You’ve watched David Attenborough’s speech. You’ve followed the Washington Post’s dark and dire coverage of the 24th U.N. Conference. I’m glad these things happened. Realizing the extent of a problem is the first step in cleaning it up. Make no mistake, my friend: we’re cleaning it up.
These cities are making an awesome start. Greening cities is critical to the defeat of climate change, and as Bloomberg points out, it’s potentially a fantastic investment. Some people have already realized this and taken action. So when things seem bleak and your first attempt at composting fails, Google these forward-thinking bergs and take heart. You’re not in this alone!
1. Dale Ross has greened Georgetown, Texas
Want to live on a 100% green grid? Georgetown, Texas has you covered. The Republican governor says that coal can’t compete with wind and solar on cost. The city also composts and plans to expand electric car charging and rooftop solar.
Georgetown is solid red Trump territory and Ross is as practical a guy as any Republican. So what’s the difference? Personally, I think it’s because Ross is a CPA. He’s trained to look at numbers, not politics.
In 2016, students at Southwestern were looking into having a green campus at the same time as a major energy portfolio contract was ending. Ross, then a councilman, and his fellow city leaders sent proposals to both fossil fuel and renewable energy companies. The math on renewables made sense, and once they saw that, the partisan rancor attached to energy went right out the window. A deal is a deal.
When they pitched the idea to the conservative-leaning public, the city of Georgetown tweaked their lexicon to avoid politicized language. “progressive” became “innovative.” An “environmental decision” became a “business decision.” They also made it clear that nobody’s energy bill was going up.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, they stayed the course. There was blowback from constituents, but once people tried renewable energy, they found that it worked just like fossil fuel always had. Ross got promoted and Georgetown became the first of what I hope are many conservative environmentalist strongholds.
The article includes an interview with Ross, who seems to be a thoughtful guy. Go read!
2. Aspen embraces the water and wind
Aspen, Colorado doesn’t just get 100% of its energy from renewables. It was one of the first cities to do so, fitting dams for power generation in the ’90s and opting for wind power in 2005. Today, according to the city’s website, it gets about half of its power from wind and half from hydroelectric dams, with a tiny bit coming from solar panels. That’s way beyond original expectations – visionary Randy Udall, who tragically died before Aspen went renewable, set high hopes that the city would eventually get 30% of its energy from wind power.
There are environmental issues with hydroelectric power, of course, and in a truly sustainable system, any impact on wildlife needs to be taken into account. However, in a situation where the excess carbon in the atmosphere is the most pressing and immediate concern, there’s no question that hydropower is an important bridge to sustainability. A 2016 review in the open access, peer-reviewed journal Engineering is a nice piece of light reading for anyone doing their homework about hydro.
According to Aspen’s local newspaper, the popular ski destination was the third city to reach 100% renewable status after Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg Kansas. Speaking of which…
3. Greensburg, Kansas is actually a green burg
In 2007, an F5 tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas. When I say destroyed, I mean that Greensburg had nothing left. Here is a picture of Greensburg in 2007.
Faced with what Nature could do, the citizens of Greensburg decided, in a series of meetings with Mayor Bob Dixon, that they wanted to rebuild to green standards. Nobody originally planned to go 100% renewable, but, as Dixon tells it, support grew organically. The city built a wind farm, owned municipally, that provided all of the power for its citizens. People started coming back to the city and it began to thrive.
Here’s a picture of Greensburg today.
It’s growing and thriving. Young people are steadily moving there, possibly because of its reputation as a resilient green city. They did such a good job that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory used Greensburg as a case study in 2009.
There are others, of course, who are planning the transition to renewables. From St. Louis, Missouri to Ithaca, New York, the mayors of cities across the U.S. are stepping up. Need more? The Sierra Club has a full list.
In a time when bad news rolls in every day, it can be easy to forget that change begins as a groundswell. That groundswell is already underway.
If you’re anything like me, then you occasionally battle a sense of helplessness when faced with climate news. Not only is climate change becoming more urgent, but some world leaders seem incapable of taking swift action. You may feel like a twig in a current, rushing toward a waterfall with no hope of changing course.
There are a couple illusions at work here. The first is that you’re just one lonely person floating along all by yourself. In fact, you’re an active part of a large system. Far from being a twig, you’re a member of a 7.5 billion-strong canoe team! (It’s a really big canoe.)
Yes, we’re heading toward a waterfall. But if you start paddling for shore, people will notice. They don’t want to go over the waterfall either. They’ll join you. Soon, you can’t help but make headway toward safety, and it doesn’t matter what the boat’s captains are saying or not saying. YOU can change this – you and your seven billion friends.
The second illusion is subtler. It’s that paddling for shore will be nothing but difficult, miserable, and exhausting. That you might as well just give up because changing course would be way too hard.
It’s understandable that people would think this way. After all, carbon-fueled electricity has revolutionized the way civilization runs. If you stop using it, goes the logic, you won’t just be giving up luxuries like your electric juicer. You’ll be tossing your CPAP machine and refrigerator and heading off to eat bugs in a cave for the rest of your life.
Allow me to assure you that you are not going to have to eat bugs. Unless they’re gourmet, obviously.
There’s a process to changing course. Its first step is to take a great, big, deep breath. Join me in breathing. In…Out. Now repeat after me:
Contemplate that mantra. Panic is an evolutionary reaction that is useful for two things: making you freeze or making you run. In this case, neither of those reactions is helpful, and nor are their advanced human equivalents, catastrophizing and despairing. We’re going to have to do away with the panic for now. It’s not useful to us, and more importantly, it’s not providing us with a good representation of our circumstances.
Now that we’ve calmed down, it’s easier to look at our problem logically. Whether massive numbers of individuals opt to make changes in their carbon usage, the market pulls entire populations into new behavioral patterns, or governments legislate and enforce change, there will need to be a large shift in lifestyle in the near future. Any psychiatrist will tell you that the larger the change, the more gradually it has to happen. That’s why so many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. They’re literally trying to make an overnight change. Human beings don’t work that way.
Instead, we’ve got to apply our changes incrementally, giving ourselves time to get used to the new status quo. Research suggests that the average person adjusts to a new routine after about two weeks. That tells us how to successfully make changes in our carbon footprints. You can do it in just four easy steps.
1. Plan, plan plan
Do you really know how much carbon you’re using? Figure it out! There are carbon footprint calculators here, here, and here. Determine where in your lifestyle there is room to trim your energy budget. Make a list of everything you’d have to do to get yourself to a sustainable level of carbon use.
This may take some research. Give yourself the gift of a nice, thorough fact-finding session. Don’t settle for Internet polemics and blogs that shame you. Look for constructive ideas and lifestyle examples.
Then, decide what you can do. Start with small, immediate steps and plan to implement larger changes when possible. Do you want solar on your house? Set up a year-long savings plan for the down payment on an array. Are you driving too far to work? Give yourself options: a carpool for now, a closer job for later.
Be conservative. Be realistic. You can try fancy green lifestyle tricks later, after you’ve accomplished the goal you’ve set out for yourself and are comfortable with your new routine. For example, if you’re currently a dedicated carnivore, don’t go vegan overnight. Instead, cut down your meat intake. Then see where you can go from there.
2. Use a calendar
It can be digital or it can go on the wall. The main thing about this calendar is that it tells you when you’ll start implementing your changes. Here’s an example:
January 1: Change all the lights to high-efficiency bulbs.
February 1: Cut meat consumption down to weekends.
March 1: Order seeds and plan a backyard or community garden.
April 1: Run one weekly chore by bicycle.
May 1: Start composting.
Follow the calendar to the best of your ability and assess your progress every month. If you have a family, get them involved. Any change is best tackled as a group.
3. Find your people
Your friends might be reluctant to embark upon your green journey with you. If nothing else, they may worry about how it’ll impact your existing relationship. Don’t worry about trying to draw them into your quest. Evangelism will entrench and threaten them. Instead, go out and find support in existing communities.
Meetup.com is a good place to find like-minded people. There are Facebook groups for zero-waste lifestyles, bicycling, and home gardening that are good resources and good fun. Remember, cutting carbon isn’t a lonely experience – you’re in a canoe with seven billion other people! Find others who are committed to paddling for shore.
When you’re secure in your actions and living well in a green avenue, you’ll naturally attract your friends and family because they’ll be curious about your changes. There’s still no guarantee that they’ll convert to sustainability, but it’ll at least get them thinking.
4. Reward yourself
At the end of a year, you’ve successfully made nine of your twelve changes. That’s huge! Celebrate. Treat yourself. Treat your family, if they’re on this journey with you. Head back to the footprint calculators and bask in how far you’ve come.
Notice, in particular, the things you feel best about. Many people who go green report a higher level of satisfaction with their life afterward. It’s not clear why this is, but I think it may have to do with finding a community. Gardening and exercise, including walking and bicycling, are also mood boosters.
Once you’ve assessed, bolstered by how effective you’ve been, continue upon your journey. There’s a long way to go, but you’re not alone on this trek. Together, we can start turning this canoe.