Seatbelts and Sustainability

Sustainability is like buckling up.

Today when you get in a car, you probably buckle your seatbelt. This wasn’t always the case. When I was growing up, we used to pile in my parent’s VW bug after a cocktail party and rush away at breakneck speeds, all of us without seatbelts. Besides the questionable judgement of driving a martini-fueled bug late at night, if there was a seatbelt in the car it had long ago disappeared into the seat seam along with change, crumbs, and candy wrappers.

In 1983, only 14% used seat belts. Today more than 98% of Californians use seat belts. In my lifetime hundreds of millions of individuals have moved from a habit of ‘no seat belt’ to a habit of ‘seat belt’ with a strong correlating health benefit. For my daughter, putting on a seatbelt is as automatic as texting. However, unlike my daughter’s phone use, which has also moved from non-existent to ubiquitous in a short period of time, it’s hard to argue that seatbelt wearing is attractive, comfortable, cool or convenient. It’s just ‘what you do’ when you get into a car. We now have a mindset — largely hidden from us — that leads us to buckle up as naturally as shaking someone’s hand when you meet them. Seat belt buckling has somehow become part of the day-to-day behavioral auto-pilot by which adults navigate their worlds.

The story of how in a short 30 years this new ‘unthinking’ habit was formed is interesting and tied to a similar shift in mindset surrounding driving drunk, which also used to be deemed ‘ok’, and now isn’t ok. A small group of highly committed activists from an organization called MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) largely shifted the conversation among policy makers, the public and business people about drinking, driving and auto safety. Interestingly, and relevant to sustainability, this profound change in behavior occurred almost without our knowledge. The average 50-year-old seatbelt wearer of today would be hard pressed to answer when they started wearing a seat belt. And, also important, they don’t think about it much. It’s just the way it is.

In this way, sustainability is the seatbelt of our time. Twenty-five years ago we did a lot of mindless, systematic damage to the intricate and beautiful ecological systems that sustain life on earth. Our industrial growth society was thoughtlessly driving drunk, unbuckled, without a care in the world for the baby in the backseat. Today, while sustainable practices haven’t completely moved to the psychological background, and there is plenty of serious damage still being done, there is a solid foundation of mindsets, practices, norms and aspirations that have begun to cut across all demographic segments: from energy producers to stay-at-home moms; from wildland conservation organizations to the department of defense; from accounting systems focused only on cost and profit to accounting systems that assess the true costs of our actions; from the largest retailer in the world to tiny hole in the wall inventors and start-ups. Young and old, wealthy and poor, rural and city dwellers are acting differently. Even without rules and laws (but increasingly supported by policy), people, businesses and governments are considering things like energy efficiency, waste reduction, and biological integrity as a normal course of doing business.

While there are many miles to go, as a society we are beginning to sober up and clip into our seatbelts. In this way, we don’t really have a sustainability problem, we have a mindset problem. As soon as sustainability practices are ‘just the way it is’ we’ll be on our way to a more just and beautiful world.

I align with Arne Naess, a Norwegian eco-philosopher, who was once asked, “Are you an optimist, or a pessimist?” His reply, “Optimist! When it comes to the 22nd century.” Me too.