New Year. New Website. New Ways of Thinking About Sustainability.

Caption: The author lounging outside our residence hall at Dartmouth during one of the few quiet moments of the summer. One of my earliest permaculture instructors, Javier Carrera, thought relaxing in a hammock was the epitome of luxury.

I have spent a great deal of time over the past four months rebuilding the Sustainable Summer website from scratch. This post isn’t really about our new website, but it is certainly relevant. Although I work in the sustainability education field, I’m also a self-taught website developer. I first started fiddling around with coding in 2007 and have gradually added programming competence over the years. I’ve built a few client websites here and there, but never had any real interest in being a full-time professional programmer for reasons I won’t go into here.

Most years I have a Sustainable Summer web project or two that I tackle in the fall. For example, in Fall 2019 I put in several hours closing the loop so to speak on our Letter of Recommendation process so that it is entirely “hands-off” for administrators. It works pretty much the same way as the Common App. Applicants log in to our website and request a Letter of Rec as part of their application. Teachers receive a unique link to submit the Letter of Rec. When the Letter of Rec is submitted, the applicant’s application status is automatically updated. Compared to the alternatives of mailed or emailed Letters of Rec, this is much simpler for the student, the teacher, and our admissions team. While this is hardly a critical aspect of our organization’s operational needs, the business case for this sort of time (or financial) investment is pretty clear when you’re dealing with hundreds of Letters of Rec submissions, even for a relatively small organization like Sustainable Summer.

So, what does this have to do with sustainability? A lot.

Let me draw on permaculture to make one of several points. In conventional agriculture, the farmer is fighting nature to grow food. The farmer wants to produce corn or beans or wheat or whatever, but nature has other ideas. Weeds, pests, drought, etc won’t allow it unless nature is fundamentally altered through the use of herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, etc. In permaculture, the farmer works with nature, not against it. Polycultures instead of monocultures and the use of no till agriculture and integrated pest management practices, for example. The permaculturalist plans to work hard to design and build a food production system at the outset, but is actually pretty lazy and hates the thought of using all the energy common in conventional ag (both physical labor and petroleum derived energy inputs) year after year. In permaculture, we figure out how to allow nature to do most of the work for us, typically at a pretty small scale, so that we can spend our precious time on what matters most to us.

I think about a lot of Sustainable Summer’s business operations in a similar way. Technology is obviously not a stand-in for nature, but you’ll find a lot of tech people in the “permaculture movement” probably because technologists can be similarly obsessed with efficiency. Although it isn’t exactly an earth-shattering notion that a business wants to automate whatever it can thereby saving time and money, the degree to which we have used technology to automate operations is likely unprecedented in our field, at least in relation to our size and resources. It isn’t that I dislike talking to parents or students; I actually rather enjoy having the opportunity to communicate with prospective families about our programs. However, I like the permaculturalist, am lazy. Why would I want to answer the same parent questions by phone or email when a thoughtfully designed website, enrollment process, and pre-program experience can do it for me while providing convenience to families? Why would I want my team and I to manually process applications, Letters of Recommendation, travel itineraries, medical forms, financial aid documents, invoices, payments, etc. when our back-end technology can do it all for us without human error? Thank you, but I’d rather spend my time on the vastly more interesting work of designing and running our educational programs, strategic planning, or pretty much anything else that can’t be routinized. Time is, after all, our most valuable commodity.

And this actually isn’t the main point I want to make, however before I do, many readers may be thinking something along the lines of, well, duh. But why build all this technology yourself when you could buy a software suite or contract someone to build something custom. We do use a few platforms (for bookkeeping, CRM, and marketing), which have been integrated with our website. These are robust, secure, fairly priced, and specialized towards a specific functional need. On the other hand, I am not a fan of the software suites designed for schools or non-profits that many organizations rely on. They are expensive and clunky, but schools use them because they are nervous institutions and take comfort in doing what their peer schools are doing, no matter how flawed the offering. We spend comparatively almost nothing (about 0.04%) of our operating budget on technology that does exactly what we want.

On the other hand, I could hire this sort of development work out to someone who does it full-time professionally and who could probably have completed the assignment in less time and with fewer glitches to be patched later. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the opportunity cost of me NOT working on the sort of tasks and projects that are core to Sustainable Summer’s mission outstrips whatever money we saved by doing this work internally. I don’t totally dispute this notion on its merits. I think this is ultimately a better solution for many small organizations than buying an all-in-one technology suite.

However, in my case, I actually really enjoy the problem solving and creativity of programming. I derive significant personal satisfaction from the technology projects that we implement at Sustainable Summer. Furthermore, I don’t think personal satisfaction should be mutually exclusive from business goals. Some of us are lucky enough to work for organizations that reflect our personal values and nurture our interests and talents in ways that directly and indirectly advance the organization’s mission. I can’t claim to be an expertise on this, certainly not for an organization beyond our very small scale, but there is ample evidence that when people have autonomy, are creatively engaged with their work, and feel aligned with the organization’s mission, everyone does better. Again, in my case, the experience of starting and (slowly) growing a non-profit organization has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs; of tremendous satisfaction and depressing frustration, often in the same day!

I am fortunate to possess a professional skillset that makes me employable (in a much more remunerative capacity) should I ever want to leave the organization that I founded. The thought has certainly crossed my mind on multiple occasions, but I choose to continue to work on Sustainable Summer. Why? Because it is only here that I can work on what I really want. I still take out the proverbial trash and drudge through work I really don’t care for, but have to do (like audits and HR compliance). However, I spend most of my time working on interesting and challenging problems, often teaching myself new skills along the way. The seasonality of our work also lends itself to the sort of in-depth engagement with a project that can be particularly rewarding. It also means that I and my team can take several weeks off every year to explore our personal interests or learn new skills in an intensive multi-week course. There is real value, well beyond that which we are compensated monetarily for, in having this as a profession. At the dawn of a new decade, I thought I would publicly restate that because I sometimes lose sight of it.

I’ve been reading Paul Wheaton’s book Building a Better World in Your Backyard: Instead of Being Angry at Bad Guys and it helped crystallize some of my thinking about the work we do at Sustainable Summer, my role in that work, and the life I want to lead. Certainly, Paul has some provocative ideas about specific environmental problems (for example, he is a proponent of incandescent light bulbs). However his central message is that politics and activism and preaching environmentalism aren’t going to solve these problems. Instead, as people implement sustainability solutions into our own lifestyles and demonstrate to others that these solutions are not only achievable, but make for a more “luxuriant” lifestyle, than eventually enough people will want to adopt these practices that the biggest problems will be solved. It is a “have your cake and eat it too” approach to sustainability, which is refreshing since so much of the talk on the topic lately frames the choices consumers must make as stark sacrifices. I won’t go into Wheaton’s solutions in this post or how he conceives of “luxuriant” other than to say that he, being a permaculturalist, considers time and health to be the ultimate luxuries.

Wheaton’s mandate to simply live sustainably and forget about protesting fracking and whatnot (especially if you heat your home on natural gas, as many do), reminds me of one of my all-time favorite sustainability articles, Michael Pollan’s Why Bother. Pollan asks us to start a garden with the thinking being that if enough of us do so eventually it will snowball into the sort of wholesale societal change that makes all of the solutions that seem so impossible today a reality. Wheaton claims that if 20% of the population implemented half the solutions in his book, it would solve the biggest global problems. Both authors agree that telling others to be more green is, at best, ineffective. Showing, not telling, is the only way to change people’s behavior.

Wheaton also places the sharing of knowledge as a high ideal. In fact, he considers being compensated for teaching sustainability and sustainable living is one of the markers of living a luxuriant life as he would define it. So, at least according to the Wheaton Eco Scale we are doing something right here at Sustainable Summer (although my own personal sustainability score on another one of his many fun, and self-admittedly flawed rubrics was only better than about half the planet’s population).

With these things in mind, I am setting a new year’s goal to do more “showing” and “sharing” on this website. It is something we haven’t done much of here because I’ve discounted its appropriateness within the scope of what we do at Sustainable Summer and what purpose this website should serve. I also don’t want to write about abstract notions; only things of which I have first-hand experience. Also, as I mentioned previously, I’m lazy and it is a lot of work creating good content. But I’ve come up with a pretty good list of topics to write about that I hope prove to be helpful examples for others to follow. They are:

  • Taking my two kids to school on a cargo bike every day
  • Leading an initiative to install solar panels on my apartment building’s roof
  • Building interior storm windows
  • Air sealing and caulking to save energy
  • Installing a ground source heat pump
  • Installing a wood-burning stove
  • Green roofs and stormwater management
  • Urban composting
  • Sheet mulching
  • Building a bench from a log
  • Growing an avocado tree from a pit
  • Building a bridge from reclaimed I-beams
  • Building a table from reclaimed lumber
  • Living in a 950sf apartment with a family of four
  • Living in a 680sf apartment with a family of four
  • Building a carbon-optimized website
  • Harvesting bat guano
  • Insulating a barn

Anyway, this is a starting list of things that I have been working on in the last couple of years that I think will make for interesting blog posts. Well, they interest me as a writer. Whether they prove to be interesting to readers remains to be seen.

Here’s to a happy and sustainable 2020 and beyond!