Eric Britton.

What work do you do?

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I earn my living and pay the rent as an international adviser, consultant, and team builder for public- and private-sector organizations that have accepted that they need new thinking in the face of this uncomfortable concept that some call “sustainable development.” That takes about half my time. For the rest, I have since the mid-’70s been involved in creating and maintaining a number of continuing public dialogues about various aspects of sustainable development, starting with The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative.

I try to reconcile my NGO work with my advisory relationship with my private industrial and financial clients by thinking about it like this: Among our most challenging tasks is to find ways to bring together the huge creative potential of the private sector — call it the market economy — to produce the goods and services that we all need to live full and healthy lives. When I work with them, my role is not only to nag them about the unsustainability of their current activities, but also to see if I can help them understand that sustainability is also an important theme for them in their own operations and planning for the future. And as you can imagine, it is quite a challenge.

What does your organization do?

We define The Commons as a wide-open, independent, first-stop shop on the web for concerned citizens, researchers, students, policy makers, entrepreneurs, investors, or social activists interested in quickly getting a feel for world sustainability issues, views, and developments from an unbiased critical perspective. We invite open discussion, information sharing, diversity, complex thinking, and collaborative initiatives for action.

We have a whole slew of cooperative programs under something we call the New Mobility Agenda, which we started back in 1988 as an open international platform for critical discussion, exchanges of materials and views, and diverse forms of cross-border collaboration on the challenging, necessarily conflicted topic of “sustainable transportation and social justice.” And of these programs, the one that is getting the bulk of our attention these days is the Kyoto World Cities Challenge initiative. Another ongoing project is a discussion of Women, Transport, & Decision-making.

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What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?

Hmm. I’ve never really thought about that explicitly since I always assumed that my life was going to be a continuing story of work in progress. The end goal is to make my contribution to a world in which every child born has an equal chance to lead a full, happy, and safe life.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born in Mississippi in 1938. I’ve lived in Paris, France, since 1969.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

During my childhood, I was surrounded by able and generous doctors and architects, both of whose wonderful task it is to protect and build lives. But I discovered early that I had no gifts for either of those professions, so I decided that what I wanted to do was to be a doctor and builder of society and daily lives. This led me first to a broad program of the sciences in my little New England college, followed by pretty intense doctoral work in the field of economics, spread out over several countries and cultures. But I never wanted to be an economist (not smart enough); what I wanted to understand better is what role economic matters play in people’s daily lives.

Surely as important as anything in my “career choice” has been my irascible, independent personality. I am not sure that I am exactly proud of it, but no one ever really wanted to give me a job. So I had to make my own, which is what I do now.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

I get up early with a grin, stretch, roll around on the floor, lift a few weights, bolt down my cereal, and get down to work: I observe, I learn, I communicate. To accomplish this, I stretch the possibilities of the affordable information technology to its limit (the usual, plus IP videoconferencing since 1994, and now Skype), and I meet and talk to people. The day starts about 7 a.m. and chugs to a halt about 11 hours later as I go for a much-deserved workout and row.

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How many emails are currently in your inbox?

Don’t ask. (675. Aaaaaargh!)

Who is your environmental hero?

No joke: St. Francis of Assisi.

What’s your environmental vice?

Oh, shit. On the one hand, I am far more careful than your average Joe Six-pack. I turn off the lights and water, I get around locally mainly by walking and bike (easy to do in Paris), I don’t go anywhere on vacation (but hey, this is Paris), and I substitute videoconferencing, et al. for air travel with a vengeance. But the world would still, I am afraid, need a couple of planets of this size to accommodate its 6 billion if everyone did as I do.

What are you reading these days?

The Indian, Trinidadian, English, permanent-expatriate-wherever-he-is, poor, old V.S. Naipaul. I had read a few samples of his work with real interest over the years. But a friend from India recently brought me the entire collection of his works, and I am slogging my way through them. He is such an acute observer of the many different cultures he has rubbed up against. And since he is, like me and perhaps you, so “out of place” no matter where he is, I feel a particular empathy with him. But what a sad sack he is. (Not even getting the Nobel Prize made him grin.)

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

I am unruly, idealistic, difficult, childish, and optimistic.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

Above all, constantly renewing itself and not fading away — showing continuing ability to adapt. And we are increasingly showing ourselves able to take advantage of the good advice and observation that Alexis de Tocqueville cited in his Democracy in America (1835); he wrote, “In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” That’s it — we are getting better at combining.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?

In a way, the greatest drawback in terms of effectiveness is utopianism — end-state fascination.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

Render any law, ordinance, or judgment of society — public and private sector alike –invalid unless it emanates from institutions with strong (at least 40 percent) women’s composition and leadership.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

When I was 18, it was the Budapest String Quartet. Today it is any of the ensembles led by the eminent musicologist and composer Professor Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.

What are you happy about right now?

That you and I are still here. That you and I care. And that you and I are going to make a difference.

Hits You Like a Britton of Bricks

Eric Britton, The Commons.

If you could pick your favorite sustainable initiatives in Europe (top five), which would they be? I’m curious about public or private projects, at a county or municipal level. Ideally, could these projects serve as a blueprint for cities or companies in America to adopt?    — Piper Foster, Aspen, Colo.

That’s an excellent question, and an important one, because it is true that there is more actual action in terms of sustainability projects here in Europe — or at the very least, different action.

Here are my candidates off the top of my head:

1. A movement which started in 1968 in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands, when a bunch of parents and architecture students got together to rip up a street and redesign it with brink planters and benches so that cars could only move at a snail’s pace — allowing people and children to use the street in front of their homes for themselves. It was called a Woonerf, or living street. To take this one step further, dedicated Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman has shown us what can happen when you take all the signs and markings off a residential street. Imagine: a street with nothing on it, which obliges us all to figure out how we should be using it. Democracy and the Knowledge Society in action.

2. ETNO, “the voice of European telecommunications network operators,” is getting together with the World Wildlife Fund to create an activist agenda and practical framework for “Telecommunications and Sustainability.”

3. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, decided that his city would make people pay to drive in the city. This has cut traffic, accidents, and pollution in the target area by 20 percent or more. Your city could do it. And indeed since London has got this going, major cities around the world are now having a closer look.

4. The Carbon Disclosure Project, started a few years ago in London by a man named Paul Dickinson, provides a secretariat for the world’s largest institutional investor collaboration on the business implications of climate change. CDP represents an efficient process whereby many institutional investors collectively sign a single global request for disclosure of information on greenhouse-gas emissions. Some 300 of the 500 largest corporations in the world currently report their emissions through this website. One man started it and ran with his idea.

5. This may surprise you, but my last nomination here is for the French “No” to the European Referendum a few weeks back. Why? Because this is the unexpected first step in a process that is going to bring citizens across Europe more actively into the process of governance. That is an essential first step toward real sustainability (as opposed to the rhetoric of sustainability, of which there is much). See “How in 2005 the French Saved Europe for Civilization” in the Kyoto World Cities Blog.

You will note, Piper, that none of these are concepts that can be cut and pasted in North American cities, but someone with brains, energy, and a sense of leadership should be able to do a lot with this kind of thinking. Henry Ford once famously said that of all the kinds of work, he knew thinking was the hardest. And that, he said, was probably why people do so little of it.

Can you describe the Kyoto World Cities Challenge a little more? I keep hearing about cities taking action on global warming. Can they really make a difference on that small level?    — Name not provided

Thanks for asking about the challenge. It is arguably the most important single project that we are engaged with this year, and probably for the two or three years directly ahead. The challenge is a bit different from the rest, in that it asks — and tries to suggest answers to — a single question: “What can you do in your city to reduce traffic and its negative impacts dramatically (say on the order of 20 percent) in a very short period (we propose 20 months) and within your existing transportation budget?”

If you go to the main Kyoto Cities website, you will see all this presented in a pretty compact manner. This is a critical sustainability issue, and I am convinced that the challenge offers an approach that, if we can get it right, can open up a lot of new ideas and opportunities in a world that badly needs inspiration and help.

And as to that “small level” of impact when it comes to cities, let’s bear in mind that something like two-thirds of the 6 billion-plus people who crowd our planet live in cities. And that transportation accounts for 50 percent or more of all GHGs in our cities. So it is no mean target.

I want to try to convert my hometown into a more sustainable place. Do you have any suggestions that might help me be more successful in my quest?    — Daniel Mandell, Wellington, Fla.

Let me try to answer that one for you, Daniel, by telling you what I have learned in my work.

We have chosen the transportation sector as the place we are starting our push toward more sustainable cities because (a) it is so very ubiquitous in all our daily lives, (b) everybody is an “expert” on it since that’s what they do every day, and, perhaps surprisingly, (c) it is so terribly weakly exploited by present arrangements and hence such an easy target for improvement.

To get you started, I would suggest that you start your research with the New Mobility Agenda. Not because it’s necessarily the best thing around, but it has been designed to serve as a teaching-and-learning set of tools, which I hope you will see. And then of course there is the Kyoto World Cities Challenge.

In any event, if you ever want to swap ideas on this, I invite you to get in touch. Perhaps I can point you in a few useful directions. And, oh yes, good luck!

What kind of comments do you hear about the U.S. stance on Kyoto — not as part of your work, but in casual conversation?    — Name not provided

I love this question. I’d say that there are three main groups of reactions. In brief:

1. “Huh? Kyoto what?” (Or its functional equivalent where the actual amount of information and understanding is at a very low level.)

2. In a phrase: “Americans are selfish, obese consumer-holics who are going to live (and die!) in their fat cars.” Etc. Etc. This is my favorite because it is such an obvious knee-jerk.

3. Reflection: “Well, first we (Europeans) have to assume that they probably have their own reasons for not signing, not least because their entire structure is so different from ours. They (that is, the U.S.) seem to be in a terrible trap, but then so are we. The Kyoto targets are going to take a lot of imagination and hard work on our part if we are ever to meet them. And in fact, the targets themselves are probably way too low to accomplish their mission, which is to reduce the threats of global warming and climate modification. Oh well. Maybe the best we can do is to do our best and see if we can help by leading by example.”

Could you talk a little more about your Women, Transport, & Decision-making project? How will the increased involvement of women help to solve problems associated with transportation? And why is transportation, specifically, an issue women should be more involved with?    — Name not provided

My own proposal on this is so simple as to seem dumb (but it ain’t!). Almost every iota of our present transportation arrangements has been shaped by councils of men, and even though they didn’t plan it this way, they have nonetheless created the transportation arrangements which suit them best. Now, I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are certain differences between men and women (am I allowed to say that in America in 2005?), including in the manners in which they live their daily lives. So, if we are to create transportation systems that are both more sustainable and fairer, then we need to sharply increase both female participation and female leadership in the halls of decision and power in the sector.

And I am not claiming that just by bringing in women in more active roles and in large numbers that we are going to “solve” the problems of the sector. But the result is surely going to be some very different appreciations and debates, and that is surely the first step in the right direction. We need diversity and new ideas.

I have chosen the transport sector as a target for increased women’s leadership and involvement because (a) it is such an important component of our daily lives and (b) it has been so severely misshapen by the overwhelmingly male decision structure. Also, I might add, because it is among the easiest of the big sectional problems before us to fix. But that is another story for another day.

I’m curious about this notion of rendering laws invalid that were created without 40 percent female representation. Why is 40 percent the magic number? And why does everyone assume that women in power would be sweet and thoughtful and change the ways of the world? Doesn’t power corrupt the best of ’em?    — Name not provided

Why is 40 percent the magic number? It ain’t. Nothing magic about it. It is just my best first stab to get a ballpark idea of what we should be pushing for, not eventually but immediately. To go for full parity seems mechanical and dumb. To go for what is clearly tokenism (say 10 percent, or around that) is a cop-out and probably won’t do the job. You prefer 30 percent? Sounds good to me, maybe not as good as my 40, but go for it!

I don’t know who “everyone” is in this case, but it’s not me, so let me talk for myself. I have lived a life surrounded by strong-minded, competent women, and I have noticed that they are pretty human too … which means not exactly perfect (sorry France, if you are reading this). When I look at any environmental, or even political, groups that have very strong female representation, what strikes me first is that they are (a) indeed imperfect and (b) different in quite a number of ways (some of which, at times, can drive me quite mad). I promise if we bring them in large numbers into our councils of power, we will see different things happening. And most probably some new and very useful things too. Does power corrupt? It can, but if you are fulfilled in your own life, there is much less danger of this happening. Which means, I guess, that we males have to do our best to keep them happy!

What do citizens of Paris do particularly well, environmentally? What are they slackers about?    — Name not provided

Let me start with a very general answer to your good question. The most important thing is not that they have succeeded in any world-beating ways, but that after half a lifetime here, I have seen enormous progress in many areas — and I take that to mean they are learning as they go along.

With each passing year, there are more places to walk agreeably and safely (from traffic), there is much more and safer cycling, there is less dog shit to walk on, the Seine gets a little cleaner (some fish are starting to come back), there are more mini-parks, it is harder and harder to park your car (that’s good, by the way!), and the homeless are increasingly treated as part of the neighborhood (though we have a lot of progress to make on that score).

Slackers? Our biggest and most important “environmental” problems have to do with the economic and social cleavage between those who are doing well and those who are having a rough time of it. And the cores to this include massive immigration that certainly has not been mastered, together with the inability of the society to move toward 100 percent employment. As long as we have men and women who do not have their full and fair place in this society, we are going to have problems. And the ticket to that is called a job.

What has it been like to live in France during these last few years, when relations with America have been tense? After 30-plus years there, do you still consider yourself (and are you identified as) an American?    — Name not provided

My problem is that I am basically a happy person, which means that I tend to be happy pretty most anywhere I happen to wake up in the morning. I was happy in Mississippi as a kid, happy up in New England and later New York when I was studying, and then happy over here. And this tends to spill over, which means, specifically in the context of your question, that I have good — let’s call them excellent — relations with my French neighbors, friends, and family.

France is our oldest ally, and the French have a deep, complex, and rich culture. On the political level there are differences, but when I look at them, I find that their position is at least half the time as informed and just as that of the U.S. government. And I do not hesitate to be critical both of our government and theirs. And as often as not, with a grin.

And I love that last question in particular. I am not only an American, I am a Jeffersonian Democrat (not the party but the dream). So from the inside looking out I am definitely 100 percent (critical and self-critical) American.

And what do the French think of me? They have no doubts that I am an American, not least since though I speak French as a fluent second language, there is always that bit of an accent that makes them smile. It’s a good start.

Vive la France! Vive le people des Etats-Unis! Vive l’Amérique!

You mention that you’ve been involved in creating and maintaining dialogues on sustainability since the 1970s. How have people’s thoughts about and approaches toward sustainability changed since then? How are they the same?    — Name not provided

A couple of important things have changed. To start with, the whole movement and concern was about environment and resources (and mainly the fear of running out of the latter). This whistled along for a decade or so, and then in 1983, the U.N. appointed an international commission to propose strategies for “sustainable development” — ways to improve human well-being in the short term without threatening the local and global environment in the long term. Ever since, sustainable development has been the main target of our concerns, with “environment” being a subset of this greater whole, which incidentally induces social justice, without which we have no chance of being sustainable.

On the methods side, a lot has happened. When we first set up our “invisible college” back in 1974 during a small international meeting at the Abbaye de Royaumont just to the north of Paris, the main means of dialoguing were physical meetings, print, and phones. But by 1981, we began to use email, with rudimentary news groups coming online by 1988 and the first websites in 1994, at which time we also began to use both one-on-one and group videoconferencing every day in support of our work. And so it goes to this day.

Stuff changes, but the battle goes to those who don’t lose heart and who endure.

I have been charged with the task of researching ways to make my Big 10 school more sustainable. I’ve had a few ideas such as converting our bus system to biodiesel, reducing the “food miles” for our many cafeterias, and performing energy audits on all campus buildings. However, I am not sure if these ideas will be the most effective. Do you have any other ideas that I could use or research? Also, any tips for dealing with a conservative administration that is not likely to back any idea based on environmental merit alone?    — Chris Kurtz, Columbus, Ohio

Chris, I really want to help you with this since I consider it an important issue, not only for a more sustainable present but also since it is in the university where we take on so many of the habits and attitudes that shape us for all our lives. I am sure that a sustainable university — or at least one that gives this a serious, visible, and heavily participatory try — is going to have a major influence on the students in their future lives, and of course on the surrounding community.

Now, my problem in this respect is that I simply am not in the swim on this one. There have to be some kinds of examples around. My first step would be an outreach program to start to identify the winners and losers — and the why’s and how’s.

I know that one huge headache and budget item for many U.S. universities is that of parking. And if you rationalize parking, you are taking a big step toward rationalizing the entire movement system, which simply has to become more sustainable.

So while I have no ready answers for you, I do know a good question when I see one, and you have one there. I hope you will try to answer it for yourself. And I would be pleased to do a bit of background work on this with you if you really wish to pursue this.

P.S. [added 14 Jun 2005]:
I have contacted a number of my colleagues around the world with this question, which has led to a continuing flood of useful materials and insight. So useful, in fact, that we have just added a new section to our New Mobility Agenda site (click on “Campus transport” at the bottom of the left menu). And there you are: concrete proof that if we communicate well enough, we can make progress on the challenges of sustainable development and social justice. (And if we don’t, we won’t.)

What can be done to conserve urban forests (such as forested public land endangered due to in-fill development) and protect urban wildlife? Do you think it’s critical to educate the masses of people who live in urban areas to keep planting trees and protecting urban ecology?    — Jan Danforth, Founder, Urban Forest Initiative, Baltimore, Md.

Let me try to answer your question as best I can, though urban forests are not an area that I have worked in at all.

Yes, I am convinced that the concept of urban forests and protected urban wildlife habitat, nearby to those who live lives largely dictated by totally artificial human-made environments, should be a community goal.

In any of our communities, not only should we not remove trees or forested urban land, but we should also have a program of consistently growing the wooded areas of our cities. I am not sure how you do this, but there is no doubt that the sine qua non is local community action (since this can hardly fall under state or federal law, per se). So what are the best practices, their impacts, and how can we make them better known?

To achieve these objectives, I think that a key may lie in the concept of imparting a feeling of ownership, of specific group responsibility for preserving specific parts of the natural environment/endowment in our cities, perhaps through various forms of adoption programs, whether by specific neighborhoods, community groups, etc. If it is somehow ours, or our responsibility, we have a chance of remembering what it is we are committed to do. Otherwise, if the responsibility and the mission of both preservation and maintenance becomes too diffuse, it risks never getting done.

Finally, a question to you, Jan. Is there anything of note that could be accomplished by somehow linking urban forest protection and management to Kyoto, perhaps in a specific city context? Have you or others you know thought this through? If so, it would be interesting to hear from you on this.

What role do you see biodiesel playing in our alternative-energy future?    — Richard Baynton, Eugene, Ore.

Biodiesel certainly has a role to play in the complex multi-part move to sustainability. But in general I am afraid that given the enormous pressures of greenhouse-gas accumulation and climate modification, all these alternative fuels and engine concepts are going to be far too little, far too late.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has a Sustainable Mobility program in which it gives much attention to these issues, and last year it published a report entitled “Mobility 2030: Meeting the Challenges to Sustainability.” But a careful reading shows that given the present urgencies, this is but a tawdry sideshow. Now this is not to say that these research programs and demonstrations should be brutally terminated and tossed into some kind of sustainability gulag, but they should be kept in real perspective. And for more on that I can only point you to the international peer review of this report that we have carried out with a number of highly qualified international colleagues.

How could I get involved in advising people about sustainable-development work, as you do?    — Schmuel Halperin, Cambridge, Mass.

To have a job where I could help contribute to the protection and preservation of the environment would be extremely fulfilling. How do you suggest finding that perfect environmental career?    — Scott Meyers, Park City, Utah

Schmuel and Scott, I have saved your questions for last because I face them with the most doubts. Let me take my best stab at this:

First, as to how to get involved with advising people in terms of sustainability issues, I am really at a loss. Let me start by saying, with a certain resignation on my part, that I am not sure that I provide either an example or a particular source of wisdom on this since my own involvement in this area has yielded very little that I can run up the flagpole and salute.

What I have managed to do — and what may be important for anyone wishing to make a contribution — is that I try to be good at listening to people, really listening, including even when they start out with ideas that are vastly different from my own or mock my own work, personality, attitudes, and approaches. What I have found is that when anyone is carrying on with passion and energy, even if it is unpleasing and possibly even a personal attack, they are trying to get a point across. So it is my job — it is our job, actually — to listen. In almost all cases we have a lot to learn.

Second, I think it is important to have an eye for detail and to be highly disciplined at absorbing and communicating bits of information. This is not a game for anyone who is looking for easy successes, because there are not any. If you hang around long enough, you will see a lot of dead soldiers and empty shoes of those who have fed the battlefields of sustainability and social justice. The trick is to make sure that you are still there, sword in hand.

Third, and related to this, you have to learn to put your ego aside. If your dominant interest is enhancing your personal reputation or career, you are inevitably going to hit some kind of glass ceiling. A more-than-average amount of sheer selflessness helps. Anyway, the world out there is not dumb and will quickly find out what your real priorities are.

Fourth, and almost last, I think it can only help to work when you are young and, at least for a year or two, directly in the field in situations of adversity. It may be in an urban ghetto, a school for handicapped students, an educational program in a prison, a rural community in Ethiopia, or a settlement in Palestine, but once you spend a couple of years there, you will know far more about the world and yourself than you could learn in three years at the best law school in the world.

Finally, there is the matter of team building and teamwork. In my mind, this is the key. I used to be a pretty good soccer player, but I never met a team that I could beat by myself. So I have made a point in my life not to try to find the answers — and certainly not to impose my answers — but to have a knack for finding the people who can find the answers. And then to do what I can to give them the means to do just that. This can be enormously satisfying and, I promise you, enormously powerful.