Do you think you could perform 3,500 sustainable actions in a weekend? Probably not. But what if hundreds of other people helped you, people with terrific skills and huge enthusiasm? Could you do it then?
Trathen Heckman thinks you could do it, and have fun, too. This former professional snowboarder, Fortune 500 technologist, and board president of Transition US, is the founder of Daily Acts, a Petaluma, California, nonprofit that promotes positive examples of community action. Daily Acts is based on one core insight: you and every choice you make matters, and those choices can ripple out to build a healthier, more sustainable community.
Trathen founded Daily Acts in 2002, growing community and eventually building a website where volunteers can register their actions. In 2010, Daily Acts had grown to set the audacious goal of planting 350 new gardens in the community, in resonance with 350.org. The group enlisted neighbors and friends who blew past the 350 goal, planting 628 gardens.
Striving to be as inclusive as possible, Daily Acts expanded their actions to include opportunities for apartment dwellers, schools, churches, local businesses, and public spaces. Actions now include growing food, conserving energy, saving water, greening your ride, living local, and building community. They surpassed their 2012 goal of 1,000 actions, achieving over 2,300 registered positive actions in a single day. “So we freaked ourselves out with a really big goal this year,” said Trathen. “We’re going for 3,500 registered actions on May 18-19.”
You have probably heard “every choice you make matters” before, but what’s unique about Daily Acts is its ability to count and map the cumulative activities of its members, then provide this feedback to the community, building enthusiasm and momentum.
“We measure to manage results, but also because it’s a meditation on our relationship with time and stuff,” Trathan said. “For example, I started out by weighing my recycling. Pretty soon I realized the goal should not be how much you recycle, but how little. What I mean is that if we put nothing in the trash or recycle bin, that would be the ideal state.”
A few years ago, Daily Acts literally took their challenge to city hall. They convinced the City of Petaluma to let volunteers reclaim 25,000 square feet of public turf and replace it with a “food forest” grown according to permaculture principles. Today at City Hall, you can harvest tree fruit, artichokes, strawberries, and thornless blackberries where once only thirsty grass had been. The city was so inspired by the transformation that they donated sheet mulch for 500 household lawns, enough to save the city millions of gallons of water a year.
“These eco-design solutions are becoming part of our culture, and those skills scale up,” said Trathen. “A few years ago, a lot people had never heard of greywater recycling or sheet mulch. Now it’s the cool thing to do.” So cool, in fact, that Daily Acts has influenced state water policy, which now permits home recycling systems on a laundry-to-landscape model. And to show support for more sustainable business practices, they encouraged Congressman Jared Huffman to author California’s B Corp legislation.
“These are transition-powered, people-powered, low tech, low cost solutions. I’m using 60-70 percent fewer resources, it’s amazingly fun, it’s way cheaper, and it actually feels better,” said Trathen. He has invented a term to describe his improved quality of life: Sustainable Hedonism.
“The most accessible system you have is your own two hands. You don’t need to have all the answers or the skills. You can come together with other people, learn as you go, and you don’t need to be afraid of making small mistakes. Archimedes said, ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.’ That’s what these community actions do,” said Trathen. “They move the world every day.”