(Tompkins Weekly, 6-14-23, by Karim Beers)
Get Your GreenBack Tompkins is saying goodbye. For 12 years, this community-supported initiative led by Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County has engaged and supported households and organizations with local food access, waste reduction, savings on transportation and energy, and carbon emissions reductions. As director of Get Your GreenBack, I appreciate the support I have received from community partners and volunteers as we helped thousands of community members learn about these issues and take important steps! The path towards environmental health and community well-being is long, but we have made progress. Here are some things I have learned that, I hope, will contribute to the next stage.
Diverse people, barriers, and solutions
Encouraging all 42,000 households in Tompkins County to take a new sustainable step was not easy. Walking and biking, shopping reuse, upgrading to a heat pump, or growing our own food—each has a set of particular obstacles and benefits from a particular approach or solution. Once we understood this, creative ideas emerged. Many people were interested in secondhand shopping, but no one suspected we had over 40 reuse stores. Solution? Create a shared directory for stores to market each other. We helped set up drop-off spots at large employer offices for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), making it convenient to purchase weekly shares direct from farms. Free personalized advising helped people navigate the labyrinths of contractors, programs and incentives related to weatherizing their homes or installing heat pumps or solar. This is clear: everybody wants to do something to contribute to our collective social and environmental goals. And they are more likely to do these things once the obstacles are removed.
Me and we
At first, Get Your GreenBack focused on individual steps: since over half of our county’s direct carbon emissions are related to personal travel and heating/powering our homes, we advocated for electrifying our vehicles and homes as well as composting, supporting local farms, walking, biking, etc. We assisted in and documented thousands of such actions.
Individual steps can be a good starting point, but we must invite people to go beyond household-level actions (often motivated by self-interest) and think about what they can do to help their families, neighbors, friends, co-workers and community make changes as well. Our Energy Navigators, a person-to-person sustainability education program, provided a space to volunteer in collective action, and our community is rich with other programs and initiatives focused on creating positive change. Fortunately, individual and social change are mutually reinforcing. The more changes we make in our own lives, the more committed and able we are to contribute to shifting policy; and the more laws change, for example, by subsidizing CSAs or clean energy, the easier it is for others to make these changes as well. One thing is certain: self-interest and greed feed our current crises. Community and generosity lead the way out.
Centering equity, not technology
In the last few years I have realized that I have unwittingly been telling a story about climate change that is simple, compelling and unfortunately crippling. It goes something like this: climate change is caused by greenhouse gasses; most greenhouse gasses are from burning fossil fuels; these fossil fuels are used in cars and trucks and to heat and power homes and businesses; therefore, we need to replace cars and trucks with electric vehicles, heat our buildings with heat pumps, and use renewable power like wind and solar. This story is not fiction. But seeing technology as the whole picture has shortcomings. First, to achieve sweeping changes to our energy, transportation, and building systems will require a broad and diverse coalition. Such a coalition won’t emerge from a narrow focus on technology, as many people are rightfully focused on other pressing issues—jobs, health, justice, survival—and will see such technology as irrelevant.
Second, even if we did manage to pass laws that banned fossil fuels, without shifting away from values of unbridled consumerism and the sovereignty of individual choices, we will continue to destroy our living environment and exacerbate inequality. The more Get Your GreenBack focused on issues of equity, such as access to local, healthy food, clean energy and clean energy jobs, the more we were able to work in partnership and engage large numbers of diverse people. When equity and environment are worked on together, we see powerful leadership emerge from those most vulnerable to and impacted by climate change—the poor, and Black, indigenous, and other people of color. Furthermore, a focus on equity helps moderate the tendencies towards self-interest and excessive consumption, as we reflect on not what we want but what is fair.
There is no path to large-scale social change without partnership and community. All of Get Your GreenBack’s work would not have been possible without the support of hundreds of community partners and volunteers. They provided insights, energy, and execution. The accomplishments of the campaign are due to them. In July, we will hold a celebration of these achievements, and a launch of a new Regional Clean Energy Hub—a resource serving the entire Southern Tier region, which builds on the insights described above. And going forward, all of us in the Energy & Climate Change team at CCE-Tompkins look forward to working with you, dear reader, in this next stage of our collective journey.
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