What We Don’t Need
I attended a SUNY (State University of New York) Sustainability conference last week. It was exceptional to see the work of different campuses in the SUNY system, to hear about their successes and the obstacles they have overcome as well as those they have yet to conquer to become more energy-efficient, less wasteful, and more sustainable overall. There were sustainability coordinators and directors from many of the 64 four-year campuses, and some from community colleges as well. There were professionals working for NYPA (New York Power Authority), NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), SUCF (State University Construction Fund) and DASNY (Dormitory Authority State of New York) who all facilitate energy efficiency projects in New York State, and many consultants and contractors on-hand. This is a powerful and important fledgling conference.
However, it ended for me on an exceptionally sour note. The final speaker made the point that what we’re doing “is not working” and illustrated the idea of futility throughout her presentation.
Let me be clear. She may have intended to say we need to do more, or she may have wanted to say “good job, please also work with advocacy groups to accelerate the effects and broaden the reach of your amazing improvements “, but what she said, and repeatedly, is that what we are doing is not working. From encouraging students to take shorter showers to improving energy efficiency in building projects through heat recovery, it’s not working, because personal changes are minuscule when compared with the powerful reach of companies and governments. One company doing foolish management practices negates the work of a campus full of committed students. It would take 300 plus years for one person reducing their shower time to save as many gallons of potable water as one manufacturer refining their water reclamation processes, so we are doing the wrong things.
I was so hurt and angry and stunned that I left before the QnA. I found out later that I was not the only one reacting this way and that many of the questions sought clarification that we need the individual actions, the grass-roots convictions, the recycling and the personal purchasing changes. We can’t begin to advocate for larger changes without these personal connections and commitments.
I have seen posts on LinkedIn recently saying that renewable energy (RE) is not working. Sorry, but I call bullshit. I call bullshit because RE does work. It is a reasonable approach to reducing reliance on fossil fuels especially by reducing the waste of transit losses. It will benefit our long-term vision of our energy mix. I call bullshit because the title of the article implied we must pick one solution that fixes everything and there is no such thing. RE does work, but it cannot be the only solution. It will take so many changes and solutions and decisions to get us off of fossil fuels and RE is just one valuable piece of the work and solution.
So I need this blog to be clear. There are many, many things we need. We need more countries, including our own, not only signing off on the Paris Accord, but then implementing serious changes to get to the goals. We need the world to recognize that we should leave fossil fuels in the ground, as the burning of it is doing us more harm than good, every day. We need to get off the notion that disposable is easy and safe and convenient, and start to understand the full burden of a throw-away society. We need to clean up our own messes. We need to celebrate our communities and respect our elders. We need to get businesses out of government so we can really begin again to think long-term about benefits to people, instead of about benefits to the bottom line and shareholders. We need to assess every choice with a triple bottom line mentality, and to not be afraid of harder work and thought processes that will yield more substantive success. We need to solve problems without creating new ones.
What we don’t need is de-motivation.
In the past couple of weeks, I have heard hundreds of “get out the vote” appeals. I have read them on Facebook, I have heard our President share how important every vote was for him in that last election, votes numbering in the tens that swung a state or two. I have heard funny and poignant and terrifying songs about how we need to honor our right and responsibility to vote. Every vote counts.
Therefore, we cannot, in the same week, tolerate hearing from even a well-meaning individual that our personal actions and grass-roots changes don’t matter! Every action matters. Every conscious choice to reduce waste and avoid fossil fuels and to buy greener is important. Each time I recycle, I realize I can do it, therefore everyone can. I see the difficulties – it’s a total pain in the butt to strip off the zip on plastic bags that have worn out and then to gather them up and then to bring them to the grocery store where people glare at me for filling up he bag recycling bin. They think this is just for returned grocery bags and that I’m overstepping. Nope. It is this simple action that gives me the grounding to make appeals to my mayor about garbage systems in Albany, or to write a tweet or a letter to my legislator about the sad state of electronics recycling, and about toxic leaching in the water in Hoosick Falls, NY.
I agree we need to do more. Advocacy is terrifically important. Yet that in NO WAY negates the value of individual commitments and community actions. In fact, advocacy only has yank and power for success if we ground it in reality as well as personal experiences and commitments. There is no legislation or policy statement or ear of any government official without data, stories, and case studies. And you get these from individual work, aggregated efforts and the sweat of personal change.
We do need motivation.
I am getting hammered on the work side in the opposite way, being told that my work can’t all be about advocacy, but has to include some “real work”. I tell you, there is nothing done in the world of sustainability that is not soaked in advocacy and grounded by real work. They are inseparable. In my job I am as judged and as successful in bringing my own water bottle to meetings as I am in crafting an appeal to the Governor’s office for better energy code compliance. I have hands-on conducted waste audits by measuring garbage on a scale in the loading dock and I have had pivotal discussions on state climate action policy and resiliency legislation implementations. So where is the motivation? Where can we feed our souls so that we keep doing this hard work, at all levels, every day?
We get it from conferences so long as we are ready to listen to and then challenge, if needed, the speakers coming at the work from a single angle of perspective. It is in this process of frustration, assessment and then response that we know our own goals and our own motivations better. I am more secure in my own power right now than I have been in a long time, specifically because the talk complelled me to listen, understand my own fears, and define what is important to my ongoing work.
The speaker that started this rant from me was from an NFP advocacy group, with the obvious desire to get the power of these sustainability coordinators into the advocacy realm. Yet she did so by undermining the efforts in place. Unfortunately. She made her point not by stating the obvious synergies in possible collaboration, which is a pity becasue there are so many excellent case studies and stories and data that can be gleaned from all the sustainability work thus far on SUNY campuses. We need THAT motivation. Data that could be the real world underpinnings for crafted advocacy and policy recommendations. Stories to move the hearts and minds of legislators. Case Studies to illustrate the process, the resources and the political obstacles that need addressing.
I am choosing to treat that final keynote as a call-to-gather-resources in a poorly delivered presentational frame.
We can get motivation from each other. There are many of us out here. Some with a title that shouts about sustainability, some with no title, some doing this work as an assigned job, some saddled with periodic reporting to meet some unfunded mandate, some leading in front, some leading from the middle or even the back. Some not leading, but doing the valuable work they know they must do, recognizing the value and sharing when asked. All of us engaged in advocacy and real work at many different levels all the time. When you can, find gatherings of like-minded people. Commiserate and cajole, listen and learn, breathe knowing you don’t have to defend yourself or your work for a few hours. If someone challenges you or a presentaiton calls you to become defensive in some way, take the time to think and assess your work and your power. Be proud about the things you HAVE accomplished. Brag a bit, and capture some of the data, stories and case study information that you can, because these bits and pieces of info will motivate others and will, over time, with grounding and purpose, change the world.
Everything we are doing is working, AND there is so much more we have to do. You know it. I know it. Tap your motivation and share it.
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