03/12/2013 03:25 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

When They Think Small, We Stay Home

Only 16 percent of Los Angeles' registered voters turned out in the March primary election. Here we are: Our public schools can't afford to keep their doors open for a full school year; our families and friends are usually many miles away with no economical, efficient way for many of us to see them; and many of our roads look like they've been transplanted from Kabul. Nonetheless, 84 percent of the people in the city who had the potential to change something decided, for one reason or another, that doing so wasn't worth their time.

No one needs a lecture on the consequences of voter apathy because I think we all know them. We live them. Debating sound bytes is easy. Insisting on solutions to problems that decision-makers tell us either aren't really problems or aren't really solvable is hard. We see this cycle frequently -- when gas prices rise, for instance: People complain. Policymakers do a lot of teeth gnashing about pursuing alternative energy sources with the same fervor with which we pursued putting a man on the moon. Certain interested groups say the energy "question" is not a problem at all or otherwise propose solutions that are not designed to address the question on a long term basis. We get bored watching the debate about whether the problem we all knew was a problem really is a problem after all.We then remember that we have better things to do than listen to the same tired debate over and over again and completely lose interest -- until, finally, gas prices rise (again) and we complain.

It's curious that our policy debates are so redundant when there are so many interesting things taking place in the country. There is a machine called a plasma converter, for instance, that can convert waste into syngas, which can then be used to produce electricity. You probably couldn't afford your own but a municipality possibly could; in fact, a city that had a reliable and usable syngas output might have public schools that could afford to stay open all year. Whether such an investment (perhaps as a municipal bond measure) would be well-advised is a different question for another day but it is worth pointing out that some localities have in fact experimented with approaches that previously might have been considered "unrealistic." The housing and community services agency in one Oregon county, for instance, coordinated weatherization services as part of a solar water heating project in low-income homes to help reduce heating costs.

It is not impossible to think differently. The question is: Who starts? Is it the 84 percent who stayed home during the last election, who at some point hopefully will create a climate supportive of candidates who advocate innovative solutions to long-simmering problems? Or is it political decision-makers, who when faced with contentious primary challenges and an influx of cash from status quo preservers, will nonetheless take an expected yet heroic stand for the future while risking his or her ability to stay in office long enough to implement something new?

That was a loaded question, obviously.