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The Monterey List:

Growing toward a sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet

*Now available in paperback!*

To purchase either the paperback or the Kindle edition, click the cover image at left.

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The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I am currently releasing the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing from Amazon as either a paperback or a Kindle e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

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80. Enablement is better than prohibition.

 
The carrot is better than the stick. If we wish to realize our vision of a better world, we will need to spend more time removing the barriers that discourage socially responsible behavior and less time punishing people because they are not already acting that way.

 

When I was a child, traveling the highways of Washington State in the back seat of my father's big Pontiac, it was fairly common to see signs beside the road announcing litter barrel ahead. Another curve or two, and there it was: a large steel drum, or sometimes two or three drums, wired to a post beside a graveled turnout and gaping open invitingly. You were supposed to dump your trash into those barrels instead of out the car window, and most drivers did. There were hefty fines imposed for littering, then as now, and that undoubtedly created extra encouragement; but the key was the barrels. Knowing that there would soon be a spot where you could deposit your garbage officially was a powerful incentive not to deposit it unofficially. It cost next to nothing to be a good citizen.

 

Litter barrels are long gone today in most of the United States, done in by a combination of government budget woes and their own success. The money could not be spared to empty them as fast as people filled them, and as a consequence they often overflowed, looking unsightly and attracting flies and stray animals; this was deemed unacceptable, and out they went. In their place we have litter patrols. They do keep the roadsides fairly clean - as clean, probably, as the litter barrels did - and because litter crews are usually composed either of volunteers or of misdemeanants working off light sentences, they do it at very little expense. But they do nothing to modify the behavior that causes the problem. All of their effect is after the fact. Because litterers don't have to suffer the consequences of their actions - no matter what they do, the roadsides will be kept clean - litter patrols may actually increase antisocial behavior. Why worry about what you toss out of a car window if, as soon as it leaves the vehicle, it becomes someone else's problem? Decisions like that have a way of reverberating. The path from litterbug to hardened criminal is certainly not inexorably fixed - Arlo Guthrie had a lot of fun with that idea in Alice's Restaurant - but each successive socially irresponsible act does make it a bit easier to do the next one. We are encouraging wrong behavior when we should be encouraging right.

 

And the problem goes well beyond littering. Traveling through most of the United States on two extended trips in the spring and summer of 1992, I discovered that there was more than a dearth of litter barrels along our roadways; there was also a dearth of public rest rooms. In many parts of the country - Texas and New England were the worst - travelers were forced to "hold it" for hours. In most states, rest areas were simply too few. In Vermont, they were actually locked from sundown to sunup. Since human bladders, kidneys and large intestines do not lock down for the same period, the easily predictable result was urine and feces behind trees, behind rest area buildings, and in the sheltered entries of the locked restrooms themselves. Used toilet paper flowered in the parking lots. There were large fines for anyone caught urinating or defecating in inappropriate locations, but large fines mean little when your bowels are bursting. This is quite clearly a case where enablement - unlocking the rest rooms - could have easily prevented a great deal of (literally) shitty behavior. Prohibition could not possibly have the same effectiveness.


It should not be difficult to see how this principle can be extended. To keep a company from polluting a river, you can fine them (if you can catch them in the act), or you can give them a grant to build a treatment plant. The fine elicits no response beforehand, and only a grudging minimum - if that - afterward; the grant encourages an actual solution to the problem. To prevent the release of ozone-destroying refrigerants, you will probably have to forbid their use, but if you do not also provide a satisfactory substitute all you will do is create a thriving black market in the forbidden product. Giving up ozone destroyers must be enabled, or it will not take place. To prevent international terrorism, you can go to a great deal of trouble, inconvenience and expense to root out terrorists and punish them, or you can help them reach what are often legitimate goals - self-determination, religious freedom, economic and political rights - and thus remove the causes that drive them. Terrorists usually have full bellies, but they are propelled by visions of countrymen who don't. Take away those visions, and terrorism will fade away. Keep them alive, and no wall you can erect against terrorists will be high enough. The threat of death cannot deter someone who has already decided to die.

This section begins Chapter XVI, "On Sustainable Principles". Next week: section 81, "Life support takes precedence."

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CLICK ON THE LINK ABOVE to obtain a free copy of the first ten chapters of this book. The 57 sections comprising the remaining ten chapters will continue to be released on this website at the rate of one section per week, but they will no longer be accumulated here; each will be available for only one week. To obtain a complete copy of the book for a modest price, please click on the image at upper left.