How Small Moments Can Add Up to Saving the World

“Dad, what do you do for a job?”

As parents, we often get this question from our children. For me, as a long-time professional environmental campaigner and policy hack, the answer has never been easy. The issues I have worked to address and solve – from energy use and efficiency, to climate change and its myriad adverse impacts – are complicated to explain and can be difficult for a child to understand.

I tell him, “Your dad and all the people he works with are trying to save the world, son.” As preposterous as that sounds, it is the job I have – and I sometimes struggle to help my son understand why I care so much about it.

A few weeks ago, Ethan (age 11) and I were walking the family dog. As we walked by a parked police cruiser, I noticed a decal on the vehicle that stated “Anti-Idling Technology – Sustainability DC.”

I stopped in my tracks and excitedly pointed out the decal, telling Ethan that I was the one who started the city program in Washington, DC that began installing anti-idling controllers on police cars.

I explained to him that when I worked for the District Department of the Environment, our mayor at the time, Mayor Vincent Gray, launched a grant program to invest $2 million in local sustainability programs. A total of 12 grants were awarded, two of which were written and submitted by me, including one to invest $132,500 in purchasing and installing idle controllers on police cars.

As we stood there next to the cruiser talking, the police office assigned to the car approached, asking if there was anything she could help us with. “No,” I assured her, “I was just telling my son about how I started the program that got the idling controller put on your car.”

“You did that?!” she asked, much more enthusiastically than I had expected. She went on to say how much she appreciated not having to breathe the exhaust from running the car constantly to power the lights and communications (idle control devices simply cycle the engine on and off depending on the strength of the battery charge, saving gas and cutting air pollution by significant amounts), and how, in her words, “We all have to do whatever we can to protect our planet.”

“Young man,” she said to Ethan as she climbed into the cruiser, “your father has made a big difference in this city. Thank you.”

I admit that I was very proud the day I won the grant the allowed the police department to start installing these simple but effective devices on their fleet. And I was thrilled to attend the ceremony where Mayor Gray handed the oversized check to our police Chief

But nothing can describe the feeling I had in this moment, enjoying the praise of a member of the police force who genuinely appreciated the difference this one small accomplishment of mine had made on her daily quality of life, and the quality of our city.

“Wow, dad, that is cool,” said Ethan. “I know,” I replied, and we continued to walk the dog.

Here in Washington, DC, investments in policies and programs aimed at improving air quality, energy efficiency, transportation alternatives, and a host of other urban sustainability measures have been building over the past decade, initiated by one mayor, sustained and expanded by the next, an institutionalized by yet the next. Through the tenures of four mayors, and into today through the ongoing commitment of Mayor Muriel Bowser, Washington has emerged from an urban sustainability backwater to among the most heralded leaders of the movement in America.

Through their commitment to local sustainability, local elected leaders and the people who work for them are building legacies in their cities. Legacies founded on hard work, tough choices, and smart investments, and sustained – one mayor to the next – by the understanding that handing over a more prosperous, more livable and efficient, and cleaner city to our children is a small but meaningful part of saving the world.

But just as important as the policies and programs we advance are the conversations we have about what it means to live in cleaner and healthier cities. Conversations like this one, spurred by a simple decal on a police cruiser, that drew a police officer, my son, and myself into a moment where we could all agree that small actions add up to big changes. Conversations, like this one, where the ambition of saving the world can be summed up in a small, simple, round window decal on a police car.

Unfortunately, my son is still a bit confused about what his father does for a living. 

Now he thinks I’m an auto mechanic.

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