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May 04, 2009
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The Wind in What’s Left of My Hair

What a beautiful spring morning in otherwise humid and hot South Florida. I have left for work at 7:30 a.m. on my half-hour commute.

The top is down on the Jeep convertible, the temperature is 70 degrees and satellite radio is featuring the Bach “Toccata and Fugue.” I have it turned up loud, although I sadly lack a high-powered booming sub-woofer so that I can thoroughly annoy all the surrounding drivers when I stop at a traffic light. It is one of those mornings where you are very glad you are alive.

On the other hand, I realize that the gas mileage on my beautiful yellow Jeep is terrible and that it is certainly not a vehicle which reflects care and stewardship of the planet. Perhaps it can be replaced in the future by a yellow, four-wheel drive Prius.

That’s the subject of this article — the internal conflict in the American conscience about being “green” and living in a nation that consumes more energy than any other in the history of the planet. This is an international conflict, a local one and one occurring inside this author’s mind even while dictating this article.

The moments of joy we find in that celebrated American institution, the car, and its first cousin, the long commute, will be evolving. This evolution has implications for each of us, our families and our communities, and certainly for the workplace.

For most of America, mass transit is not popular and not the transportation method of choice. As we ran out of “frontiers” to explore and to move to in the last century, the internal combustion engine and the chance to “go for a drive” began appearing as a substitute to the adventure of moving west to settle in a new frontier.

While about 17 percent of Americans move every year, probably none pack up everything in a covered wagon and move to a farm homestead on a prairie. That engrained American concept of going off to the frontier with its unknowns, its excitement and its dangers was replaced in the past couple of generations by auto trips, RVs and SUVs. 

Despite how exciting this can be, and with love and respect for the auto and RV industries, we are approaching a point during my children’s lifetime where that engrained behavior will come crashing into reality. The reality is that the internal combustion engine is increasingly inconsistent with long-term human survival. We are whittling down the remaining oil supplies on the planet and the huge worldwide infrastructure built around oil.

We face geopolitical consequences such as a continuing or growing instability in oil-producing countries, political “mischief” to align ourselves with oil-producing governments, and debates about the nuclear versus coal versus oil power industries.

We will find increasing social and economic challenges to our current models of thinking and behaving at work and at home.

After all, how many mass transit executives rely on mass transit to go to work? How many environmental protection professionals rely on mass transit? The answers are indicators of the essential problem. Imagining that we will always remain at the top of the international “food chain” is unrealistic and leads to poor and destructive public policy decisions. 

If our transit is to truly become “mass” rather than a social service underpinning disguised as viable mass transit, there is considerable work for the planning community to undertake to make living in a higher-density urban area more attractive, economically viable, socially acceptable and personally convenient. 

If we harness America’s advertising and marketing machine to help by showing our celebrity gods and goddesses using bus systems, it might be more exciting and more acceptable.

Perhaps Jason Taylor, the football player, can be photographed dancing down the aisle of a 40-passenger diesel bus — with only two or three other passengers on board! 

In most mass transit systems, fare box revenue simply does not pay for the cost of the service.

The answer might include boldly eliminating passenger fares entirely. We must come to recognize that only by making mass transit compellingly attractive, will we begin to chip away at the habits and entitlements commuters see. We must come to realize that a better model is worth a try. This will be a long climb for an entrenched mindset to change.

Significant amounts of the work that government executives do can be done by remote technology, including video conferencing. Besides remote technology as a more commonly accepted basis for work, we must focus more on work team efficiency and cohesiveness, and personal self actualization. 

The time wasted on our average daily 43-mile commutes could be used far more wisely in relaxation, learning, coaching our children, volunteering in the community or dreaming. As someone who has visited Europe many times speaking at public administration conferences and engaging many of my European friends, I believe the saying is true that “Americans live to work while Europeans work to live.” We take less vacation time. We are not as well traveled or fluent in multiple languages, nor as comfortable in multiple cultures.

As the HR Doctor’s family discovered, it is amazing to see the positive impact on your children’s growth and maturity when you invite exchange students to live with your family. In the case of the Rosenbergs, our house was honored to have seven exchange students over the years. The result had a significant and positive effect on the beautiful HR daughters.

These exchange students are smart, adventurous, multilingual and kind people who have a lot to share and a lot to be curious about. In a global economy, having business and government “exchange” colleagues spend time as a  regular feature in your agency will have a similar enriching impact on staff development. As a side benefit, imagine the great answering machine recordings by a person with a classy British, French, Spanish or other accent.

Thinking about the future of our planet and our communities creates considerable dissonance when it is stacked up against the reality of how our society is structured.

The HR Doctor, who loves national parks, is a member of the Sierra Club, has planted 10,000 trees on forest land in California and enjoys hiking, is having a wonderful time in a vehicle which is fuel inefficient.  He lives in over-crowded South Florida society. This is a region of perhaps 100 different public agencies competing with one another on issues as diverse as how many fire departments or police agencies (or HR departments, for that matter) are really needed, how many poorly regulated zoning areas are tolerable, how many high school students will not graduate, and much more.

Agencies are often quick to make sweeping and positive commitments, such as “anywhere in 20 minutes” but only marginally able to marshal the resources and the will power to deliver on the promises. That must change — and soon.  Our traditional reliance on the hope of some breakthrough technology to save the day is not likely to appear fast enough or strongly enough to overcome the tremendous inertia of ingrained political and personal habits.

Resolving dissonance means having a vision and taking deliberate and consistent steps to bring vision and reality closer together. The opposite of dissonance is harmony.

While this article might have started out about the joy of driving a favorite car with the wind blowing in what’s left of my hair, it is really about the increasingly urgent policy and behavioral “brain transplants” needed to be in harmony with the survival of the our real community — the earth!

As that famous retired elected official, Kermit the Commissioner, said, “It’s not easy being green.” However it is increasingly critical and compelling.

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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