolution is what sets apart the Sustainability Movement from previous ones and adds a third step unseen before by movements before it: the need to take action on your ideology and implement it concretely into your life.

The Perfection-Patience Paradox: the Absolutes of Inaction
Riding along the Silver Line my car took a stop at Metro Center. Two guys, appearing to be in their late teens or early twenties, about the same height, with an amplifier, dreads, and wife-beaters step on the metro. One says to the other, “find an outlet for this.” Seeing people perform on a metro car is not too uncommon in DC, but it’s certainly not very prevalent. I looked up waiting to see what they’d do.

The two plugged in the amp to the one outlet in the car. About to start their performance, the second guy who had plugged in the amp looked at the first with a strain on his face. “Wait,” he said. “I’m not ready bro. Not in here.” The two exchanged looks and, looking smaller than they did when they got on the metro, slumped down into the two closest seats.

Most of us know people kind of like this, whether they be website designers finishing their new website, artists finishing a piece of art, or a friend who doesn’t think their English Seminar paper is ready to show you despite the fact they’ve been working on it for 2 weeks. We often use this cop-out of perfectionism as a crutch for not having to put ourselves or our art out there. And this makes sense, when you put yourself out there, you’re definitely going to have to deal with some hate and definitely going to have to deal with some criticism – it’s inevitable. Taking concrete action on your ideology isn’t easy, especially in a world where it’s much easier to live in your comfort bubble, free of criticism.

But what about the other side: patience. If you’re being patient with that website, patient with that art, or patient with that English Seminar paper, isn’t that different? Your art might genuinely not be ready to go out into the world. So how can we deal with this? But then again, what if perfection makes us wait too long, and the sea-level rise 3-meters.

The Millennial Challenge
The next day I dropped my sister off at the metro and continued up I-495 passed DC. The road was long and gave me time to settle in en route to Maryland.

The truth is we’re all born with minds that have thoughts. We all can be expert inventors of ideas, ideas that can combat the issues our society faces. Felix Dennis, CEO and poet from Britain once said he valued ten good ideas at the value of a penny. He said instead of seeking the perfect idea, what differentiated anything from being successful was whether that thing took concrete action or in his words “imperfect action.” This is the millennial challenge: being able to take imperfect, but concrete steps despite chance of criticism, in order to become the living example of what you believe in. The challenges we face now might seem more interdisciplinary and mind boggling than before, and it may be easier not to worry about them, but through targeted action, putting our art out into the world, and learning and understanding new things and people we can take any conflict and pair it with resolution. Consequently, the millennial challenge requires that we take fear of failure and replace it with the fear of failing to try.

Arriving in a parking lot lined with warehouses, I parked my car and approached a massive warehouse in front of me. I walked 10 steps through the asphalted desert and approached the average sized-door. Opening the door, I walked in and the receptionist looked up. “Hello, this is Solar Energy Services, how may I help you?” “Hi, I’m looking for an application for employment.”

The Millennial Challenge definitely isn’t getting on roofs to install solar panels; it might not even be sustainability. But it surely is getting out of our comfort zone and taking action in what we believe in, because the part of life that we will always be missing out on will only begin when we reach the end of our comfort zones.

Erik Toor is a second year in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia and founder of the CVille Solar Project.