March 24, 2021

Noting That “Should” Means Little Without “Must” of Policy, Peer Pressure

To the Editor:

An article in last week’s Town Topics [Town and School System Unite to Change Landscaping Practices,” March 17] described grant funding “geared toward developing a financially viable plan to transition away from the practice of landscaping with fossil-fueled equipment.” That long-winded language perfectly captures the double standard that allows us to continue indefinitely abusing nature while taking rapid action to save ourselves. Imagine a year ago if we had responded to the pandemic by seeking a grant to “develop a financially viable plan to transition away from spreading the coronavirus.” Such a response would have been considered absurd. Instead, we took the threat seriously, shut down activities that facilitated spread, then used our resourcefulness to adapt to new realities. Necessity proved the mother of invention.

Yet when it comes to nature, there’s this persistent notion that we must coddle ourselves and nudge the status quo ever so slowly, lest we upset cherished norms. Meanwhile, every day brings another superspreader event as we continue supercharging the atmosphere with planet-heating CO2. We, who are only alive because our bodies strictly regulate CO2 levels in our bloodstream, somehow think we can get away with altering nature’s atmospheric CO2 levels by 50 percent and rising.

Even before the pandemic struck, there was a telling example in Princeton of how real change happens. For years, environmentalists and town staff had regaled residents not to put plastic bags out for recycling. Educational flyers, websites, scolding letters to the editor — all had next to no impact on behavior. Then, in the fall of 2019, crews were told to leave contaminated recyclables uncollected. Residents who found their yellow and green buckets unemptied quickly got the message and changed their behavior. Within a month, plastic bags had disappeared from curbside recyclables.

We think of “education” narrowly as one person intentionally teaching another, but in fact, policy and social norms are the most powerful educators of all. People learn not from brochures, but from what they can get away with. As long as the town tolerates gas-powered leaf blowers and unlimited blowing of leaves into the streets, we will have messy, scarred streets, fumes, and a soul-sucking din.

Back when I was on the Environmental Commission, I worked with the public schools’ landscape crew to blow leaves into woods or under shrubs, or compost them on school grounds rather than truck them out of town. It meant less work, less noise, and less CO2 emissions, but in years since I’ve seen crews backslide to blowing every leaf out from under shrubs and piling them in the street, where town crews must then burn still more gas to haul the leaves away. All that work to educate and shift habits was no match for entrenched policies and social norms.

Of course, environmentalists commendably worked hard to get the recent grants, and will work hard to implement them, aided by advances in electric technology. What we’ve learned, however, from recycling, mask wearing, and leaf blowing, is that the environmentalists’ educational “should” means little without the ultra-educational “must” of policy and peer pressure.

Stephen K. Hiltner
North Harrison Street