In January 2020, I committed to living as locally as possible for one year in my hometown of Mountain View, California, and blog my experiences. I was highly motivated. I felt that our society was drifting toward disaster and that our toxic media environment was speeding that drift. I had developed a mild case of anxiety, something completely new to me. I thought that time spent on local, grassroots action would be a healthy replacement for a heavy online media habit and an antidote for my growing pessimism. I promised to explore living locally on three levels — at the personal, neighborhood, and city-level — and created a laundry list of things to try in each category.
It was slow going at first as I took steps to open channels for engagement. After I launched a Cool Block neighborhood climate action program and the pandemic hit in March, my local activity exploded. Things got a whole lot more local than I expected.
My plans went out the window too. The demands of the pandemic and my interaction with neighbors took things in unexpected yet deeply rewarding directions.
For instance, the Cool Block program spawned multiple, parallel neighborhood projects including a major irrigation system overhaul, regular neighborhood grounds maintenance workdays, a re-negotiated grounds maintenance contract, huge exchanges of goods and ideas facilitated by our new neighborhood Slack channel, and a lot of pandemic-related mutual aid.
I’ve never belonged to such an active neighborhood. The Cool Block program I launched was the catalyst, but most of this activity was led by my neighbors and I just joined in.
When things settled down a bit in the fall, I got back to my list. As I had planned, I switched from a big bank to a credit union, explored our local ecosystem and history, got involved in local elections, explored starting a library of things at our local library, tried on a cosmo-local identity through civic engagement at multiple geographic scales, and continued struggling to reduce my screen time.
Some of these activities resulted in measurable impacts. My Cool Block group reduced annual carbon emissions by 44,148 pounds through 159 actions over six months, our work on grounds reduced water consumption by 62% and saved the community around $25,000, and over 4,400 messages were exchanged on our neighborhood Slack channel.
Last year changed me, perhaps dramatically. While I’m still digesting it, one feeling stands out. I feel deeply humbled. I feel humbled by learning how much I need to know to be a good citizen, how much my success depended on my awesome neighbors, by the enormity of the system change we must undertake, by others who know more about local living, by how much I love and depend on my family, and by how powerfully fate can intervene. Like many, my 2020 was deeply marred by disaster and loss.
What did I learn from such a momentous year? I learned many things. Below are the top 10 lessons learned about local change-making in 2020. Some of these lessons aren’t surprising, but the often painful first-hand experience increased my conviction of long-held hunches.
1. Change takes more time than we give it
We have the most power to make change at the local scale, but Americans only spend about 15 minutes per day on public life total. Little change is possible with such a paltry time commitment. This lesson was hammered home because local life was surprisingly demanding. To change anything, you first need to learn the context including often mind-numbing technical detail. For instance, our neighborhood Cool Block climate change program required us to master a lot of information to make the recommended changes. This was reinforced when repairing our community irrigation system and reviewing city government plans for a car-free downtown Mountain View. To engage effectively, I needed to gain a much wider range of knowledge at a much deeper level than I expected. That takes a lot of time, but learning is just the start. Then the actual work begins. After this experience, I estimate that at least 20% of a local population (i.e., a critical mass) needs to spend two hours a day on public life to have a chance at making the needed changes our age of crisis demands.
2. The promise of replacing screen time with public time
You might be asking, where am I going to get two hours a day for public life? Well, if you’re like the average American, you can carve it out of the three hours a day spent on screen time. Why is this important beyond the obvious? Sociologist Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” fingered the prime culprit in what he saw as a dangerous erosion of social capital in America — TV. Now, twenty years later, we’re surrounded by screens and carry one with us 24/7. In fact, our main interface is screens, not each other. We’re now living with the results. Social capital has been shredded negatively impacting nearly all aspects of life. That’s to be expected as social capital is an enabler of all human activity. A well-functioning society isn’t possible without such things as social connectedness, trust, and reciprocity — the basic components of social capital. Screen time isn’t the only culprit, but reducing it is something each of us can do to reclaim time for public life.
3. Scheduling helped my lifestyle changes stick
Reducing screen time free up a lot of time, but I didn’t know how to organize it at first. I floundered. Cool Block provided some structure, but most of my Cool Block work happened outside of our scheduled meetings. I also started participating in irregularly scheduled neighborhood workdays. This was too chaotic, so I scheduled local activities one hour after work and two hours on Saturday mornings. After I did this, my local life manifested in a much more tangible way. It felt like a true lifestyle change. The bonus was that once I routinized my engagement, I began spending even more time on local year stuff and felt less anxious. As my friend Harald Katzmair once told me, ritual makes time habitable.
4. Public life must become central
The changes I made in 2020 got me thinking about how culture shapes our choices. The changes I made weren’t easy. I swam against the tide. It was exhausting. Why was it so hard to live in a different way? I came to see that we need to radically rethink democracy with the goal to make it central to our way of life. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. and other powerful countries have centered private enterprise, individualism, consumption, entertainment, and small government. In other words, almost everything but public life. To save ourselves, we need to flip the script and center democracy, participation, mutual aid, rule of law, and the common good in everyday life. We need to make these central to our way of life, not just abstract ideals or occasional side projects. Otherwise, we won’t have the civic muscles to meet the existential crises we face today like climate change.
5. Peer support and social infrastructure makes local living easier
While my local year forced me to swim against the tide, everything significant I accomplished was accomplished with others. It takes a village, as they say. This drove home the lesson that if you want to live in a certain way, it’s extremely helpful to be part of a community of practice. Similarly, if you want to center public life, then it helps to belong to a group that enacts that vision in everyday life.
While being part of a community of practice helps, it’s just part of the solution. The Freakonomics podcast episode, “How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution,” documents a telling encounter between Daniel Kahneman and a group of psychologists planning society-scale behavior change initiatives. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in behavioral economics, is invited to advise the group. He bursts everyone’s bubble by saying the best way to change behavior, “…is almost always by controlling the individual’s environment, broadly speaking, by making it easier.” In other words, it’s more effective to create an environment that naturally encourages the behavior than to push people to do it. What’s the point in advocating for change if the environment blocks it? We need more social infrastructure to support more local, civically engaged lives.
6. The ability to live well locally isn’t evenly distributed
It took me a while to realize this, but my choice to go local was privileged. While I faced obstacles, I also had many advantages. My area has a vibrant main street, a good local food system, accessible public transportation, a beautiful library, solid infrastructure, and more. My race and class advantaged me. As another example, I could afford to buy more expensive local food. Bottom line, my choice to go local was a luxury. In other communities, especially BIPOC communities, residents often don’t have that choice. They’re trapped in place by poverty and discrimination. That’s often a life-threatening or potential-stunting reality. We need to make high-quality local living available to everyone to beat wealth inequality, climate change, and other critical challenges. As a start, it’s essential to confront the legacy and reverse the impacts of racist land use and housing policy.
7. Civic life is demanding, but deeply rewarding
Living local full tilt was hard. I often felt overwhelmed. Many times I actually didn’t know what to do. In those cases, managing uncertainty was nearly as taxing as the work itself. It was a messy, exhausting business. Civic life isn’t for the faint of heart or those with little patience or a love of convenience. However, it was deeply satisfying in ways that are central to human well-being. My life gained in purpose and meaning. Participation gave me a greater sense of security and control. I also benefited from increased social connectedness and access to resources. I just felt better about myself and the world. It definitely helped me cope with a year filled with disaster, stress, and loss. However, many of the benefits aren’t immediate. Civic engagement takes a lot of upfront effort but has a big, long-term payoff. Those seeking instant gratification will be greatly disappointed!
8. There’s a huge pent up demand for local action, but it needs to be tapped
If my experience is any guide, then there’s a huge pent up demand for local civic action. I was truly stunned by how active my neighbors became once we set up the Cool Block program and the related Slack channel. The activity literally gushed when the pandemic hit. While some of the activity was pandemic related, most of it wasn’t. I doubt this would’ve happened if there wasn’t a trusted program to catalyze and channel action. Cool Block met the measure. It was a proven program that was sponsored by the city and run by us.
9. Collective action builds hope
I took many small steps with neighbors in 2020. The small steps eventually added up to unexpectedly big changes in our neighborhood. This expanded my sense of possibility, built my confidence, and gave me hope. I went from having a stunted vision of what I could achieve with my neighbors to seeing many exciting possibilities. I had thought that hope was something that you decided to have, that you willed into existence. I now believe it’s something you can deliberately build through collective action. I learned that hope built on the foundation of shared success, no matter the size, is a powerful thing.
10. You protect what you know and love
I feel like a fool that there were so many wondrous things right under my nose that I paid little attention to, especially my neighbors. Thankfully, I got to know them like never before. I also learned more about the land I live on, the species of trees in our neighborhood, countless details about our irrigation system, how much water we use annually, the number of homes in our complex, and more. I also learned about the history, culture, and foodways of our region. It’s a rich and delicious legacy. Many of the things I learned are so basic I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know them before. This suggests to me how drastically I misallocated my attention before 2020. I knew more about global brands, internet memes, and celebrities than my immediate surroundings. This was simply a function of my choice to spend a lot of time online. No surprise, getting to know my hometown led me to become more fond of it. That’s not an unimportant detail as environmentalists have long known that people only protect what they know and love. I hadn’t thought of this as a local social change strategy, but now it’ll be top of mind as I continue working with neighbors to improve the place we share.