Raising the Bar

10/30/2007 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When public expectations are soaring, and the old "can't do" attitudes are breaking down, a challenge for all kinds of leaders is figuring out just how great a leap forward is doable and when getting there a step at a time becomes wimpiness. Here in Seattle, a division among the environmental community brings this into sharp relief. The state's political leadership has put a combined transit/highway funding program on the ballot. The transit piece is excellent. BUT, the highway component builds 182 miles of new highways and will increase traffic 40 percent.

The two were put together not because they make a good programmatic fit -- they actually conflict -- but because politically it made it easier to get needed support for the $18 billion in funding. Most of the political leadership in the state -- even strong environmentalists -- supports it as a pragmatic compromise. But King County Executive Ron Sims has come out strongly against the proposal.

The Sierra Club's Cascade Chapter, too, has opposed this awkward stitching together of good transit proposals with new roads. Initially, it looked like we would be a lonely voice in the wilderness. But now voters are waking up, and new polling indicates that Washington state may score another first: turning down a roads proposal because of its impact on global warming.

And looking to the southeast, we can see that Salt Lake City has already become a trail-breaking transit innovator, transferring dollars from highways to transit -- instead of trading off highway and transit funding in a political deal.

This is another example of the need to match rising public expectations with higher, very much not business-as-usual policy goals and approaches. And only a steadily rising bar can meet the world's needs. The days of doing it the way we always have are over. As the New York Times recently reported, for example, even significant improvements in the amount of CO2 released in making a ton of cement will get totally overwhelmed if we keep on expanding the amount of cement we need every year for things like highways. We need a new approach. And the UN recently reported that, globally, for the first time, science can measure the fact that current human pressures on ecosystems exceed global resource availability.

It is a tricky call -- how dramatically can you change expectation, how high can you raise the bar, and still clear it? Our strategy is to take risks on the high side -- because that's the only pathway that offers us real hope.