By: Kristina Gutchess
The future of sustainable changes in the current era of environmental setbacks – that of widespread climate change denial, the approval of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and major budget cuts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health– is unclear.
In 1999, the infamous “Hockey Stick Graph” was published Mann, Bradley & Hughes in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters. The graph depicts the global mean temperature record over the past 500 - 2000 years determined by climate reconstructions and is revered as awakening the public to human-induced climate change. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the Third Assessment Report for Policymakers, in which the Hockey Stick Graph was included. Since then there was been an increase in individual interests in green practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This concern has become so prominent in some U.S. communities that a new movement has branched out from traditional environmentalist groups - The Climate Movement.
Sustainability-based grassroots organizations have sprouted up across the United States in the 21st century – from Sustainable Tucsan to Sustainable Pittsburgh. Since the mid-1990’s alone, well over 50 independent organizations have established their roots in over 30 states. Individual community members are coming together to initiate sustainable changes across economic, ecological and societal sectors. Instead of relying on elected representatives to initiate a traditional top-down response, individuals, businesses and communities across the U.S. are taking actions to lessen the impacts of humans on the climate and in doing so, strengthening the roots of this movement.
Even in places as seemingly remote as upstate New York, community based non-profit organizations geared towards educating the public about sustainable living have begun to develop. At the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, one of the longest and deepest of New York’s eleven Finger Lakes, lies the city of Ithaca, New York. Sustainable Tompkins, a citizen-based coalition working towards long-term well-being of local communities began in Ithaca in 2004 as an idea that has since grown into a well-established forum for social, environmental and economic change.
The costs to install bike racks, like those pictured here, have been offset by through Sustainable Tompkins' programs. Since 2008, the Neighborhood Mini-grants Program has awarded funding for the installation of approximately 7 bike racks in Tompkins County.
In 2012, the Ithaca Health Alliance was awarded $500 to install forced-air hand dryers to eliminate paper towel waste.
Start-up funds for sustainable community gardens and composting projects are commonly funded by the Finger Lakes Mini-grants Program.
Many mini-grant awards serve to educate the public about sustainable living practices. In 2008, $400 was awarded to the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute for launching the Maple Sugaring Education - an educational program which included hands-on syrup tapping.
The Finger Lakes Climate Fund is a local carbon-offset fund that individuals can use to help those that are in need join the transition away from carbon energy. Grants are awarded to low-income households to fund projects to reduce their carbon footprint that would not otherwise be possible given their financial constraints.
Carbon offset donations are used for grants to fund energy efficiency projects that would be unlikely to be implemented otherwise in low to moderate income households in the Finger Lakes region. These grants help pay for insulation, air sealing, energy efficient heating equipment, and other upgrades to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
“We are just trying to support people in making these changes. We are at risk of leaving lower income people behind stuck on fossil fuels. It’s a way of helping the community and the local economy in general,” Dr. Nicholson adds in regards to the success of the Neighborhood Mini-grant program and the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.
Dr. Nicholson in part credits the success of Sustainable Tompkins to the City of Ithaca’s longstanding reputation as being especially socially progressive, while maintaining a certain amount of environmental awareness - essentially a recipe for sustainability success.
“When we started, Sustainable Tompkins was the only sustainability group around. As a result of our activities, people started thinking about what they were interested in doing,” says Dr. Nicholson.
“One of the key roles that we’ve had is about being the pioneer – introducing people to what’s out there in the world of sustainability. If you are going to wake people up, you need to be ready with some infrastructure to support them.”
Just east of Tompkins County, another sustainability-based group has established its roots and emerged as a forum for social and environmental change in Upstate New York. Sustainable Cortland, founded in Cortland County in 2010, grew out of a conversation about community issues related to climate change, energy depletion and economic instability.
“It became apparent that we needed a sustainability organization that would focus on educating community members about sustainability topics including climate change,” current president Dr. Beth Klein comments.
Sponsored events hosted by the organization range from lectures by invited speakers to a series of Do it Yourself (DIY) workshops to encourage participants to reduce consumption habits by creating their own resources and keeping materials out of landfills. Lectures typically focus on climate change and sustainability related topics, while individual workshops may range from mozzarella making and bread baking to upcycling, making a compost bin and even solar panel installation. Workshops in the DIY series focus on educating the public on how prior generations used to live – by growing and canning their own food, reusing materials, etc.
“That’s really what people want to see,” says Dr. Klein of the DIY series.
Sustainable Cortland's DIY workshop series are one of the most popular events that the organization hosts and often focus on introducing people to diffferent aspects of sustainable living - such as bread baking.
Cheese making is another popular workshop in the DIY series.
A recent solarize event co-hosted by Sustainable Cortland attracted over 60 attendees from throughout the county. Representatives from seven local solar panel installation companies were available to answer questions about going solar. Meeting attendees were able to sign up for up to three free solar assessments for possible installations at their homes.
Sustainable Cortland has worked closely with the City of Cortland Environmental Advisory Committee and the Cortland Area Chamber of Commerce to ensure the promotion of sustainable practices across the city. A joint initiative with the Downtown Partnership and the Cortland Area Chamber of Commerce, entitled “Local to Our Core,” was a campaign to encourage businesses to provide local products by educating individuals of the benefits of buying local.
“Since that kicked off there have been more local foods in restaurants,” Dr. Klein states, regarding this initiative as particularly successful.
Throughout the growth of the organization, Dr. Klein emphasizes that education has remained their primary mission,
“When you are forming an organization, people like to get together - when they actually are able to create something that they can use - those kinds of things bring people together.”