I got an email today from one of my all-time favorite organizations, Sightline Institute, that just blew me away. This is one of the best tellings of an organziation’s history that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s succinct, personal, filled with rich, specific imagery (especially for an organization that mainly trades in data and policy!) and best of all, it places the reader into the story. Sightline has a long history of top-notch writing, so it’s no surprise to seem them hit it out of the park. Any organization looking to tell its story better could learn a ton from studying this single email closely.
Twenty years ago, I lugged a refurbished library table into my cramped bedroom closet, drilled a phone line through the wall, and let myself begin to heed the mission that had been calling me: to make the Pacific Northwest a global model of sustainability.
Daunted but unswayed by the audacity of this goal, I began to do what I have been doing ever since: describing the challenge to others. And then as now, they—you—joined me. You brought your talent, grit, generosity, and faith, and the result was Sightline Institute, then called Northwest Environment Watch.
Sightline grew through eighteen books, scores of reports, hundreds of speeches, and thousands of articles and blog posts. It grew from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of monthly readers, each a force for change in his or her own community. It grew to reach media audiences tallied in the tens of millions and to shape the thoughts of governors, senators, and CEOs.
In time, it grew influential enough to leave fingerprints on Cascadia’s future. In our first decade, we launched Stuff, studied in hundreds of classrooms and in tens of thousands of copies. We planted the seeds for a carbon tax-shift in British Columbia. We coined the term “green-collar jobs,” words that would eventually issue from the lips of presidents.
In our second decade, we inspired bold commitments to compact urban growth in key Cascadian cities. We prompted new rules on toxic flame retardants by studying chemicals in breast milk. We played midwife to pay-by-the-mile car insurance and peer-to-peer car-sharing. We designed regional carbon-pricing policies and brought them close to adoption. We unmasked the dangers of Big Coal’s export plans, revealed the folly of urban highway expansion, and championed a new, green approach to managing the rainwater that falls on our communities. Sightline’s fingerprints, your fingerprints, are on all these things and more—much more.
Now, today, pausing for a quiet moment in Sightline’s Seattle offices—brimming as usual with passionate and intelligent people—I stand in awe of these accomplishments. They have been improbable, considering that Sightline’s annual budget makes us account for just two one-millionths of the regional economy. In the animal kingdom, we would be like a gnat trying to steer an elephant.
Yet I am filled with hope for the years ahead. The challenge is no less daunting than ever, but we have grown, in concert with you—our friends, supporters, and allies—into a force to reckon with. Sightline’s influence has never been a function of our mass. It is a function of the light you help us spread. Comets such as Halley’s are less than one ten-billionth the mass of the Earth, yet they’ve been known to change the course of history. Sightline’s strategy is comet-like: a small nucleus of staff and board plus a long tail of supporters and allies. Shining outward from this body, our ideas, presented well, can attract the attention of millions and even define a new direction.
A Cascadia worthy of our grandchildren and theirs is more attainable than ever before. But it is certainly not inevitable. It’s a possibility only—a possibility whose realization depends entirely on what we in this generation choose to do. In the span of 240 months, Sightline, now giant compared with my bedroom closet but still minuscule compared with the region we aim to influence, has begun to shift the public agenda in a region of 17 million people. It’s only a beginning, but, I hope you agree, it’s a promising one. Just think what we can do together in another 20 years!
In the next two decades, together, we will shine even brighter. We can put a price on carbon. Indeed, we can move the region along the path that leads beyond carbon and dirty fuels entirely, to clean energy. We can make prices tell the ecological truth in other ways, too: from pollution to traffic congestion to habitat destruction, we can better align the power of markets with the conservation of our natural inheritance—of Creation. We can measure what matters, replacing GDP with better indicators of progress. Through better reproductive health technologies and policies, we can help create a Cascadia in which every child is born wanted; we can help men and women have the families they want, when they want them, even as we temper population growth. We can build complete, compact, walkable communities—places where motorized travel is less common because less necessary. All these things and more we can do.
Twenty years ago, I was the one at the library table in the closet signing the papers to incorporate Sightline, but the resulting improbable cavalcade of hope has never been about me. It’s been about you: Your love for this place on Earth. Your confidence that we can do better, that we can build an economy and way of life that can last. Your faith that we, here, can set an example for the world.
For your love, confidence, and faith, I thank you. Here’s to the next 20!
Alan Durning Executive Director