My dad went down to the local Honda dealership a few weeks ago and told the sales associate that he wanted to be first in line for an FCX hydrogen fuel cell car. The Honda sales associate didn’t know what my dad was talking about, so he called in the sales manager; the sales manager said that the FCX wouldn’t roll out till 2008, and even then the vehicles will only be available for lease—they won’t be in full production till 2018. But Dad reiterated his request, and at this point is planning to lease the first publicly available burgundy FCX in the Portland area. I don’t know whether or when that will come to pass, but I do know that my dad is doing his part (through subsequent e-mails to the sales manager and anticipated weekly visits to the dealership) to increase consumer demand for fuel cell cars.
Now, my dad is by no means an environmentalist—for example, he is still not convinced that global warming is a problem. He figures that as soon as he gets his FCX, someone will complain that he is making too much water, and that creates clouds and rain, and that changes weather patterns and causes the sea levels to rise, and that’s bad. Dad got the idea to pre-order a Honda FCX from a listserv he belongs to about innovations in fuel cell technology; the e-mail indicated that the arrangement for the fuel cells used in the Honda concept car had recently been turned around (horizontal → vertical) and that had made the vehicles much more efficient and taken them one step closer to commercial viability. But despite likely ideological differences, Dad heartily agrees with H & the Ls: for years, without ever having read Natural Capitalism, he has been saying that regulatory mandates are not driving innovation (22), and if the U.S. government really wanted to end dependence on foreign oil and make this country the leader in clean energy technology, they would put up a cash prize for the first group of people to design a commercially viable clean car.
As H & the Ls point out, the technology necessary for a total transportation/societal revolution exists—and has existed for quite some time. Getting it on the market on any scale is a matter of time. But it’s also a matter of will: it is going to take a lot more time if the will (politically and among consumers) is perceived to be lacking. I am not aware that anyone else in my acquaintance has been as proactive as my father in terms of demonstrating from the consumer end that people do actually want innovation. I, for example, have hung onto my 1989 Isuzu Trooper through thousands of dollars of maintenance because I cannot afford a Honda hybrid and I feel like junking a car has its own set of environmental…issues. I have not visited a dealership. I have not been agitating for a cost-effective car alternative, just riding my bike and the bus a lot more, complaining all the while about the high price of public transit and TriMet’s ill-conceived expansion plans.
But big changes happen by way of seemingly small decisions. For instance, my experiences in public schools, alternative programs, and private (higher ed) classrooms suggests that when a commitment is made to the students—to fostering relationships, figuring out what they’re good at and developing their skills in those areas, and providing consistent encouragement—learners blossom. Even absent district- or school-wide support, teachers can make that kind of change happen: they can ensure that on the ground a healthy learning environment exists. It frustrates me—as a substitute paraeducator (classroom assistant for special ed kids) in the Portland Public Schools, as a tutor, as an instructor in an outdoor classroom—that not all teachers are able (for whatever reason(s)) to foster a classroom environment of this sort. But I know that it can be done. Maybe it happens in only a small percentage of classrooms, and maybe certain administrative structures are more conducive to making it happen than others; but even under conditions of severe budget shortfall, when more kids than any adult can keep track of are packed into a classroom, some teachers make it work. And what’s more, when those decisions are made, consciously or unconsciously, change moves outward and the school culture changes. It takes time, but it happens.
I use the above close-to-home examples to illustrate the importance of working for change on a small scale. H & the Ls are more policy-focused, as anyone thinking about these issues on a large scale has to be. But even people who aren’t thinking about these issues in the same way are starting to get it, and change things on their own scale. My dad has been telling neighbors and friends about the car he’s going to get; he’ll need to tell those able to buy into the hydrogen car market as soon as it exists to, in the meantime, make their own trips to Honda and do their part to push the fuel cell market forward in PDX. If teachers can make their classrooms work for kids without waiting for an entire district or school system to change, we can make our communities support alternatives without waiting for the federal government to change CAFE standards.
So, changes can happen on the small scale in spite of systemic stagnation. But at the same time more people making their classrooms work (so to speak) makes the district function better, the better a district functions, the better teachers can make their classrooms work. So, I should complement my persistent focus on the small-scale by saying that I do recognize the necessity of large-scale thought and action. I just want to make sure that everyone is doing everything they can, on every scale, to make something like H & the Ls’ vision a reality.