A glimpse at what it really takes

I recently traveled to an ivy*-covered town in upstate New York for a professional development program. Ithaca, NY, is home to several post-secondary institutions, most notably Cornell University. I didn’t know that it is also home to a remarkable leader in the sustainability movement and that I would have the chance to work with her and her organization during my stay.

Gay Nicholson has devoted the last seven years to establishing a regional organization whose main goal is to promote a ‘systems’ approach to sustainability in the area. She’s a big picture thinker who sees how all the threads of society interweave and tries to find ways to help people work together to create a more sustainable local community.

She claims the organization is at the forefront of the sustainability movement in North America – though I haven’t done the research, I have no reason to doubt her. The big differentiator being her whole system approach. Where other organizations focus more narrowly on environmental issues, or social justice issues, or economic development issues… she’s focused on all three, and how each one relates to the other. And, though she is very well informed about global issues, her work is very deliberately local.

To give you a clearer picture of what this means in practice, I’ll use the example of her group’s carbon offset program (just one of dozens of initiatives they have launched). The program asks local people to first reduce their carbon emissions, then offset any unavoidable remainder. Funds raised through the program are used for carbon-reducing projects within the local community – individual families and schools receive financial assistance for projects they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Whether you agree with carbon offsets or not (aren’t they kind of like papal indulgences that cleanse you of your sins so you don’t actually have to go to the trouble of ceasing to commit those sins?) and whether you agree with all the projects they have funded or not (in the case of the pellet stove I wasn’t sure)…  you have to agree that it’s a unique concept that touches many layers of the social fabric. Local people make local change and see the results right at home in their local community in multiple parts of the ‘system’. Quite different from the impersonal commercial carbon offset programs that collect millions of dollars to fund distant projects that may or may not actually deliver the promised benefits.

So, that’s kind of inspiring.

You’d think people would be all over it. But they’re not – and that’s where it gets a bit discouraging.

Here are a few of the more discouraging moments:
  • My colleagues calling them a bunch of kooks after our first meeting.
  • My colleagues recommending they get rid of the social justice and economic arms of their platform “because it’s too confusing”. Followed by a recommendation to more clearly label themselves as an “environmental group”. (To Gay’s credit, she responded very tactfully but firmly that they had kinda missed the whole point of the systems approach…)
  • Seeing the ridiculously small amount of funding they are able to scrape together, because of the nature of the work – i.e., concrete projects are “fundable”; being the glue that binds a collection of community projects together and promotes intelligent thinking is not.
  • Seeing the sheer force of the opposition to her thinking from some quarters – as noted in previous blog posts, I think that one boils down simply to people being very attached to and defensive of their consumer lifestyles. It’s a lot easier to shrug and say the problems are too big, laugh at those trying to do something about them, and carry on as you always were.
  • Seeing just how much work this all is for Gay and her team. Sheesh, all I do is sit around yakking about interesting theories and concepts. She’s actually out there dedicating decades of her life to make change happen, no matter how small, no matter how slow.

So, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that the concept of sustainability hasn’t hit mainstream yet. Ithaca is known as a leading ‘green’ community; an enlightened and well-educated community that exports thousands of highly trained thinkers from its schools every year. If it’s slow slogging there, well, what hope is there for a major urban centre where citizens’ most prized possessions are their massive homes, SUVs, and 50-inch flat screen TVs?

Being the HOptimist I’ll try not to think about that.

For more about Gay Nicholson and her work see: Sustainable Tompkins

*Actually it’s not ivy, it’s Virginia Creeper, but that sounded kind of awkward. I figure I have full artistic license in my own blog. 

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