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Frontier Group at 25: 10 blog posts that challenged us to think differently

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Over our 25 year history, most of the work Frontier Group has produced has come in the form of research reports. Reports are where we have put out information that has impacted issues like rooftop solar, highway boondoggles and consumer finance, and for which we’ve designed our coolest charts.

But for writing with a more personal touch, for rapid responses to issues of the day, and for quirkier takes on policy or data, we’ve turned to our blog. And while blog posts tend to be short and sweet, they are also where we do some of our best thinking.

Over the past week, reading through some of our team’s favorite pieces from the last decade-plus, I found myself surprised over and over at just how relevant many pieces felt to things happening in the world today. The following 10 blog posts are special to us because they continue to challenge our thinking – and because they hold continued relevance for our ability to grapple with today’s world and policy issues.

  1. Tony Dutzik’s 2010 blog “Slicks and risks” was published in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The disaster reminded him of the 1984 book Normal Accidents, by Charles Perrow. Tony observed that Perrow, writing more than two decades earlier, described the roots of the disaster perfectly: “[W]e have married incomprehensibly complex organizations and technological systems with exceedingly risky activities, making failure of those systems not only possible, but ultimately unavoidable.” Since 2010, the “normal accident” concept has continued to inform our understanding of manmade disasters, such as Fukushima.
  2. Jordan Schneider’s 2013 blog post opens with a description of how, 60 years ago, “naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that much of the damage humans inflict on the environment is invisible to those without an ecological education.” The result is that, in a time of global warming and massive loss of biological diversity, many of us are “living in a ‘world of wounds’” without even knowing it. Jordan’s insight is that, even for those of us who do environmental research for a living, it can be extremely difficult to remain conscious of changes in the world around us.
  3. Frontier Group director Susan Rakov just wanted to fix a small broken plastic knob on her dryer – but soon found out that the fix would cost her $500. Her resulting blog post is a meditation on the fact that, whether we want to or not, our society today has trapped us in a system of “planned obsolescence and waste.” Susan writes that it’s time to “stop the delicate cycle” – and to understand and overcome the many other ways that our society pushes us to be “reliant on an endless cycle of manufacturing, selling and buying stuff.”
  4. For those of us on the coasts, it can be easy to forget that we don’t have a monopoly on environmental consciousness. In her blog post about a then-under-consideration plastic bag ban in Omaha, Nebraska, R.J. Cross, a native Kansan, points out that environmentalism runs deep in the middle of the country – but that perspectives can be different. Case in point: Nebraskans might not be moved by an “emotional appeal for protecting our oceans,” but are extremely sick of plastic trash blowing down the street or caught up in trees. (Omaha’s battle against litter goes on: The bag ban ultimately passed the city council but was vetoed by the mayor.)
  5. Are you a “foot person” or a “car person”? In James Horrox’s blog about life as a small town northern Brit transplanted to Los Angeles, he writes that he had never considered himself a “foot person” – a term courtesy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But once faced with southern California’s wide highways, and LA’s lack of anything “approaching a functioning public transport system,” he realized how hard it was to feel at home in a place where you need a car to get anywhere.
  6. When Tony Dutzik’s son went from vegetarian to vegan, it meant alterations to the household diet. Tony found that in becoming an unintentional half-vegan, new food like vegan lasagna and parmesan made from cashews represented a change – but not a sacrifice. The food was delicious and exciting in its own way. In light of the societal changes we’ll need to make to confront our great environmental challenges, it’s critical to make this distinction between “change” and “sacrifice.” Minimizing some fossil fuel activities – like endless car commutes – is not a sacrifice at all. Tony describes a far healthier way to look at the world: “[E]ven things that feel like sacrifices can lead to the discovery of new sources of happiness we otherwise never would have discovered.”
  7. From 2018, a lesson in the importance of critical thinking: That year, in a newspaper article from her hometown of Denver, Alana Miller read that the city was rapidly losing natural areas and green space because of population growth and the resulting “high-rise towers, yard-devouring duplexes and shopping plazas.” That’s an analysis that some environmentalists would eat right up, but Alana knew that the story – and hence the policy takeaway – wasn’t quite right. As she wrote, the main culprit for loss of natural space wasn’t the new Denverites, at least not directly. It was, in fact, parking. Denver’s “pavement problem isn’t because of a growing population of people. It’s because of a growing population of cars.”
  8. Any challenge worth solving requires deliberation and compromise – and understanding. My 2020 blog post “Make way for skateparks” describes an instructive and unlikely story from Boston, which started with the artist behind Boston Common’s famous ducklings finding kids skating on, and damaging, another set of her statues. But rather than calling the cops, she built relationships and started a dialogue – and the result was a new skatepark that lives on as a testament to the power of finding common ground.
  9. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Elizabeth Ridlington looked for guidance in the response of Santa Rosa, California, to another recent crisis: wildfires that devastated parts of the city. She found that her community was able to prevent death and limit damage through a communal response: “By evacuating in advance, residents freed first responders to focus on the fire, instead of having to warn residents, rescue people who were trapped, and navigate through traffic.” Elizabeth’s blog reminds us that our ability to be resilient in the face of disaster is in large part about our ability to act together.
  10. In writing about the coronavirus, Jamie Friedman discovered her own lesson in community – one about care and empathy. She wrote about how for a century, her college town had “been a safe haven for the elderly.” But when the pandemic struck, local nursing homes were ravaged. As Jamie watched statistics pile up, she reflected on how easy it can be to get lost in numbers and politics and to lose track of our own individual responsibilities: like not putting others at risk, and caring for the most vulnerable people in our communities.

I love these essays because each one is a window into the minds and hearts of my colleagues as they engaged not just with our usual issues, but with their own personal histories and neighborhoods, perspectives and preconceptions. And each piece is a reminder that, if we are to make real progress toward our shared vision of a more livable and sustainable society, we have to look not only outward – at all of our usual datasets, journal articles, and policy documents – but inward, too.

Satellite imagery of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo: NASA