Community Engagement

David Gershon
  • David Gershon
  • Author, Founder & CEO
    Empowerment Institute
    Download David's webinar.
    Sign up for David's Master Class.
  • David Gershon is one of the world’s foremost authorities on behavior change, community engagement and large system transformation. He is the author of 11 books including best-selling Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds and award-winning Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World.
Wednesday 02/27/2013
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 6: The Cool City Challenge

“The world’s cities are responsible for up to 70% of harmful greenhouse gases while occupying just 2 per cent of its land. They have become the real battleground in the fight against climate change. What goes on in cities, and how they manage their impact on the environment, lies at the core of the problem.”

“Hot Cities: Battle Ground for Climate Change” from UN-HABITAT’s 2011 Global Report

The purpose of the Cool City Challenge is to scale up a proven community-based social innovation to achieve deep carbon reduction while building resilient neighborhoods and a low carbon economy in three early adopter California cities (the five city finalists from which we will chose three are San Francisco, Palo Alto, Davis, Sonoma, and San Rafael) and then disseminate this strategy nationally and worldwide. The ultimate goal of the Cool City Challenge is to change the game around greenhouse gas reduction in cities and provide a viable path forward to address climate change.

With international climate change legislation failing to get traction and the long timeframe required to scale up new technological solutions and renewable energy, the world is searching for feasible and scalable strategies for addressing global warming. Since cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions and citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent between 50 and 90% of these emissions, cities and their citizens provide the world with an unparalleled opportunity to address global warming. Further, this serves as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.

What would it look like if we were able to scale up a robust demand-side intervention? Here is an historical account from the future for the Cool City Challenge. Hopefully it will look just like this in 2020.


Three of the most progressive California cities and their citizens embarked upon a bold adventure to develop a game changing social innovation around greenhouse gas reduction. Its goal: rapid and substantial carbon reduction in the short-term and carbon neutrality in the long-term, with vibrant livability and disaster-resiliency for its citizens, and green prosperity for its businesses. And they are succeeding!

Here’s how they did it…

Over a three-year period citizens substantially lowered their carbon footprints and in so doing built demand for green products and services, as a result local low carbon economies emerged. With this carbon literacy and sense of self-efficacy, these empowered citizens continued pushing the envelope and advocated to their local politicians to become carbon neutral cities, which these elected officials heartedly accepted. Carbon neutral cities became the new “cool” in California. And the race began to achieve the coveted title of the first city in California to become carbon neutral. It also did not hurt that an “X Prize” was established that awarded ten million dollars to the first city to accomplish this audacious goal.

These communities sent a profound message to the world that citizens in the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitting country were willing to lead the way in reducing their high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the greater good. But paradoxically, rather than this being a sacrifice, they discovered it opened up a whole new set of unexpected benefits. People now knew their neighbors, their neighborhoods had become more resilient and livable, and civic participation had become the new coin of the realm for people young and old.

At the community level, to the delight of the community economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, many green businesses had sprouted up and were flourishing. And with them, numerous high paying green jobs were being created. This was because between 25 to 75% of the citizens of these communities were now engaged in reducing their carbon footprint by an average of 25%, entire blocks were becoming carbon neutral, and each of these cities was reinventing its technological infrastructure to become carbon neutral. These cities were realizing the potential that many communities had talked about, but few had come close to achieving – a thriving local low carbon economy.

Knowledge about the amazing success of these three cities began to spread and soon other California cities came to learn from them. This was not only because they wanted to replicate this success in their communities, but also because the state of California had wisely decided to invest a portion of their cap-and-trade revenues in helping its communities make these types of changes. The universities in these cities became repositories for this learning and played a key role in their dissemination to the visiting cities. These universities also attracted many students who wished to be part of a real-world social innovation laboratory around an issue so vital to their future. The students were fully integrated into the community-organizing aspects of the program and many built green businesses that grew out of the first-hand knowledge they gained about services needed to meet the burgeoning demand for GHG reduction.

All this success spawned a strong sense of confidence, civic pride and a can-do spirit in these communities. Combining this with the new competencies they had learned in how to engage the whole community and design transformative social innovations, engendered an outpouring of social inventiveness. These cities were now not just devising new ways to reduce their GHG emissions, but generating solutions to a wide variety of social, environmental, and economic issues as well. They were also living the maxim, “many hands make light work.”

After several years, knowledge of the bold social experiments taking place in these three pioneering communities—who were now actively exchanging best practices and collaborating with one another—had spread far and wide across the state, country and world. Many communities had come to learn and were now beginning to replicate this success in their cities. And California – it had once again served its role well as the planet’s premier social laboratory for visionary public policy initiatives.


While getting people to reduce their carbon footprint – energy efficiency – is the low-hanging fruit to CO2 mitigation in the short term, will we be able to pick it? Can we empower citizens to get out of their comfort zones and adopt low carbon lifestyles? Will cities be willing to expand their social change tool kit beyond legislation and financial incentives to directly reach out and engage their citizens? And if cities and citizens are both willing to make these changes can such an initiative be brought to scale?

In 2006 our Empowerment Institute began attempting to answer these questions by creating a community-based environmental behavior-change program called Low Carbon Diet (which is described in detail earlier in this series). This program, based on the proven behavior change and community engagement model we developed over two decades, organizes households into block-based peer support groups of 5 to 8 households called EcoTeams.

Because of our track record, the ease-of-use of the program and the pent up demand for personal action and community-based solutions, Low Carbon Diet helped empower the climate change movement that had been building in America. It was driven by the many local governments committed to the issue of climate change who were wishing to engage their citizens; faith-based groups like Interfaith Power and Light representing some 5,000 congregations, wishing to engage congregants; and environmental groups, like Al Gore's Climate Project, which gave the book to the 1,000 people he trained to lead his “An Inconvenient Truth” slide show. This interest resulted in the development of a community engagement strategy called a Cool Community.

There are now over 300 Cool Communities in thirty-six states across America with participants achieving a 25 percent carbon footprint reduction and reaching out to fellow citizens to accomplish the same. Low Carbon Diet and the Cool Community model has also been translated and culturally adapted for China, Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

But wide proliferation of these tools is not the same as effectively applying them. After several years of watching many cities dive into this behavior change and community engagement process with gusto, but fizzle out after they bumped up against the hard work and deep knowledge required to be effective, it became apparent that we had gone a mile-wide and an inch deep. Having an effective carbon reduction tool and community engagement strategy was just the first step; we now needed to help communities skillfully deploy them if we wished to realize the potential of a demand-side GHG reduction strategy.

It also became clear that this next phase was going to take very special cities – those with a very strong commitment to carbon reduction and determined political and civic leaders. This endeavor was not for the faint of heart. Our search for the right cities eventually led us to California because of the political commitment of the state to GHG reduction as evidenced by their historic and bold global warming legislation – AB 32. To a specific part of the state, Northern California, because of the widespread sustainability ethic that permeated cities and citizenry in this region. And eventually to identifying five cities (from which we will select three) that had demonstrated early adopter credentials around taking climate action and was a manageable size for such an innovative endeavor. Those cities are Davis (population – 66,000), Palo Alto (population – 65,000), Sonoma (city and county—Sonoma Valley—population – 50,000), and San Francisco (one district, population approximately 60,000) and San Rafael (population – 58,000).

One of these cities, Davis, first showed up on our radar screen in 2008. They had sought out Empowerment Institute’s Low Carbon Diet program and Cool Community methodology after they determined that 75% of the community’s carbon footprint was being generated by the residential sector. They concluded that their “climate goals could not be met without the community becoming the primary driver of local GHG emission reduction.”

From October 12, 2008, through November 10, 2008, the city organized 150 households to participate in Low Carbon Diet EcoTeams. Participation included the city council and staff; University of California, Davis, administrators, faculty, staff, and students; local businesses; and community members at large. Results were received from 65 percent of the households who reported reducing their carbon footprint an average of 5,516 pounds.

Inspired by these results, they reworked their Climate Action and Adaptation Plan in 2010 to have the city become carbon neutral (the first city in America to make this an official city policy) and committed to engaging 75% of Davis households by 2015 to participate in household GHG reduction.

However, when they tried to scale up the pilot program, their lack of expertise in this behavior change and community engagement methodology combined with limited financial resources led to several unsuccessful efforts. But undaunted and now more cognizant about just what it takes to be successful, they sought out the Empowerment Institute for help. In many ways it is Davis’ aspiration to push the envelope around bold carbon reduction and citizen engagement, and their can-do spirit that led to the development of the Cool City Challenge.


As a result of the large carbon footprint of cities and citizens, they provide a key leverage point for addressing the climate change issue. But even though more than 100 local climate action plans have been developed in California alone over the past few years, they often lack implementation strategies and face stiff headwinds in community awareness and acceptance, much less financing. And these action plans tend to focus on high-level targets with no methodology for structured implementation, measurement or verification. Moreover, state and local approaches focus on technology-based solutions and policy adoption but generally lack strategies that include human and social factors that can either drive or hinder technology and policy adoption.

Initiatives for residential energy efficiency retrofitting programs targeting single-family homeowners have not been successful or cost-effective despite hundreds of millions in federal and state funding. Concurrently, personal transportation is the “800-pound gorilla”—the largest source of emissions in many cities—and city officials are largely vexed by this sector, with little in the way of short-term policy fixes and/or affordable technological solutions.

Fundamentally, this is a systems problem spanning multiple issues and perspectives: people’s attitudes and behaviors, how people view and use energy, technology choices and cost considerations, existing policies and incentives, market acceptance, and larger social contexts such as norms and values. Traditional approaches to climate change mitigation that focus on technology, policy, and markets often neglect or underestimate the human and social factors that interact with policy acceptance, technology adoption and market development.

Unlike conventional top down climate action approaches, the Cool City Challenge is designed to work from the bottom up by empowering citizens to reduce their carbon footprint through participation in a structured behavior change program—the Low Carbon Diet—with a peer support group of neighbors. A full suite of 24 carbon reduction actions is provided including transportation, home energy and food. And it does this by engaging not just citizens, but the whole system including local government, local businesses and civic organizations.

The Cool City Challenge brings to scale community-wide Empowerment Institute’s proven behavior change and community engagement methodology. Centered on household level GHG reduction, it uses the existing social infrastructure present in neighborhoods and community organizations. This behavior change methodology is based on two decades of rigorous research and social learning that has demonstrated how a peer support system combined with recipe style actions set in the context of a structured program and compelling community vision, move citizens to take action.

The Cool City Challenge initiates a new paradigm in addressing climate change: coupling state-of-the art behavior change and community engagement strategies with deep data collection and analysis, and enabling technology adoption, policy adoption and market development. See schematic below.

If the early adopter cities targeted by this initiative are able to achieve significant carbon reduction they will serve as role models and teaching cities to the many communities throughout California and across America looking for a cost effective and replicable climate change solution.

We have assembled a world-class team of experts and institutional partners to support implementation, research and scaling of the Cool City Challenge including Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the participating cities.


Here are the seven goals.

1. Engage between 25% and 75% of their households to reduce their carbon footprints by a minimum of 25% with a minimum of 40% of doing home energy retrofits.

2. Develop a plan to transition to carbon neutrality.

3. Develop a low carbon economic development strategy around the increased residential demand generated by the campaign for low carbon goods and services, energy efficiency retrofits, and renewable energy.

4. Redeploy the social capital generated by block-based teams to increase the individual and collective resiliency of residents in neighborhoods to address climate-related risks and enhance overall sustainability and livability.

5. Create a whole system solution through engaging and building the transformative leadership and community organizing capacity of the city’s local government, civic and faith-based groups, university and high school students (Cool Community Corps) and businesses (Cool Corporate Citizen). This approach will not only enable the campaign to accomplish its EcoTeam recruitment goals, but leave a legacy of enhanced community leadership, strengthened community partnerships, and a deepened environmental stewardship ethic.

6. Carefully document, measure and evaluate the GHG reductions, retrofits, community participation levels, economic and social outcomes, and community engagement processes to increase social learning and assist in future dissemination of the Cool City Challenge.

7. At the completion of the three-year Cool City Challenge, based on a successful demonstration, disseminate this methodology throughout California, nationally and internationally.

The Cool City Challenge has the potential to be a tipping point solution. It can achieve substantial carbon reduction, effectively engage people, be immediately implemented, be brought to scale, and is cost effective relative to other solutions. In addition it provides a blueprint for the reinvention of our planet's cities contributing to the development of more environmentally sustainable, economically prosperous, socially cohesive, and resilient cities.

Posted in David gershon, Community, Energy, Environmental, Policy on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 9:30 am. Updated: 4:19 pm. | Tags: David Gershon , Community Engagement , Citizen Education , Energy Conservation , Schools , Climate Change , Emissions , Resilience , Strategy , Legislation Comments (0)

Monday 10/01/2012
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 5: Taking a Cool Community to Scale

This is the fifth of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink--one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by scaling up household and community carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy over the long-term.

I had created multiple versions of community-based behavior change strategies over the past couple of decades and got a little wiser each time about the conditions that needed to be in place for them to be brought to scale. Based on this learning, the time was as right as I had ever seen for Cool Communities. Over 1,000 early adopter cities had signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors carbon reduction initiative and needed a lot of help to accomplish this. The vast majority of the public in these cities was aware of the need to take action on this issue. And our Low Carbon Diet and Global Warming Cafe tools were tested, performing well, and ready to go. But no matter how ready the tools and communities were, a venture of this sort was not for the faint of heart. Success would be hard won. My job was to make sure those who wished to go on this journey knew what they were getting in to, had the staying power, and were well prepared.

I would tell interested communities that embarking on this adventure brought to mind Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy. He was fond of saying that “democracy was the worst form of government except for everything else.” In a similar vein I would tell these communities that trying to bring a Cool Community campaign to scale was the hardest thing they could do to reduce their carbon footprint except for everything else. If they were still interested I would offer them the following eight-step strategy and provide training and coaching to help them implement it.

Form a balanced organizing team. A Cool Community campaign can be initiated by a local government, community group or business. All three sectors should be represented on the organizing team to network within their peer groups and help model this initiative as a whole-system solution. Given that the heavy lifting for the campaign is delegated to partner organizations who form the EcoTeams, the bulk of the responsibilities for the team are around recruiting and supporting partners. Consequently, a campaign can be managed initially by one full-time equivalent staff position. And because the campaign is a set of discreet tasks, this function can be split up among different members of the core team so that no one individual or organization is overloaded. With many hands making light work, this initiative can be implemented in a cost-effective manner.

Identify the carbon footprint of the community’s residential sector and set a reduction goal. As the management mantra goes: You can’t change what you can’t measure. While communities are now starting to measure their carbon footprints, very few organize their data from a household point of view. As a result, residents of the community do not understand their collective carbon contribution. When communities crunch these numbers they discover that the household carbon footprint is between 50 and 90 percent of the overall community footprint. If a community wishes to lower its footprint, it must engage residents in this undertaking.

I recommend using 25 percent as the average carbon reduction goal for participating households. Based on our initial results this is quite achievable, and with good participation, will allow the community to make a substantial dent in their footprint. This is far and away the low hanging fruit for a community who wishes to reduce its carbon footprint.

Create a three-year plan with quarterly benchmarks. Here is an example of how the organizing would work in a city of 50,000 people. With 2.5 people per household on average, this equates to 20,000 households. The campaign’s maximum participation target based on innovation diffusion research is 75 percent, or 15,000 households. With an average of eight households per EcoTeam, 75 percent of the households represent 1,875 EcoTeams. To achieve this number requires the participation of approximately thirty-eight local organizational partners, each forming fifty EcoTeams over a three-year period of time. A community could also start with a, relatively speaking, more modest goal of 25% participation and work up from there.

For a Cool Community campaign to achieve this ambitious goal they will need clearly articulated benchmarks. I recommend that this plan consist of twelve waves rolled out every three months over a three-year period of time. Year one the goal is to get the early adopters on board, representing 15 percent of the community. The goal for year two is the participation of the early majority, representing the next 35 percent of the community. The year three goal is to engage the late majority, or the last 35 percent of the community. The laggard population of 15 percent will never participate and are not worth investing the time to recruit. They will eventually be brought along through renewable energy and new technologies being brought to scale. While a Cool Community campaign may plateau well before the late majority, unless it sets its sights high it will have no chance to get there.

Given how few feasible opportunities exist in the short term for substantive carbon reduction in a community and the magnitude of this crisis, my view is that if we can we must.

Identify partner organizations. The community-organizing strategy is based on leveraging existing networks. Campaign organizers need to identify potential partner or partner groups capable of forming fifty EcoTeams over a three-year period—or between fifteen and twenty EcoTeams a year. Depending on the turnout this could be accomplished by one to three Global Warming Cafes a year. Partner organizations without the ability to form fifty teams can collaborate in co-hosting Global Warming Cafes. Local elected officials will already have connections with most of the organizations in a community.

Host a recruitment event to enroll partner organizations. Because local government has the authority -- and in some states will soon have the statutory obligation -- to help a community reduce its carbon footprint, it is a key player in implementing a campaign. The mayor or the equivalent top elected official, as the spokesperson for the municipality, invites partner organizations to a special invitation-only event. With the organizing team, the mayor shares the vision and strategy for implementing the campaign. Partner organizations are invited to participate and commit to forming EcoTeams. The municipality also participates as a partner organization and forms a high-profile Turbo Team of local elected officials to serve as a role model.

Build capacity of partner organizations. A big learning from my work with communities is how important it is that organizers are well prepared to scale up an initiative like this. Otherwise they go down unnecessary dead ends that undermine the goodwill of volunteers, and the campaign eventually flounders. People’s discretionary volunteer time is limited. To attract and retain the most talented people in partner organizations, the campaign needs to be well conceived and effectively executed. This is all the more essential given its ambitious carbon reduction and participation goals.

To accomplish this level of effectiveness requires capacity building training for participating partner organizations. The training should include teaching partner organizations how to publicize and host Global Warming Cafe recruitment events; change leadership and empowerment skills; and the social change 2.0 design principles and practices upon which the campaign is built. At its conclusion a peer support system should be established consisting of buddies, master classes, and one-on-one coaching.

Mobilize students and businesses to strengthen outreach. The bigger the labor pool the easier it is to mount a Cool Community campaign as this allows for more people to help in forming EcoTeams. Two excellent and often underused community resources for this are students and corporate volunteers.

For high school and college students climate change is their issue and no one has more moral authority than they do, because it is their future at risk. The perfect role for students is starting neighborhood-based EcoTeams among the people not reached through partner organizations. Students can do this as volunteers or, if their school wishes to play an active role in the campaign, it can organize this as a service-learning program and provide students credit for their participation. An added value of the Cool Community campaign is it is building the capacity of the next generation of environmental leaders in a sophisticated community-organizing model. We call this program the Cool Community Corps.

As Nike demonstrated, the Low Carbon Diet is attractive to companies because it helps employees reduce their carbon footprint and take that knowledge back to the company and out into the community. The company increases employee loyalty through doing the right thing for the planet, has carbon-literate and emotionally engaged employees to help in their internal carbon reduction activities, and generates goodwill and an enhanced image locally. Corporate volunteers can play many roles in the campaign, from participating in neighborhood organizing, to taking on various campaign leadership roles, to enrolling other companies as partners.

We call this program Cool Corporate Citizen and it is representative of an emerging and very positive new trend in business: the evolution from corporate social responsibility -- “I minimize the harm that I do” -- to corporate social engagement -- “I maximize the good that I do.” Along with Nike, two other pioneering Cool Corporate Citizens are Seventh Generation and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—two of Vermont’s finest.

Engage media and partner organizations to promote campaign successes. To keep people motivated and bring the campaign to life, it needs to be kept in front of people regularly. Local newspapers, TV, and radio stations should be encouraged to do regular feature stories about EcoTeam and partner organization successes. Given the huge number of community members and organizations involved, this will be a major media attraction. Another effective way to tell the ongoing story of the campaign and showcase its successes is to have someone on the organizing team with media and video skills interviewing various participants. These down-home interviews could include EcoTeam members, partner organization volunteers, the mayor, and city council members talking about the things they did, large and small, that week to make a difference in furthering the campaign. These two-minute interviews would then get posted on YouTube and sent to partner organizations to disseminate.

A number of communities have signed on to take this journey. Their first task was to prototype the program with at least a hundred households so they knew what it was all about and would be credible taking it to this next stage. But going from a hundred households to many thousands is a large chasm to cross. In the final installment of this series I will talk about my latest undertaking, the Cool City Challenge, whose goal is take three early adopter cities to scale, and if successful, disseminate this model widely.

Posted in David gershon, Community, Energy, Environmental on Monday, October 1, 2012 3:42 pm. Updated: 3:26 pm. | Tags: David Gershon , Community Engagement , Citizen Education , Energy Conservation , Schools , Climate Change , Emissions Comments (0)

Wednesday 04/25/2012
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 4: The Global Warming Cafe

This is the fourth of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink--one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by directly and strategically addressing carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy to scale up over the long-term.

The first step of a Cool Community campaign is to enroll as many community organizations as possible as partners and dissemination points. Once partner organizations are enrolled, the challenge is designing a recruitment tool for them that is easy to use, does not demand great expertise on the topic of global warming, and has the potential to start multiple teams at one time. We had solved a similar problem on a smaller scale in our sustainable lifestyle campaign through our block-based, peer-to-peer recruitment process for forming and replicating EcoTeams. This overcame the need for a charismatic enroller, thus enabling the process to be scalable. The design challenge here would be to apply a peer-to-peer approach with much larger numbers of people.

As a matter of course I am always looking for social innovations that I might be able to use for the various issues I am addressing. I experienced one such social innovation I liked very much and tucked it away in the back of my mind for future use. Called “The World Café,” its purpose is to accelerate the formation of intellectual capital by tapping into the collective intelligence of a group of people through a series of guided small-group conversations. It can work with groups as small as twenty people and as large as several hundred. Two dear friends, management consultants Juanita Brown and David Issacs, created it. Their critically acclaimed book describing this tool, The World Cafe: Shaping Our Future Through Conversations That Matter, has made a major contribution to the field of large-group processes.

The guidelines for a successful World Café process, as described by Juanita and David, are as follows:

1. Groups of four people sit together. The café is most interesting and effective when people sit with those they do not know.

2. Once the World Café begins the host presents the questions to be explored.

3. For centuries indigenous peoples have used a talking stick to encourage mutual support and deep listening. Use a pen from the table or a symbolic object to pass around the table to each person. When you hold this object, it’s your turn to speak and answer the question. No one should interrupt the person. Those listening are encouraged to write, draw, or doodle on the paper tablecloths as others talk. Once everyone has spoken then general discussion is encouraged.

4. You move in rounds of conversation to different tables to cross-pollinate ideas—carrying key insights, themes, and questions to each new conversation. Patterns emerge, additional perspectives surface, and surprising combinations of insight and creativity reveal themselves. The café host lets people know when to move to the next table.

5. Each table chooses one person to act as a table host and agree to stay at the same table to welcome each round of guests. When the new guests are seated, the host briefly shares the high points of the last conversation and then encourages the guests, using the talking object, to link and connect ideas coming from their own table. As each person shares, the others continue to record and or draw key ideas and new connections on paper tablecloths.

6. As part of the final round the overall Café host asks, “What’s at the center of our conversation?” and invites people to “listen into the middle” for the deeper themes and larger patterns so they can access the collective wisdom.

7. These insights are shared in the larger group, and if possible, visually recorded for the larger community to observe.

Juanita, along with another friend involved in the World Café work, Tom Hurley, and I would periodically talk to support one another in our various endeavors. In one of our conversations I told them I was interested in developing a large-group enrollment process for the Cool Community campaigns. I was keen to see if we might be able to combine the World Café process with our EcoTeam recruitment event. I told them our challenge was not making the case that we had a problem; Al Gore had already done that with his movie. In fact he had done this so well that people left feeling a sense of foreboding doom. This is part of the nature of accepting reality. To empower people to take effective action, which was our goal, we would need to help them first address and transform the fears they were feeling, and then help them gain a measure of control by becoming part of the global warming solution.

What I knew from our large-group empowerment processes is that much of the transformation occurs as a result of people’s interaction with one another in the group. I also knew from our information events that enrolling people on EcoTeams is most effectively done by their peers. If the new social norm is to reduce our carbon footprint to minimize our impact on global warming, the people most able to influence the take-up of this new set of behaviors are our peers. What I appreciated about the World Café process was how it enabled highly engaging peer-to-peer conversations. We would need to use these conversations in such a way that people could both process their feelings and move to concrete action to reduce their carbon footprint. This would require people to shift from intellectual knowledge, detachment, or avoidance of the issue, to emotional engagement. If we got this right, we would have a transformative tool that could create real lift to this emerging movement.

Collaborating with Juanita and Tom was as good as it gets for me. They each combine strategic thinking and heart, informed by a unitive way of addressing change. This would also be a good modeling of the synergy that can and needs to be created by blending complementary social innovations—in this case, the World Café large-group engagement process, EcoTeam information and recruitment event, and Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program. We called this hybrid social innovation a “Global Warming Café” and defined its purpose this way: “To help people bear witness to the fact that life as we have known it on this planet is imperiled with global warming and based on that to provide them an opportunity to process their fears and hopes for the future. And then become part of the global warming solution through taking personal action in their household and larger community.”

We designed the process in both a two- and four-hour format and recommended the latter to get the full benefit. It would begin as soon as people entered the room through the projection of slides that connected people with the diversity of our planet’s people, cultures, and natural beauty, interspersed with images of Earth from space. These images served to remind everyone of the common ground of our shared humanity, now at risk. The images would continue to be projected during the World Café process, subliminally informing and inspiring people as they engaged in conversation with one another.

The World Café guidelines would be explained and people would then be immersed for the next two hours in answering two questions.

• “What are my fears for myself, my family, my community, and my planet’s future inhabitants around global warming?”

• “What provides me hope that we can successfully address global warming?”

People would move from table to table four times, first doing two rounds on fears and then two on hopes. Depending on the number of individuals participating, they would interact with as many as twenty different people. Each table would have a host who at the end of the process would synthesize and report on the fears and hopes of the people who were at that table. A graphic facilitator would record the group’s fears and hopes on large butcher-block paper displayed on one of the walls in the room.

This would be followed by a presentation of the slide show I described earlier in this series, to inform people that there was a proven community-based behavior-change strategy for taking effective personal action with the potential to be brought to scale community by community across the nation. The goal of this part of the Global Warming Café was to help people move from feeling like victims of forces outside their control to feeling hopeful that there is a way of concretely addressing this issue.

To avail ourselves of the power of peer-to-peer diffusion, after the slide show, we would, if available, have several people who had participated on Low Carbon Diet EcoTeams describe the concrete carbon reduction results they achieved and their experience of social connectivity from participating on a team with neighbors, friends, co-workers, or members of a faith community. This would be followed by a question-and-answer period. Questions could be directed to any of the EcoTeam members or to the Global Warming Café facilitator.

We would then have people participate in a final World Café process around making a personal commitment to action. We would encourage participants at a minimum to consider participating on an EcoTeam; and then consider volunteering for the Cool Community campaign or championing ideas to help their workplace, child’s school, or local government lower its carbon footprint. The latter commitment provided an opportunity to spawn social innovations to address carbon reduction and create openings for synergy.

We would “close the deal,” to use Wes Sander’s term, by asking people to raise their hands if they planned to participate on an EcoTeam. From our past experience we expected that most people would make this commitment, and having one’s personal commitment witnessed by peers created the motivation for them to follow through. We would then invite people to share the ideas they were willing to champion and record them next to the hopes and fears, all the while encouraging cross-pollination where possible. We would conclude by getting interested people organized into EcoTeams and collecting names of volunteers wishing to participate in the Cool Community campaign.

An opportunity soon came along for testing out the Global Warming Café. Gail, my wife, being the enthusiastic and environmentally conscious person that she is, had organized an EcoTeam of our friends as soon as the new version of the Low Carbon Diet was published. Our EcoTeam was completing the program just as I was putting the finishing touches on the Global Warming Café process. I asked the team if they would be interested in being guinea pigs and helping me prototype this new tool. They were enthusiastic and we set a date two months out to give it a try in our very own community of Woodstock, New York.

This would be an interesting experiment on several counts. A lot of progressive former New Yorkers make their homes in Woodstock and the surrounding area, but I would not characterize the town as an early adopter for environmental issues. Testing it here would provide a good gauge for the level of demand for taking action on this issue that existed beyond the bright green communities. I was also intrigued to see how it would work to have an EcoTeam serve as the organizers for a Global Warming Café. This would be taking the process of EcoTeams replicating themselves quantum and was a model that could easily be scaled.

Before I proceed further I have a true confession to tell about my personal experience of doing the Low Carbon Diet. Gail and I assumed we would ace this program, given that we were leading a very green lifestyle. After all, we’d done so many of the actions in the sustainable lifestyle program I had created previously, and thoroughly integrated them as a way of life. However, because I am always flying all over the planet telling people to lower their carbon footprint or promoting some other save-the-world idea, our household carbon footprint was not a pretty sight. When Gail and I calculated it on a scale of one to ten with ten being the best, carbon neutral, and one being the worst, 80,000 pounds or more, we scored a one—the worst!

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. After accepting our fate as high carbon emitters we got down to business and got to level five by losing what we called the “hard pounds,” or those lost through behavior and system changes. We insulated our roof, installed triple-pane windows, switched to renewable energy from our electric utility, and installed a solar hot water system, among other things. We then got to level ten by losing “soft pounds” through purchasing carbon offsets. Most of my team was also in need of a similar low carbon lifestyle makeover. My take-away from this experience: A green lifestyle is not the same as a low carbon lifestyle. And if my EcoTeam was the early-adopter crowd, what a vast opportunity we had to impact the American carbon footprint.

Anyway, our EcoTeam stepped up to the challenge. We got a local faith community, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, to donate a room for seventy-five people. We persuaded the Woodstock Town Board, a wonderful regional environmental organization called Sustainable Hudson Valley, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, our state environmental agency to co-sponsor the event. We got food donated from local businesses. A member of our team created a flier that we distributed to various community groups. We got our local media to do stories encouraging people to come. Because we wished to make sure we had the food and space size right we requested that people RSVP.

To our delight and surprise, within about a week of our advertising, over a hundred people had signed up. We called the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and asked if we could get a larger room. They obliged and provided us a room for 150 people. Three weeks later we called back again for their next room upgrade to 200 plus people, which was their congregation room.

When the dust had settled, 225 people attended from throughout the mid-Hudson Valley region of New York. All attending committed to lowering their carbon footprint by least 5,000 pounds for a total commitment of over 1,000,000 pounds. We formed twelve EcoTeams on the spot with a commitment from people to form another eight teams when they went home. This comes to about a 70 percent recruitment rate. The Department of Environmental Conservation sent a representative from the region that liked the format so much that she decided to organize Global Warming Cafés throughout the Hudson Valley region. The Woodstock Town Board was so motivated by this outpouring of citizen interest that they agreed to make the town carbon neutral and were featured in the New York Times.

To provide a little of the local color and a sense of how the event motivated our government officials—the personal action to policy change equation—I have excerpted comments by several of the government officials attending from an article written by Andrea Barrist Stern for our local newspaper, The Woodstock Times.

“I was impressed by the turnout and the format that had people speaking to strangers about their hopes and fears,” said Kristin Marcell from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “It created a sense of bonding . . . and had everyone on the same page in a way I hadn’t seen before. We usually see the scientific side and this presented the emotional side, which is something we need to do.”

Woodstock Environmental Commission chairwoman Mary Burke said her “general feeling” at Sunday’s program was “Wow.” She added, “It wasn’t that I didn’t think people were concerned, I just didn’t think you’d reach them that easily.”

Woodstock Town Board members Liz Simonson and Bill McKenna and Ulster County legislator Don Gregorius were among those present on Sunday. Gregorius said he exchanged cards with a Putnam County legislator at Sunday’s event because both are interested in seeing how the program might be useful at the county level.

Simonson related she was at one table with two young boys who found the prospect of reducing their carbon footprint “exciting” even as several middle-aged participants were dejected about the possibilities. She said the boys’ enthusiasm made her feel, “that I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and get moving.”

The Global Warming Café activated the civic and political will to be part of the global warming solution. It also met the need people have to talk deeply and personally on this issue. Because the tool is easy to use and the procedure for using it is described in detail on our web site, many hundreds of Global Warming Cafés have now taken place throughout the United States and around the world involving all the sectors needed to scale up a Cool Community campaign.

I’ll share one particularly promising application for the Global Warming Café from the corporate sector. The director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Nike, Sarah Severn, an early adopter within an early-adopter company on issues of environmental sustainability, asked me to lead a Global Warming Café for employees in their Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters. Within one hour of advertising the opportunity to attend the café, the event was filled at 100 people. Sarah’s team found a larger room and opened it up to 150 people, which was also quickly filled.

They did it up right, turning the largest room in their Conference Center into an Italian Café with ices, espresso coffee, and red and white checkered table clothes on each table along with a vase of freshly cut flowers. In addition to the employees from every part of the company who attended, there were interested community leaders and visitors from other companies who were attending a national sustainability conference Nike was hosting. Sarah had thought to include them so that the event could disseminate the program more widely. The slide show building the planetary connectivity used sports, of course, as the metaphor for our shared common humanity.

She got the president of the company, Charlie Denson, to kick off the café. He talked in a very heartfelt manner about how his children had motivated him to get involved in environmental issues and how excited he was to see so much interest among employees in taking personal action. We went through the café process, slide show, and then the action commitment. Four hours later all of the Nike employees attending committed themselves to participating on an EcoTeam; making changes to help the company lower its carbon footprint; and taking this program into their communities as part of their corporate volunteer program. And three of the companies represented—Hewlett-Packard, Harley-Davidson, and Schlumberger—committed to putting on Global Warming Cafés for their employees.

Within a short period of time, Nike had sixteen EcoTeams working on reducing their personal carbon footprint and helping the corporation do the same. Some of the teams even developed “biggest loser” contests among themselves. And with the active support and encouragement of the company, many employees have now taken the Low Carbon Diet into their communities and shared it widely throughout the company.

With the Global Warming Café tool we had cracked the code on how to engage larger numbers of people in participating on EcoTeams. We saw that any group from an EcoTeam to a large corporation, and everything in between could effectively use it. We also saw that it was capable of bringing the civic, public, and private sectors of a community together. We were on our way.

With the Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program, and the Global Warming Café community engagement tool, the “hardware” of this movement was in place. The final element was to flesh out the “software,” or a detailed strategic implementation plan for bringing this program to scale communitywide. In Part Five of this series, we look at how to bring this all together -- the Cool Community strategy.

Posted in David gershon, Community, Energy, Environmental on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 3:13 pm. Updated: 3:26 pm. | Tags: David Gershon , Community Engagement , Citizen Education , Global Warming Solutions Act , Climate Change , Carbon Footprint , Schools , Insulation , Solar , Emissions Comments (0)

Tuesday 02/07/2012
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 3: Instead of Cursing the Dark, Light a Candle

This is the third of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. This series is an attempt to build new momentum for a climate change movement that has lost its mojo because of the forces lined up against national legislation in the U.S. While government has a very important role to play in setting the rules, the transformative and rapid change needed to address this issue is a lot to ask of a legislative system purposefully designed for incremental and slow-moving change. Or what I call social change 1.0. But we are justified in placing our hope in bottom-up change - social change 2.0 - as this is how all great change in history has occurred.

To that end, this series shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink - one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by directly and strategically addressing carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy to scale up over the long-term.

Wes Sanders was a participant in one of my very first on-line Cool Community training programs and a leader in the national Interfaith Power and Light initiative, which promotes the use of the Low Carbon Diet in the faith community. He has singlehandedly started over 60 EcoTeams which have reduced their household carbon emissions by an average of 23 percent. Wes is a great inspiration to me and one of the real heroes of the climate change movement. He personifies the spirit, motivation, and no-nonsense approach of this special breed of change agent who has stepped forward to light a candle in the dark. Here is his story in his own words.

"I became very concerned about the climate crisis in the 1980s, while still the artistic director of the company I founded in 1978, the Underground Railway Theater. If Jim Hansen and the other IPCC scientists were right, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that they are - all other social and political issues are moot: If we don't deal successfully with this one, there will still be a planet, but we won't be on it. My artistic staff of writers, actors, designers, and directors tried to raise the global warming alarm through our plays, developing an art form called the "eco-cabaret," but art turned out to be too indirect for the urgency of this issue. I felt strongly the need for direct action, and had become impatient with symbolic gestures that produced no tangible effects.

So I retired early and moved to Vermont and became a volunteer-activist on climate change. Once here I spent five to six years trying to get my fellow citizens to cut their carbon emissions through a nonprofit loosely connected with city government, which used a web site calculator with suggestions for changes in energy behavior. But, like every other strategy for behavior change I had encountered, it was something one did alone, and it was a one-shot deal; there was no means for following up on the changes people pledged to make.

Finally, in frustration, I decided to spend the summer of 2006 finding, or creating, if necessary, an approach that would get people engaged in real change. I stumbled on a faded photocopy of a climate change program that had been piloted in Portland, Ore., based on the EcoTeam concept. As it happened, I had gone through the predecessor of this program with the co-op where I lived with seven other families in Cambridge, Mass.

I knew this approach had worked in getting my community to change its behavior: We set up compost bins and made soil in them, which we used in a garden; we replaced all our toilets with a low-flow model, etc. What had worked in the EcoTeam approach was the peer accountability, sense of solidarity, and group creativity of the other members of the community, combined with the generous amount of time allotted in the program for entrenched behaviors to get changed.

When I found a contact number for the Empowerment Institute on the photocopy, I inquired; this was August of 2006. It turned out that an updated version of the Low Carbon Diet was just getting ready to be printed. I ordered the first copies, scheduled two showings of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth at my church in Burlington, and followed up immediately, while the audience was in full awareness of the urgency about the climate crisis, and formed two EcoTeams at each showing.

This is essentially the scenario I have followed since: a film or talk to get everyone on the same page emotionally and conceptually, followed by a nuts-and-bolts workshop on how the Low Carbon Diet program works, with Q and A interspersed and lots of anecdotes from EcoTeam experiences, and then "closing the deal" on the spot; that is forming the EcoTeams with those present, and asking (politely) why those who don't raise their hands to join haven't done so. Usually other members of the group come up with answers that convince these people to join after all. A Methodist came up to me after one of these sessions and, with a knowing smile, said, "You're an evangelist!" So be it. My Southern Baptist grand-mother always hoped I would end up a preacher.

The format I prefer and generally am allowed to use now in churches is giving the Sunday sermon from the "bully pulpit," then following up immediately after the service with the workshop. When I am organizing in town energy or sustainability committees, the sermon is a talk, with a little less emphasis on the stewardship of the earth and more talk about our grandchildren's futures. I always find out as much as I can about the audience beforehand, and frame the talk accordingly.

If the EcoTeam is going to complete the Low Carbon Diet program successfully (at least 5,000 pounds reduced per household), all the members of the team need to be in the room when I give the talk and workshop. When I have used the "train the trainer" approach, I find there is generally too much dissipation of the message, in addition to the fact that the initiator/facilitator is a friend or colleague of the other participants (rather than an outsider like myself) and therefore is diffident about insisting on the discipline that is required if the process is to get results. Calculating and recording the numbers, for example, often gets slighted in this situation, because the facilitator does not want to appear to be a martinet. This is not always true: When the facilitator is a highly effective individual, they can manage very well.

Vermont Interfaith Power and Light offers a pro bono energy audit to communities of faith, done by a former professional on our board who submits a report of recommendations to the church about energy conservation in its buildings. I often use these contacts, following up with an EcoTeam presentation, to get the congregation on board as well, in their own use of energy at home and on the road. I am sometimes invited to regional conferences of some denominations, Congregational/United Church of Christ and Episcopalian are two examples, as well as statewide environmental organizations such as the Sustainable Energy Resource Group. These are networking opportunities: Following my presentation to interested church leaders or activists at these conferences, I get called in to do my dog-and-pony show.

I don't have any goals that are expressible in numbers. I just form as many EcoTeams as I have the opportunity to, mostly in Vermont. Occasionally I am able to identify high achievers in EcoTeams I am facilitating whom I can convince to begin and run EcoTeams of their own. I helped to initiate a citywide Low Carbon Diet initiative launched by the mayor of a Vermont town on Earth Day, with less than impressive results so far: This has been approached to date as a "train the trainer" exercise, with all of the weaknesses outlined above in such an approach. The challenge is to scale up this program."

Wes is an exemplar of what can be done by a single dedicated individual. Importantly, he also describes the challenge and dilemma of a solo citizen activist in attempting to take this program to scale in a community. To get to this next level requires an approach that is very different from getting more dedicated and effective people like Wes willing to start EcoTeams on an ad hoc basis.

What is needed is a whole-system solution that includes the participation by all of a given community's institutions, including local government, faith-based and civic groups, neighborhood and block associations, businesses and schools, and having them reach out to their constituencies and members to start EcoTeams. This shifts the community-organizing strategy from ad hoc and retail to systematic and wholesale, providing a plausible path forward for achieving an ambitious carbon reduction goal. It provides the labor pool needed to reach out to people and the synergy to grow the intellectual capital around community organizing for household carbon reduction. Based on my experience with the webinars, this broad swath of organizations are primed to participate.

Approaching household carbon reduction (which represents between 50 and 90 percent of a community's carbon footprint, with the high end in most communities) in this manner provides the possibility for creating a game changer for those cities and towns where the community is aware and there is political skin in the game. Given that over a thousand cities representing eighty-six million citizens (28% of Americans) have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayor's pledge to "strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their communities of 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012," and only a few have achieved this modest goal, there are many potential candidates looking for a cost-effective solution that can achieve substantial carbon reductions in a short period of time. And if enough of these cities choose to play, it will be a game changer for this issue both in America and around the world.

I call this whole-system solution a Cool Community campaign. The purpose of a Cool Community campaign is to empower residents through local organizations across all sectors to reduce their carbon footprint by 25 percent through participation in the Low Carbon Diet program. The goal is to engage between 25 and 75 percent of the citizenry over a three-year period. This time frame is short enough to keep the pressure on and people's attention and long enough to allow for an effective diffusion strategy. This allows the early-adopter communities, which signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors agreement on a wing and a prayer, to substantially exceed their current carbon reduction goal while building the demand for local green economies and a constituency for the bold climate change policies needed.

But this is much easier said than done. The big challenge of a Cool Community campaign is to help partner organizations actually start EcoTeams. To do this requires a recruitment tool that is easy for them to use, does not demand great expertise on the topic of global warming, and has the potential to start multiple teams at one time. We developed such a tool, which we called a global warming cafe. To learn about it and the successes we have had using it, join me for part four in this series.

Posted in David gershon, Community, Energy, Environmental, Policy on Tuesday, February 7, 2012 4:06 pm. Updated: 10:27 am. | Tags: David Gershon , Community Engagement , Citizen Education , Schools , Energy Conservation , Climate Change , Emissions , Training Comments (1)

Wednesday 09/21/2011
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 2: Heeding the Warning

This is the second of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. This series is an attempt to build momentum for a climate change movement that has lost its mojo because of the failure of Copenhagen and national legislation in the U.S. While the federal government has a very important role to play in setting the rules, the transformative and rapid change needed to address this issue is a lot to ask of a legislative system purposefully designed for incremental and slow-moving change. Or what I call social change 1.0. But we are justified in placing our hope in bottom-up change - social change 2.0 - as this is how all major change in history has occurred.

To that end, this series shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink--one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by directly and strategically addressing carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy to scale up over the long-term.

Along with the immense gratitude so many people felt toward Al Gore for raising our collective consciousness about the threat of global warming through his movie An Inconvenient Truth, came some criticism that he did not spend enough time helping people understand their unique contribution as individuals and what they could do to mitigate it; the problem came across as out of our control. While this may be fair criticism, it was not his primary aim to tell us precisely how to solve this problem. That is a tall order. His job was to tell us, the blissfully unaware passengers on the Titanic, that we are about to hit an iceberg and sink unless we dramatically change course.

Many have taken heed of his warning and are developing ways to help humanity make the necessary course correction as rapidly as possible. Al Gore is among the most prominent of these, advising the Obama administration on how America can take a leadership role on global warming and advocating for a shift to a 100 percent renewal energy system. But one of his less visible roles is as a thought leader shaping a strategic way of thinking about the process of change around this issue. It is in this role that he provides an answer to the question posed to him about what we can do as individuals, and as Americans. He offers a strategy that both empowers and holds us accountable as individuals.

"When people take personal action on global warming," Gore explains, "it leads inevitably to their desire to have changes in policies. They begin communicating with their representatives at the local, state, and national level. They say 'Look, I've made these changes in my life and I want you to work for changes in policy.' They are linked together. And when enough American citizens become part of this new critical mass and the U.S. changes policy, then it becomes much more likely that China will make the changes it has to make. We're all in this together." What I like about his thinking from a social change point of view is that it is a whole-system approach and therefore capable of generating the synergy we need to accelerate transformative change within the limited time available to us.

What I find unusual and noteworthy coming from a person who has spent his career as a policymaker is his understanding of personal action as a strategic lever that can work both the demand and the supply side of the equation. Many people who spend their time formulating public policy tend to undervalue the importance of personal action-the demand side of the equation. This is mostly because they are not familiar with how to build demand for change of this nature and scale up personal action; and so, rather than trying to crack that nut, which is a hard nut to crack indeed, they stick with what they know. In this context, that would be passing climate change legislation that provides subsidies and tax incentives to homeowners for taking actions like putting solar panels on their roofs, insulating their homes better, or buying new energy-efficient automobiles. But people need to be motivated to want to make these purchases and to adopt low carbon lifestyle practices. As the old maxim goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. A supply of policy solutions without demand for them will not get us across the finish line.

But Gore goes further than just encouraging personal action; he recognizes that people who are invested in this issue as individuals, when mobilized, can be remarkably effective advocates for supply side solutions. They know exactly what policies will help them lead a low carbon lifestyle. Carbon-literate and committed citizens become a true force for policy change when they can say to a political leader, "I am doing my part, but need your help to go further. These are the specific things that will help me. And by the way, most of the people in my neighborhood have made similar behavior changes and are also very eager to see these policies adopted." What political leader would not be motivated to vote for a more aggressive climate change policy knowing that they will be rewarded by their constituents?

The wider and deeper the constituencies of people who have taken personal action, the stronger the impetus available for policy change. As Gore noted, "They are linked together." When EcoTeam members from our sustainable lifestyle campaign advocated for environmental policy change in conservative Kansas City, Missouri, after having taken personal action, and made it clear that there were many more people like them, they encouraged conservative city council members to vote for policies they might not have otherwise.

To help further this personal action and policy advocacy strategy Al Gore created The Climate Project and personally trained 1,000 community leaders from all across America to present his slide show. In return for the training, each agreed to make at least ten community presentations. This is where Low Carbon Diet came in. He gave the book to his trainees so that they would have a resource for the personal action part of his strategy, and invited me to offer a webinar for those who wished to apply it in their communities.

To take full advantage of this webinar I realized that participants would need more than the book and some tips on how to organize their communities; they would also need the community-organizing tools we had developed over the past two decades. This was clearly a teachable moment in America for these empowerment tools, so we posted them on our web site as an open source social technology and encouraged people to use and modify them as they wished.

This webinar attracted the early-adopter grassroots organizers within his cadre of trainees and they spread the Low Carbon Diet and these community empowerment tools far and wide. When the full story of Al Gore's many contributions to helping get America on a low carbon path is told, one of the important credits he deserves is helping spawn this community empowerment movement committed to furthering personal action. I am very grateful for his leadership and the opportunity he provided me to share our work with his community.

Empowering a Movement

I posted the times I would be leading this free webinar on our web site and requested that Al Gore's trainees register so we knew how many to expect and who was on the call. Because we were posting this in a public space, it would be awkward to say this was only for The Climate Project trainees, so we allowed anyone who might come across this posting to attend. Since the only advertising was by The Climate Project to their trainees, we didn't really expect anyone else. That proved to be an erroneous assumption. News of this free training for community organizers and other individuals wishing to address climate change spread rapidly among the many grassroots networks around the country. There was such a paucity of resources other than carbon calculators and checklists on web sites, and such a pent-up demand for taking action stimulated by An Inconvenient Truth, that when a proven approach to household behavior change and community organizing became available, we found ourselves inundated with interest.

I have given this webinar twenty-six times and trained more than 600 individuals from environmental, faith-based and community groups, local governments, and large and small businesses; university and high school student environmental leaders and unaffiliated citizen activists have participated as well. People have come from thirty-six states and over three hundred cities and towns across America. The largest interest has come from California with forty-eight cities participating, followed by New York with forty-two, Massachusetts with thirty-nine, Washington with thirteen and Oregon with ten. There have also been participants from Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan.

The webinar format consists of people introducing themselves and their community and briefly describing how they wish to apply the program. This introduction process allows these change agents, who are often working in isolation, to experience the wide diversity of committed people like themselves who are part of this climate change movement. To further enhance this connection, we send everyone a list of all the attendees on the call, their community-organizing background (which they send us when they register) and e-mail addresses. This allows them to get a better sense of one another and follow up to exchange ideas with those applying the program in similar venues.

After this introduction I present what I call the Cool Community slide show. This is posted on our web site and participants view it as I go through each of the slides. It begins by making the case for the need to achieve rapid carbon reduction based on the urgency communicated by climate scientists. I then explain how conservation at the household level is the low hanging fruit, makes up half of America's footprint, and buys us time for the longer-term solutions to kick in. I briefly talk about the five Social Change 2.0 design principles so that they have an understanding of the operating system embedded in the tools and can make future adaptations in their organizing strategy based on them. I then describe our behavior-change and community-organizing research with the sustainable lifestyle campaigns to build their knowledge of and confidence in the model they are about to use. Finally, I explain the design of the Low Carbon Diet, and the tools and strategy for taking it to scale.

I tell participants that this slide presentation is itself one of the community-organizing tools in that it allows them to make the case for an effective residential carbon reduction program to key community stakeholders, and they should feel free to customize it as they see fit for such presentations. I then take questions, which vary from requesting more technical knowledge on how to implement one or more of the tools, to asking for additional strategies for getting started.

I conclude with an exercise, in which I offer consultation on the community-organizing plans of three represented cities based on a template we provide in advance of the call and which they subsequently submit to us. The template asks participants to answer seven questions:

1. Who is your target population?

2. How will you engage them in the program?

3. What is your carbon reduction goal through engaging this population?

4. By when do you wish to achieve this carbon reduction goal?

5. What do you see as your greatest challenges in implementing this program and how are you addressing it?

6. What questions would you like to have answered to help you implement your strategy?

7. What is your next step in implementing your strategy?

This is when the webinar comes alive for people because we have real people with real strategies in real communities with real problems to solve. Based on the slide presentation, we also have a community-organizing framework on which to build. These interactions provide me an opportunity to share some of the experience we have acquired over these many years and help both the person I am speaking to and the others on the call to see how all this works on the ground. Based on the feedback we get from people, they leave this training inspired by one another, hopeful that there is a practical and immediate way to begin addressing global warming, and empowered with concrete tools and a strategy for taking action in their communities.

On a personal level it is very gratifying to share the fruits of all these years of trial and error with such receptive people from all over the country and world. What a difference it makes when an idea's time has come. Although pushing a boulder up a mountain is a good upper-body workout, it certainly is more fun when it is poised to go down the other side on its own momentum. While we are not at that point yet, it seems to me, based on the large number of competent and committed people attending these webinars, that we are edging ever so close.

Please join me next month for part three of this six-part series: "Instead of Cursing the Dark, Light a Candle - One Person Making a Difference."


Posted in David gershon, Community, Environmental on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 8:20 pm. Updated: 3:12 pm. | Tags: Schools , Insulation , Climate Change Comments (0)

Wednesday 07/20/2011
Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 1: Low Carbon Diet and the Cool Community

This is the first of a six-part monthly series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It describes a bottom-up climate change movement that has sprung up in over 300 communities across America. Not content to wait for the slow and often torturous pace of federal government solutions, it is helping America reduce its carbon footprint household by household, community by community nationwide. It is a way forward to directly and strategically address carbon reduction in the short-term while building demand for the longer-term solutions of legislation, renewable energy and low-carbon technologies.

In the view of climate scientists around the world - and many others - it is imperative that our civilization's central organizing project become the transformation of our adverse impact on the climate system before we reach an irreversible tipping point. To accomplish this transformation requires boldness, innovation, and speed unlike anything humanity has ever encountered. In the face of this crisis, people and institutions around the world are rallying like never before to find real solutions. But the large-scale solutions many are pinning their hopes on - renewable energy and new technologies - will take a decade at best, or, many predict, several decades to scale up. Much more time than scientists tell us we have.

There is, however, one solution that has the potential to bring about significant large-scale carbon reduction in the short term and buy us some critically needed time for these other approaches to scale up: household energy efficiency in America. America generates 20 percent of the planet's carbon emissions with half of these coming from the fossil fuels we use to power our homes and cars. And at a local level the residential sector makes up 50 to 90 percent of a community's carbon footprint. If, as U.S. households, we were able to substantially reduce our carbon footprint and take this to scale community- and nationwide, we could significantly lower America's carbon emissions in the short run and buy us the critically needed time for the longer-term technology and renewable energy solutions to scale up.

Further, by engaging the citizens of a community to lower their CO2 emissions we would be stimulating demand for the green products and services needed to grow a local low-carbon economy. As we aggregate these low-carbon economies nationally, we see the path forward toward the green U.S. economy on which the country is pinning its future. Moreover, this will send a message to the world that as Americans we are reducing our high carbon-emitting lifestyles for the sake of the planet, which will afford us the credibility to encourage other countries such as China and India to up their ante.

But can we mobilize Americans, not known for our conservation ethic, to change? A study by Yale University indicated that 75 percent of Americans recognize that our own behavior can help reduce global warming, and 81 percent believe it is their responsibility. Furthermore, making these changes is not demanding, and will increase people's quality of life and save them money. And one more piece of good news: We have spent the past two decades helping some 20,000 people in communities across America successfully do this as participants in our sustainable lifestyle program.

This series applies this knowledge to the issue of empowering individuals and communities to reduce their carbon footprint, in particular, through the use of the Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program and the Cool Community campaign for taking the program to scale. It ends by taking a look at the social, environmental, and economic dividends a community can expect - in addition to the not-too-shabby benefit of helping secure a future for humankind - from going on this journey. But this journey needs to go back before it can go forward.

Low Carbon Diet: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The city of Portland, Ore., one of the first cities to adopt our sustainable lifestyle program, was wishing to push the envelope, as is its accustomed mode of operation. By the year 2000, based on our environmental behavior-change and community-organizing methodology, we had helped thousands of Portland residents reduce their environmental footprint by an average of 25 percent. The local government leadership had demonstrable proof that our program worked, and now wanted to experiment further with these tools. We had procured a small grant from a regional foundation for extension of the program. Susan Anderson, the director of Sustainable Development for the city and a major program advocate since the very beginning, asked if I would consider using the grant to create a program addressing global warming.

Portland was the first city in America to develop a climate action plan in 1993 and they were aggressively engaged in lowering the government's carbon footprint. She was interested to see if our approach might help them engage citizens in this issue as well. While Portland is a progressive city, it was still seven years before Al Gore's Academy Award winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, would help raise America's awareness about this issue, and before the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would publish research that demonstrated unequivocally that human beings were the principal cause of global warming and at imminent risk of creating a planet inhospitable to human life. In October of 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC would share the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in this area.

There was local government advocacy for addressing the issue of global warming in many cities through an effort called Cities for Climate Protection, sponsored by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). This effort inspired many local governments to take on climate change by making their own municipal operations more energy efficient. This was a relatively simple sell since doing so also saved them a lot of money. But, no city had attempted to help its residents lower their carbon footprint in any serious way. In accordance with its plan's goal of reducing carbon emissions 10 percent, Portland was looking to see if our behavior-change model could get a 10 percent reduction per participating household.

I was intrigued by this opportunity, but wondered if people would be willing to take on an issue that seemed so big and out of their immediate control. Up until then, whatever widespread education and outreach efforts there had been around the issue were principally focused on energy efficiency. Addressing global warming was seen as a bit too complicated to sell in its own right, so it was described as an "added value" to energy efficiency. This, in fact, had been the way our sustainable lifestyle program had described it. I knew we would easily meet the 10 percent goal if we could get people to participate in this program, since we were already getting a 15 percent reduction through our sustainable lifestyle program.

I decided to give it a try. Susan offered me the support of her department's energy expert, Michael Armstrong, who was smart and creative and relished the opportunity to help pioneer something like this. We identified all the actions in our sustainable lifestyle program that had a C02 impact and could realistically be measured. I knew there was a carbon footprint for each of the actions in the program that used fossil fuel, but until I dug in I was not aware of just how much opportunity there was to reduce it. This was a much more interesting process to me than just saving energy and some money, or even than doing the right thing; I now felt like I was saving the planet. I wondered if others would feel the same way.

The actual actions were quite simple to take. Some required changes of habits, like turning off lights. Others required making our mechanical systems more efficient, like tuning up our furnaces or cars. Still others required a one-time change, like paying our local utility a small monthly fee to provide us electricity from renewal energy rather than fossil fuels. None of these things was difficult to do, but they wouldn't get on a priority list, unless people thought they were important.

Building on Michael's technical expertise we began developing a carbon footprint number for each of these actions. It was fascinating and a bit shocking to see every aspect of my daily use of energy through the lens of how much CO2 it released into the atmosphere.

Coming up with these numbers, though, was not easy. There were so many assumptions we had to make to establish a carbon reduction number for each action. For example, we discovered that a full dishwasher load is much more efficient than washing dishes by hand, but that a small load is not. So how many dishwasher loads might we project for the average family over the course of a year? What is the carbon reduction difference between average use and this more efficient use? We had to immerse ourselves in studying the daily inefficient usage of an average household compared with more efficient usage. Believe it or not, companies that make these appliances have this type of information.

Once we figured all this out we could get the energy usage and finally the carbon footprint. This was certainly based on much extrapolation and was as much art as science. But even though the actual numbers might be off by as much as 20 percent on a case-by-case basis, relatively speaking, this type of feedback would help people become aware of the carbon footprint reduction opportunity in each aspect of their daily lifestyle. At the time, we were the first to do this type of carbon footprint exercise. Now, fortunately, there are many more people doing it.

Our next task was to create a carbon calculator to help participants identify their current carbon footprint. If you were going to reduce your carbon footprint you needed to know where you were starting this journey. We approached some colleagues at the consulting firm ICF who had developed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's carbon calculator, and with the financial support of the EPA they helped us construct a Portland-specific calculator. This was becoming such an interesting experiment that we had no trouble attracting backing.

Participants used this online calculator by entering their annual electricity and oil or propane usage, miles driven, and miles per gallon for each car in their household, among other things. Once they gathered this information, it only took a few minutes to enter it into the calculator and get their annual household carbon footprint. (Carbon calculators have now proliferated over the Internet and at last count there were over a hundred versions available.) The hard part would be getting people to take action based on this knowledge. Here is where our behavior-change program of action recipes and the peer-support group model of EcoTeams would be tested.

Knowing that so many people in Portland pride themselves on what they had already done, we decided to create a rating system from 1 to 10 depending on their footprint. A rating of 1 would represent a footprint of over 80,000 pounds of carbon used annually, with 10 being carbon neutral. This would allow people to start at a level that reflected all of their previous conservation efforts.

Measuring one's carbon footprint also allowed people to set very specific carbon reduction goals. They could easily ascertain, for instance, how many pounds they needed to reduce in order to go, say, from level 4 to level 5. They could also compare themselves against others in a friendly competition. Because everything was measurable it was much more interesting than just doing green actions. How many pounds can you lose in what period of time? Thus came the perfect name, Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds. This was starting to be fun.

I had no idea what to expect, but I hoped for the best. People chuckled when they saw the book title. This was a good sign. Within a few months we had started seven neighborhood-based EcoTeams. To my amazement, we increased our neighbor-to-neighbor recruitment rate from 25 to 43 percent. Tackling this issue directly was very appealing for people in this environmentally conscious community. We had tapped into a pent-up desire to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

The program itself also exceeded our expectations. Households from the participating EcoTeams reduced their annual emissions by 6,700 pounds. And they more than doubled the 10 percent reduction goal the city had set, with an average carbon footprint decrease of 22 percent.

People liked the program and found it to be user friendly. They liked the community-building aspect and the way it set up a challenge. John Wadsworth described how the program helped him to get his daughter involved and make changes she would never have otherwise. "It's a pretty cool thing to know your carbon footprint. Bringing my daughter, age 9, to one meeting helped her get on board for a five-minute shower. This inspired me to look into solar hot water, which in the normal course of things I wouldn't have done."

It was very encouraging to see how ready the residents of Portland were at a time when the world felt like a very different place. In an environmentally aware city like Portland, people naturally saw this as the next important issue to take on and so were quite enthusiastic. Susan and I had approached this project with a modest expectation and so we were thrilled with the results. This was proof beyond doubt that a program like this could work.

We approached the city for funding to expand the pilot. While it provided the city bragging rights in the local government climate change community, the initiative was not a budget priority. There was no political will to take it on at a community level at that point in time.

But this social experiment had registered indelibly in my mind. I knew there would be a time when American communities would need to help citizens reduce their carbon footprint. When it came, I would be ready. Fortunately for our planet, that time has now come, and none too soon.

In 2006 I could see the tide was turning on the issue of global warming. It was time to make Low Carbon Diet available to a wider audience. I updated and expanded the book to include new actions on food, and on starting EcoTeams in workplaces, neighborhoods, social networks, faith-based groups, and communities, thus allowing people to run with the outreach aspects of the program on their own. The expanded book made its debut in the fall of 2006. Since then it has been quite a ride. It won the Independent Publishers "Most Likely to Save the Planet" book award and tapped into the huge groundswell of demand for personal and community action on global warming that was stimulated by Al Gore's documentary.

In December 2006 the Christian Science Monitor published a seminal story about this emerging grassroots movement and the role of Low Carbon Diet as a tool supporting it. Written by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, it was widely passed around the Internet because it helped people see and understand the growing momentum behind personal carbon reduction that was taking shape in America. He writes:

"The timing for a book offering day-to-day solutions to an overwhelming global problem couldn't be better. Gore's group, The Climate Project, which recently began training 1,000 volunteers to give his now-famous slide show, is handing out copies of the book at the end of the session. Many environmental and religious groups are also recommending the book to their members such as the Regeneration Project, a San Francisco-based interfaith ministry, which has linked to the book on its main page. Indeed, preceding and perhaps contributing to the demand for Low Carbon Diet is a remarkable prior effort by The Regeneration Project and its Interfaith Power and Light national network. The organizations showed An Inconvenient Truth to 4,000 congregations nationwide, reaching an estimated 500,000 people. After seeing the movie, audience members around the country asked what, exactly, they could do about global warming."

Velasquez-Manoff goes on to ask "whether the book is a beneficiary of, or a contributor to, this grassroots movement." What I experienced was one of those moments that come along rarely where the forces perfectly align to support change. This confluence was a result of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific consensus reports on the peril the planet is facing; Al Gore's highly effective communication of these risks in his movie; grassroots organizations stepping up to the challenge and recognizing that empowering people to take personal action is one of the most important solutions available; and the availability of the Low Carbon Diet and Cool Community organizing tools.

The rest of this series tells the story of this growing grassroots movement, and of how these transformative tools are helping it change the game around global warming one household and community at a time. We will begin by taking a closer look at this diverse movement of environmental organizations, local government agencies, community and faith-based groups, businesses, and activist citizens. Please join me next month for part two: "An Inconvenient Truth Finds a Convenient Solution."

Posted in David gershon, Energy, Environmental, Policy on Wednesday, July 20, 2011 5:27 pm. Updated: 4:48 pm. | Tags: David Gershon , Greenhouse Gas Emissions , Citizen Engagement , Energy Efficiency , Energy Conservation , Climate Change , Strategy Comments (0)

Tuesday 05/24/2011
Part 4: Teaching Others to Fish

It wasn't long before a request came to adapt the sustainable lifestyle campaign approach. In May 2001 I was asked to speak at an EPA conference in Chicago on the tongue-twisting theme of "nonpoint source water pollution education and outreach."

The conference was tackling the question of how to clean up the 70 percent of America's water bodies being polluted by the fertilizers, pesticides, dog poop, and assorted chemicals that run off our lawns, roads, and other surfaces during storms. Only a small percentage of the country's storm drains connect to sewage treatment facilities. For the most part, storm drains mainline their contents straight into our local watersheds, which consist of an intricate network of underground aquifers, streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, wetlands, bays, and even oceans. Each household's small amount of pollutants when multiplied by the thousands and millions are causing havoc in our water bodies.

Because of the seriousness of this problem, before it would provide a permit to operate water treatment facilities, EPA started mandating that local governments educate their citizens in the prevention of these harmful pollution practices. But with the only tool being information campaigns, local governments and watershed education groups had become painfully aware that raised awareness does not translate into changed behavior. Everyone knew the brochures and television ads were not working, but no one knew what to do.

That was the backdrop. I had been invited to keynote the conference in order to share the behavior-change and recruitment results we had been achieving with our sustainable lifestyle campaign. I did not go into the gathering with the thought that I would challenge the status quo, but effectively my talk started a mini-revolution.

Three hundred and fifty education and outreach practitioners from state and local government and watershed organizations now saw there was another way. They were tantalized by the idea that there was a social technology that had been proven to achieve public participation and change behavior and they were intrigued by the invitation to rethink how they measured their success. Counting how many glossy brochures they had distributed or how many compelling advertisements they had run, or even just measuring the impact of the pollution was no longer acceptable. They had been introduced to a second-order change solution and they were ready to respond.

During the conference several leaders from EPA, assorted state environmental agencies, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation asked if I would be willing to adapt our sustainable lifestyle program to address these water quality issues. Because of the increasing incidence of droughts they also wished me to include a section on water conservation.

I agreed to take on the project. I liked that local government agencies and watershed organizations clearly saw the need for this program. It's much easier to offer up a social innovation when the demand for it already exists, especially if the demand is an urgent one. I also liked that this project would provide me an opportunity to build the capacity of other organizations. I had learned that while I could come into a community and hire staff to do the organizing, it was a lot of extra work to get a program up and running when we did not already have the networks in place. And this certainly would be more cost effective for local government agencies if they could use their own staffs. With a now-proven environmental behavior-change tool, it was time for me to train others in how to manage these campaigns.

I called the program Water Stewardship and applied our core behavior change process: carefully crafted action recipes combined with structured peer support and focused, in this case, on water quality and water conservation. The program took about six months to develop. With grant funding available, three Northern Virginia municipalities lined up to test-drive it: Arlington County, Falls Church, and Fairfax. These communities were in the Four Mile Run watershed surrounding the Potomac River just outside of Washington D.C. They formed a partnership consisting of the three municipalities and a local environmental organization, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment.

Three powerhouse women from these organizations helped us develop the water quality part of the program. Elenor Hodges, Aileen Winquist, and Annette Mills represented the best of grassroots change leaders. It was a pleasure working with them and they gave me the confidence that the knowledge I was handing off would be put to good use.

A watershed organization, Friends of the Rappahannock, also signed on to pilot the program. Its executive director, John Tippett, was exceedingly challenged in protecting the scenic Rappahannock River from the residential runoff of fertilizers generated by the rapid suburban growth of Fredricksburg. "All those Washington D.C. commuters want their pristine green lawns," he told me with a shake of his head. John had been around the block enough times trying various approaches to behavior change that he was genuinely ready for something that had a chance of getting the job done.

Another community to come forward was progressive Boulder, Colo. Boulder is always ahead of the curve so I was not surprised to see its interest. The Boulder initiative was led by a dynamic local government watershed educator, Curry Rosato, who exudes positive energy and enthusiasm. She and her team would also train several other communities in their watershed.

With competent and committed people in the field, my goal was to do everything I could to help them succeed through comprehensive training and follow-up coaching. While this process was relatively straightforward to implement, the program managers needed to be disciplined in following each of the steps. Otherwise they would fall short of getting the results they desired.

The plan was for me to lead a two-day training, followed by monthly coaching calls over twelve months led by our program director, Eve Baer. I had already learned from working with my staff that the training, while providing essential knowledge and tools, was theoretical until people actually had to apply it in the field. It was 20 percent of what they needed to be successful. The other 80 percent came through learning by doing with real-time follow-up coaching.

Based on my past experience, I was confident the behavior-change aspect of the program would be successful. I was hopeful that if the local water issue was understood, the program's community-building would provide the extra edge needed to get people to participate. But most important we needed to build the competency of these local government and watershed organizations to lead this program effectively. This would be our first test in transferring this capability to external change agents.


These three efforts were successful by both the standards of the communities implementing them and by ours. They achieved the behavior-change and recruitment results they wanted, and we transferred this social technology so that it was theirs to use permanently. Because of the unique local nature and relevance of water issues, they were able to achieve a remarkable 40 percent participation rate through the neighbor-to-neighbor outreach process. Participating households averaged 10 water stewardship actions each and achieved impressive water usage savings of 44 percent, or 20,000 gallons per year per participant.

The accomplishment and satisfaction of the program participants and their civic partners were gratifying for everyone involved. "My neighbors responded very enthusiastically to the invitation to join a Water Stewardship EcoTeam," said team leader Katie Watters, "and were ready to move into action immediately." And so they did. Not only did team members take significant protection and conservation measures, but they also held a cleanup of the alley behind their own house one weekend. Like most teams, this one rated getting to know one another better very highly.

Aileen Winquist, an environmental planner for the Department of Environmental Services in Arlington County and an organizing partner in the program, was particularly excited about having a means to track exactly what changes people made in their lifestyles, and to estimate the pollution reduction that resulted from those changes. And after struggling for years to develop an effective way to motivate citizens to change the behaviors that pollute their beautiful river, John Tippet of Friends of the Rappahannock was delighted and relieved to find "a tool that really works."


This decade-long quest had been an extremely gratifying journey. We had learned how to achieve and promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles so vital to our planet's well-being; further a new social compact between a city and its citizens as partners in social change; and shift neighborhoods from residential isolation to genuine community, often for the very first time. I had also learned, on a more personal level, about the process of developing a social innovation and the path of the social entrepreneur.

But perhaps the most important learning, certainly from the point of view of social change, was cracking the code of an essential factor for second-order change. We had learned how to achieve measurable behavior change in people's lives on the street where they lived - the epicenter for social change.

Join me next month for a new series in which I will apply these learnings to helping citizens reduce their carbon footprint and offer a strategy to scale it up community-wide.

Posted in David gershon, Environmental, Water, Public works on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:11 pm. Updated: 11:22 am. | Tags: David Gershon , Citizen Engagement , Water Pollution , Water Distribution Comments (0)

Wednesday 03/23/2011
Part Three: Taking the Program to Scale

This is the third of a monthly four-part series excerpted from chapter 2 of my book Social Change 2.0. It is built around four questions that lie at the heart of any strategy to make a community more environmentally sustainable - the engagement of its citizens.

1) Can we get the citizens in our community to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles? 2) If so, can we get these behavior changes to be sustained over time? 3) If we are able to achieve these objectives, how do we take such an effort to scale? 4) And finally, what are the possibilities that can accrue to our community from achieving this type of pro-environment behavior change and community engagement?

This series is based on a decade of social learning and experimentation to answer these questions with some 20,000 people in 25 cities across the country. Enjoy the journey!

A program that could help residents of a city successfully adopt environmentally sustainable behaviors, maintain them over time, and recruit program participants with some consistency was a winning combination. Knowledge of Portland's achievement began spreading to other cities through the local government networks. Mike Lindberg, Portland's visionary commissioner of public utilities and a city council member who had championed this program, began receiving invitations to speak about it at local government conferences, and so did I.

At one meeting of twenty innovative large U.S. cities we generated so much interest that this group of government officials decided to make their next meeting a field trip to Portland to study the sustainable lifestyle campaign firsthand. They wanted to determine if this was just a Portland phenomenon or if the program could work elsewhere. I wondered the same thing myself.

When the time came, Mike arranged for our meeting to take place in one of Portland's landmark Greek restaurants-where, as it turned out, a band was playing very lively Greek music in another room. Not the best of environments to make a presentation to a group of tired, demanding city officials who had flown in from around the country. But in spite of this distraction, the Portland citizens and city officials we had asked to speak rose to the occasion. Program participants passionately shared about meeting their neighbors for the first time, and how much fun they had, and, of course, their environmental improvements. City government officials talked about how exciting it was to partner with committed citizens and how much was possible when you have an engaged citizenry. It went on like this for about an hour. Then challenging questions started coming from these somewhat incredulous visiting city officials. There were good answers, but I could sense that there was still skepticism. This was not how they had always done business and they weren't sure if they wanted to change.

I will always remember the meeting the next morning in Portland City Hall when the city officials gathered and began describing the experience of hearing about the program. "I felt like I was attending a revival meeting," said one with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Others indicated how impressive this outpouring of enthusiasm was in Portland. But the general sense was that although this was all well and good for Portland, it could never work in their cities. Their citizens were just not ready to make these changes. Their city councils would not get behind something like this. They had already tried citizen engagement and it hadn't worked. Their city was just too fill in the blank. After hearing them throw cold water on the Portland experience for fifteen minutes I decided to chime in.

"The term ‘revival meeting' is actually apt, but not exactly how you mean it," I suggested. "This program offers a revival of something that has been lost or severely reduced in American life-citizenship. What you heard were not angry activists criticizing the government, which is certainly needed sometimes, but ordinary citizens saying, ‘we are doing our part and we'd like to partner with our government so we can take it further.'

"You heard city agencies acknowledging citizens for doing their part and saying, ‘Yes, let's take it further,'" I continued. "You also heard residents who had become neighbors and built community where they lived, around issues that mattered. What you experienced was a new civic model-city and citizens as partners. It beats getting yelled at by disgruntled citizens and as a result wishing to avoid them."

I smiled, and couldn't resist closing by saying, "Try it, you'll like it."

We were successful in recruiting two cities: Kansas City, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio. Now I had to face the music. Was this a Portland phenomenon, as they had wondered, only possible in a progressive city with environmentally conscious citizens, or was this model transferable and universal? Many initiatives developed in progressive cities don't transfer well because they are unique to those cities' populations and local government officials. We would soon find out about ours because these two cities were not considered environmentally progressive in the least. In fact, Kansas City, Missouri was still struggling to get a curbside recycling ordinance passed.

We went forward hoping for the best. We created a program manager job description, and coined the term "living-room friendly" to describe how the person needed to be someone who people would want to invite into their homes. We looked for people with a passion for doing environmental work, community-organizing experience, excellent communication skills, enthusiasm, a comfort in selling ideas to people, a pioneering spirit, and a can-do attitude.

If a candidate got this far, there was a final threshold that would determine whether or not he or she was really suited for the experience. In a recruitment pitch, well honed from my previous community organizing adventures, I told them.

"This job will require long hours and a lot of time on evenings and weekends," I continued, "and we can only offer you a modest salary since we are not able to charge much for an unproven product. There is no guarantee of success and in fact the odds are against us. But if we are successful we will have a shot at changing the world." On hearing this, some candidates ran the other way, but there were enough people, I am happy to say for our world, who found this opportunity very appealing.

We worked hard to get various city agencies and elected officials on board. While this is never easy, it was quite challenging in these cities where they were definitely not as enlightened about environmental matters as the government officials in Portland. We ultimately had to work with a smaller base of official support, but we had enough to move forward.

We used the same selling points to recruit team leaders. Again, while not as easy a sell because of the lower level of environmental consciousness, we were still able to find willing people because of the co-benefits of meeting neighbors and improving the neighborhood. From all the EcoTeams we had formed around the country and world, I was confident that the program would deliver behavior change if people were willing to participate. Participation was our crucible. Would our three selling points appeal to people in neighborhoods that did not have Portland's environmental awareness?

We were committed to making sure our new program managers had the benefit of all our learning in Portland. If we were to fall short of our goals, it would not be for lack of our best effort. We created master classes where Michael and Llyn shared the various recruitment and training techniques they had found successful as well as those that had not worked. They, along with Eve and me, were in constant communication with our new program managers. We debriefed them regularly to see what worked and helped them make course corrections where necessary. Because of the length of the program and the steep learning curve of bringing new program managers on line, it would take us awhile to know how we were doing.

As we were going through this learning process in Kansas City and Columbus, word about the program kept spreading and more municipalities signed on: Madison and Dane County in Wisconsin; Bend and Deschuttes County in Oregon; Issaquah and King County in Washington; Rockland County in New York, and the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We now had cities and counties representing a wide diversity of size, governmental structure, and environmental awareness among citizens.

With more cities and people in the game, the number of ideas and social innovations for how to get people to participate increased multifold. We learned how to form mutually beneficial partnerships with local nonprofits, faith-based groups, businesses, and government agencies in which they would help recruit neighborhood team leaders. We kept improving our techniques for helping team leaders succeed in their outreach efforts to their neighbors. We developed personalized support systems for these team leaders by providing them trained coaches who had successfully been through the program.

And most important, we discovered that no matter what city the program landed in, our three benefits were universally appealing. People everywhere care about the quality of life they will leave to their children, and they want to reduce the toll they take on the environment. If given the opportunity, they wish to know their neighbors and to build a greater sense of community where they live. Improving their neighborhood is a wonderful extra benefit, attractive to everyone. While there needed to be adjustments for the culture and environmental circumstances of each city, the program and recruitment process was successful in each of these very diverse communities.

It worked better in some than others, but in no community did we get less than a 15 percent recruitment rate on the block. In Bend, Oregon, we got an astonishing recruitment rate of 32 percent-higher even than Portland. We had proved this program was transferable and could be successful just about anywhere. It was hard work. It was labor intensive. It required the right people on the ground. It required a willing local government. It was not inexpensive, but relative to media information campaigns aimed at changing behavior, it was quite cost effective. And it actually changed behavior! In short, it was successful. We had set out to create a new social innovation to measurably reduce the significant impact our lifestyles take on the environment and successfully disseminate it, and we had done it.

Sustainable lifestyle campaigns would continue to expand in these and other cities, both in the United States and throughout the world, ultimately encompassing some 200 communities with the participation of several million people in twenty-two countries. They would also provide a new policy option for local and state governments and undergird a budding sustainable community movement. But little did I envision the foundation all this would lay for a future none of us could yet imagine.

In 2007 the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would inform the world in no uncertain terms that either we significantly change our behaviors or face an inhospitable world for human beings. In a future series, I will share how the sustainable lifestyle campaign morphed into a solution to take on the issue of global warming-household by household, community by community. Until that time however, I still had more learning opportunities.

Join me in a month for the final installment.

Posted in David gershon, Environmental on Wednesday, March 23, 2011 8:57 am. Updated: 3:09 pm. | Tags: David Gershon , Citizen Engagement , Climate Change Comments (0)

Wednesday 02/09/2011
Part Two: Engaging the Community

This is the second of a monthly four-part series excerpted from chapter 2 of my book Social Change 2.0. It is built around four questions that lie at the heart of any strategy to make a community more environmentally sustainable - the engagement of its citizens.

1) Can we get the citizens in our community to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles?

2) If so, can we get these behavior changes to be sustained over time?

3) If we are able to achieve these objectives, how do we take such an effort to scale?

4) And finally, what are the possibilities that can accrue to our community from achieving this type of pro-environment behavior change and community engagement?

This series is based on a decade of social learning and experimentation to answer these questions with some 20,000 people in 25 cities across the country. Enjoy the journey!

From my initial research I had learned that one of the biggest obstacles limiting people from taking action was their belief that they were just a drop in the bucket, so why bother? To address this issue we developed the final topic area in the EcoTeam's agenda which we called "Empowering Others."

The appeal to people was this. You want to make a difference or you wouldn't be doing this program. To make any meaningful positive impact on the environment, many of us need to make changes in our daily lifestyle practices. This program is designed to help you adopt sustainable lifestyle practices and then encourage others to do the same. We need to be role models and we need to get others involved. If enough of us do this, rather than being drops in the bucket, our drops will actually fill the bucket.

And reaching out to friends and neighbors is socially rewarding. We heard from many people who were grateful for the chance to create more of a sense of community where they lived. "I've lived in the neighborhood for twenty-one years, but getting to know my neighbors [only] started three years ago with an EcoTeam," wrote Sarah Conn on West Newton, Massachusetts in a representative letter. "There is a lot more friendliness on the streets now. It's given us the feeling of being embedded in the community and having roots." It was a sentiment we heard echoed again and again.

Through making the intention to multiply one's impact an explicit part of the program and providing people the tools to share their natural enthusiasm for their experience, many of the teams were spawning other teams. In several cases, as many as eight new EcoTeams came from a single team. This was, however, a hit-or-miss process. Was there a way to make this ripple effect more systematic and replicable?

Portland would provide the opportunity to find out how. To start with I needed to recruit two local program managers to be responsible for managing the outreach effort. I was very fortunate to find two outstanding individuals, Llyn Peabody and Michael Dowd, both of whom are imaginative, enthusiastic, and very smart about community organizing. Along with my program director, Eve Baer, another gifted community organizer, we created what we called the Portland Sustainable Lifestyle Campaign. Our goal was to form sixty EcoTeams in year one. To do this we would need to find people willing to start the EcoTeams and then convince each team to start at least one new team.

We were lucky to begin this learning adventure in a city known for its environmental consciousness and accomplishments. There was a lot of buzz around the sustainable lifestyle campaign; it was seen as the next new environmental thing. But could we build this buzz into something that was self generating?

Hello, I am Your Neighbor

By now I had discovered that while social networks of friends were naturals for starting teams, you soon exhausted the number of people in those networks. As a consequence this was not a strategic pathway for systematically expanding the program. The neighborhood, however, was attractive because there were no built-in limitations for expansion. On several occasions the number of teams being formed kept growing from block to block, as neighbors told other neighbors about the program. It also provided people the very important motivating benefit of getting to know their neighbors.

It was a daunting thought, however, to imagine building this program around a neighborhood dissemination process. The conventional wisdom is that in America we don't know our neighbors and that's just fine; we are an individualistic society and people like their privacy. But my intuition told me this was not what people really felt. Given a chance, I believed, people really would like to know their neighbors. They just did not know how to go about it.

Prior to starting work in Portland, I had gotten a small grant to test market the idea of a neighbor-to-neighbor organizing model. We hired a market research firm to test a script for organizing at the most local of levels-the block. We developed the script based on what we learned from debriefing both those people who had successfully started teams on their blocks and those who had been unsuccessful.

"Hi, I am your neighbor from up the street. I would like to invite you to my home to hear about a new program sponsored by (city's name). Its purpose is to help us better conserve our environment's natural resources for the sake of our children, get to know each other better as neighbors, and make our neighborhood a healthier and safer place to live. The meeting is at (location, day, and time). Can you make it?"

We had tested the script over the phone in four regions of the country: Northwest, Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. Forty-three percent of the people we reached said they would be very likely to attend the meeting and 42 percent said they would be somewhat likely to attend. We were encouraged by this response, but of course this was a phone survey. We would soon find out if we could really get these results.

Michael was a natural-born salesman. He used to be an evangelical minister, so he knew how to inspire people with his passion. Llyn was charming and had an engaging way of being with people. They were a perfect pair for recruiting EcoTeam leaders and they found them in a variety of places. Some were from likely places like environmental groups, but Michael and Llyn were also successful with neighborhood associations and civic groups. They recruited the first batch of ten EcoTeam leaders by offering the same three benefits used in the telephone script: learning how to conserve natural resources, getting to know their neighbors better, and making their neighborhood a healthier and safer place to live.

These leaders all believed in the cause and were willing to reach out to others, but knocking on their neighbors' doors filled some of them with dread. Many of them admitted that they were afraid of being rejected or, even worse, thought of as pushy. We tried to bolster their confidence by telling them about the very encouraging results from our market research. We also told them that if they were getting doors slammed in their faces, they certainly did not need to continue.

The big door-knocking event would take place on a Saturday afternoon from 11 AM to 2 PM. The leaders were taught the simple script and Michael or Llyn offered to walk with any of them who needed their confidence bolstered. We were all eager to see what kind of response these brave souls would get to their reaching out in a society acculturated to neighborhoods of isolation.

Michael and Llyn called me that night bubbling over with excitement and enthusiasm. "It worked so well," they exclaimed. The feedback from the leaders was consistent. Rather than having doors slammed in their faces, they had been greeted quite warmly. In fact, almost everyone said they were interested in attending the information meeting. Some had to check their calendars or speak with a spouse, but as the market research had predicted, there was clear and genuine interest.

Michael and Llyn debriefed the leaders carefully so we could learn as much as possible. The leaders reported that many of their neighbors said that no neighbor had ever knocked on their door before. They described how many of the people they spoke to were touched by this experience, and quite excited to meet other neighbors at the upcoming meeting. Many individuals told them they had wanted to do something for the environment but aside from recycling did not know how to go further. People consistently thanked these intrepid team leaders for taking the time to do this.

After our initial euphoria of thinking we might have a breakthrough for organizing EcoTeams, it occurred to me that this was a far more profound learning. We had touched a nerve in the modern American psyche. I don't know my neighbors and would like to know them. I don't wish to remain isolated, but I don't know what to do about it. Unwittingly, we had stumbled on a way to reinvent community in our modern disconnected neighborhoods. I would spend many years unpacking this insight.

The neighborhood gatherings in the ten team leaders' homes were scheduled for one week later. The big question was: Would the people who said they were coming actually attend? The team leaders were instructed to call them the night before to remind them and to confirm their attendance. The evening arrived. The market research had indicated that 43 percent of the people were "very likely" to come, and that was exactly what happened.

The "very likely" group came and the "somewhat likely" group did not. They were predisposed, but not quite ready to put this on the top of the list. They would, however, be good prospects for the next round of teams once this program was a more known commodity on the block.

Of those who attended, approximately 75 percent decided to join a team. Some who did not choose to participate would have, but scheduling was an issue. For others, the time commitment was more than they were ready to make, or they felt they were doing enough already. Ultimately, a remarkable 25 percent of everybody approached agreed to participate in a seven meeting program over four months!

This was unprecedented in community organizing and we were thrilled. Equally important was the fact that most of these participants were not what one would call "true believer" environmentalists, but rather they were their neighbors. This neighborhood-based approach was able to tap into a much wider circle of possible participants than our previous approaches had been able to do. The additional benefits of getting to know your neighbors and improving the neighborhood were very strong motivators. We would come to see over time that they were actually the strongest motivators.

As this initial round of teams completed the program they were encouraged to reach out to others on their block. On some of the blocks most of the households ended up joining EcoTeams. The momentum began spreading to neighboring blocks and it became clear that we had laid the foundation for a repeatable way to grow the program.

Join me in a month for the next installment.

Posted in David gershon on Wednesday, February 9, 2011 11:50 am. Updated: 12:05 pm. | Tags: Citizen Engagement , David Gershon Comments (0)

Monday 01/03/2011
Empowering Citizens to Adopt Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyles

Part One: A Change in Behavior

This is the first of a monthly four-part series excerpted from chapter 2 of my book Social Change 2.0. It is built around four questions that lie at the heart of any strategy to make a community more environmentally sustainable - the engagement of its citizens. 1) Can we get the citizens in our community to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles? 2) If so, can we get these behavior changes to be sustained over time? 3) If we are able to achieve these objectives, how do we take such an effort to scale? 4) And finally, what are the possibilities that can accrue to our community from achieving this type of pro-environment behavior change and community engagement? This series is based on a decade of social learning and experimentation to answer these questions with some 20,000 people in 25 cities across the country. Enjoy the journey.

In the early 1990s America and the other industrialized countries were waking up to the realization that our environmental problems were not exclusively the result of pollution caused by big business, and that therefore the necessary solutions were not going to come exclusively from governments regulating those businesses.

Through the research I was doing I learned that America, as 5 percent of the planet's population, consumes 25 percent of the planet's natural resources - oil, timber, minerals, among others. And as Americans, we directly consume one third of these resources through our daily lifestyle choices and influence the other two thirds indirectly through the products we buy. And here's the kicker: As Americans, we waste up to 75 percent of what we consume through our lack of awareness and efficiency. Said another way, we waste up to 75 percent of our hugely disproportionate share of the Earth's bounty. The bad news is that as individuals the ways in which we use the planet's natural resources on a daily basis are a major part of the problem. The good news is that if we are a major part of the problem, we can also be a major part of the solution, if we can adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyle practices.

So we need to change our lifestyles. Simple enough. Earth Day 1990 helped spawn a cottage industry of "how-to" books ranging from 50 to 1,000 things individuals could do to lessen their environmental toll on the planet, and this seemed to be a promising start. But studies were showing that books and media campaigns imploring people were not translating into changing behavior. Yes, we were beginning to leave our newspapers tied in bundles at the curb, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

To better understand this disconnect between people's growing environmental awareness and their lack of behavior change I began asking everyone I knew and even some I didn't this question: What would help you translate what you know about the environment into new behaviors in your life?

Here's what came back to me:

• Where do I start?

• Which are the important actions?

• How do I implement these actions?

• Does what I do actually make a difference?

I knew that if people were to be a solution, there needed to be good answers to these questions and the frustration underlying them. I was speaking to people of goodwill who wanted to do the right thing. But they were frustrated and questioned whether or not change was really possible. Some had lost ground to cynicism. What was needed was becoming clearer.


I knew I had to develop credible answers to these four questions or I would be wasting my time. I began by organizing the plethora of existing how-to environmental information so it could be more easily acted on. I decided to use a design format we had developed for our Empowerment Workshop. In that training, to help people make personal changes we divided life up into seven areas: relationships, work, body, money, emotions, sexuality, and spirituality. People focused on one area before moving to the next. In each area they developed a vision of what they wished to accomplish and then developed a plan to implement it.

Translating this design framework was straightforward. With the assistance of a colleague, Robert Gilman, we developed a workbook based on the five major areas in which a household impacts the environment - solid waste, energy, water, transportation, and purchasing. We added another section on empowering others so that people could encourage friends and neighbors to make changes, too.

In each of these five topic areas we developed a menu of possible actions. Each action was written as a one-page recipe with the time and materials required, the resources saved, a number indicating its degree of difficulty, and a playful cartoon illustration.

This programmatic approach was a major improvement over a simple list of disconnected actions. But to get people actually to take action would require some form of motivation. Again I turned to our Empowerment Workshop for inspiration. What were the essential elements that motivated people to change? The empowerment tools we offered were certainly important, but they were not motivational. What actually motivated people to change was witnessing and engaging with other people who were changing in front of their eyes. Many workshop participants commented that they had personal growth breakthroughs in this group setting that they would never have had on their own. It was the group format that inspired people to change. Yes, a support group might just be the yeast needed to raise this dough into bread.

I called the support group an EcoTeam and developed basic guidelines for conducting meetings. Different team members would each lead one of the topic meetings every two weeks. At these EcoTeam meetings everyone would share which actions they would take before the next meeting. At the next gathering, they would then report on what they had actually done. They would also tell the group if they had encountered any problems, and if so how they addressed them so others could learn from their experiences. If they wished help in implementing a particular action they were encouraged to ask their teammates for support. They were also asked to take the program seriously by agreeing to be accountable for taking the actions to which they committed themselves.

An environmental behavior-change program was born. I called it EcoTeam: A Six Step Program to Create an Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyle (later changed to the Green Living Handbook). I started introducing the book at conferences and through environmental networks such as the community of Earth Day organizers. People were immediately attracted to it. They liked the program structure, the support system that established accountability for taking action, the easy-to-use recipe format of the actions, and the opportunity to express their environmental values in such a concrete way. EcoTeams began sprouting up all over the place. Within a few months there were more than fifty teams spread across the country, then a hundred.

They continued to proliferate and soon were taking many different forms. They were occurring among friends, in faith communities, workplaces, neighborhoods, and service organizations. The program was adaptable enough to fit into each of these unique cultures.

I also shared the program with international friends and colleagues I had worked with in the large global peace-building project I had organized, the First Earth Run. A number of them ended up asking if they could translate and adapt the workbook to their cultures. I eagerly supported this adaptation process and the program rapidly spread in these countries as well. And as word got out, I started receiving more and more requests from different parts of the globe.


Management guru Tom Peters describes the typical creation process for new ideas as "ready, fire, aim." I had fired and now it was time to aim. This is the hard-work phase of maturing a social innovation. It meant I had to become strategic about what I was doing. Until now I had accomplished whatever I had accomplished with my own money and a small research grant. If I hoped to make any kind of meaningful change I needed to establish an international organization to implement it. I went about creating a non-profit arm to my Empowerment Institute so I could attract philanthropic support, and I called it Global Action Plan for the Earth or GAP for short. Although the means were limited at the moment, the vision was not.

Because I had established a successful track record by mounting the First Earth Run, and because this program struck a chord in society, I was able to secure two six-figure foundation grants. I now had the financing for the "aiming" phase of refining and disseminating this program. It was time to address my next set of "how-to" questions.

• Was this program effective in helping people change their behavior and achieve substantive environmental improvements?

• If so, could these behavior changes be sustained over time?

• What was the best way to disseminate the program?

The questions would take me most of the 1990s to answer.

This was an iterative and slow learning process. Because the program was four months long it took as much as a year, or in some cases two, to find out if a particular strategy was working. We would try out a new behavior change or organizing strategy, make some progress and then it would stall. We would tweak the strategy and have to wait another few months before we could find out if that change was successful. If not, we were back to the drawing board.

With the initial funding I was able to hire staff to help me track results. We developed a pre- and post-program participation survey called a Sustainable Lifestyle Assessment. We created a computer program to calculate the results we got from this assessment and then provided this feedback to participants. Although people were not interested in doing their own calculations, they were willing to fill out these pre- and post-program assessments. On the front end they found the process of assessing the environmental sustainability of their lifestyle fascinating and relevant for deciding which actions they would take. On the back end they wanted to learn what resource savings they had achieved, provided we crunched the numbers for them. This was a win-win because we were eager to learn how effective the program was in achieving measurable behavior change.

The initial test results from the first 200 households were very promising. These households on average reduced their annual solid waste by 40 percent, water use by 32 percent, energy use by 17 percent, vehicle miles traveled by 8 percent, CO2 emissions by 15 percent, and achieved financial savings of $255.

We were very heartened by these results. Because there is so much room for environmental improvement in the American lifestyle, these high numbers made sense intuitively. Having done the calculations ourselves we could vouch for their accuracy, provided that people were filling out the assessments honestly. Several of our funders, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studied these numbers and our process for crunching the data, and concluded that this data was trustworthy. That said, there was nothing to compare this against. We were blazing a new trail and learning as we went along.

As more people participated in the program, we kept getting consistent results. Eventually we would collect data from 20,000 people with comparable resource and financial savings. The program had passed its first test. It had demonstrated it could help people substantially reduce their environmental footprint.

The next big question was now upon us. Were these reductions in natural resource use being sustained over time? The greatest challenge in the behavior-change world is recidivism. Think weight loss. Would people go back to their old environmental habits in six months or a year or two years? Or would they be able to keep the belt cinched once they reduced their use of natural resources?

My hunch was that they would. My reasoning was that once you develop a new household system, like recycling, it is actually hard to go back to the old system. And people were taking these actions because it was the right thing to do. No one was forcing them. They wanted to act on their values. I would ask people who were now recycling what it was like to go to a place where you couldn't recycle, and the consistent response was a cringe. It was painful for them to throw away recyclable materials. But until I had some real data it was just my speculation - and perhaps wishful thinking.

Because everyone who funded this program wanted to find out if it was a worthwhile investment, there was no lack of opportunity to start answering this question. Over a number of years we conducted seven independent longitudinal studies funded by foundations and government agencies both in the United States and Europe. The most in-depth study was a two-year longitudinal study funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Environment. It was conducted by Paul Harland and Henk Staats of Leiden University's Centre for Environmental and Energy Research.

They studied 150 households who had participated on EcoTeams as part of our sustainable lifestyle program. What they found was that on average these households adopted 26 new pro-environment behaviors as a result of the program. Two years later they had sustained their changes in 19 of these behaviors and continued to improve in seven of them. They had also adopted four new pro-environment behaviors. In other words, not only had they sustained the behavior changes, they had advanced them. In addition, 53 percent of the people in the study transferred what they learned to their workplaces, further leveraging the positive impact of the changes. Based on a thorough literature search, Harland and Staats concluded that our sustainable lifestyle program "was unprecedented in achieving significant and sustainable behavior change." The other studies validated this conclusion.

Having an environmental program that can produce and sustain behavior change was exciting. I was now asked to speak at many conferences and my colleagues around the world were also getting much recognition. The funding for our sustainable lifestyle program was growing. In the Netherlands, the program received more funding from the Ministry of Environment than any other environmental initiative. The program also began winning environmental awards both in America and Europe.

There was now interest in implementing our program coming from local, state, and federal government agencies in the United States. These agencies were increasingly confronting environmental issues that required citizens to adopt behaviors such as conserving water and energy; reducing or eliminating household and lawn chemicals that were polluting local water bodies; and being more efficient in driving to reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, road construction, and greenhouse gases. The director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Lang Marsh, with whom we would work in Portland, stated his agency's problem this way: "Citizen behavior change has been one of our most difficult challenges in advancing environmental protection."

From a systems point of view, the environmental outcomes these government agencies were seeking required a shift from first to second order change solutions. First order change solutions, in this context, addressed the easy-to-reach low-hanging fruit of obvious environmental problems and were focused on regulating easily identifiable polluting companies. Second order change solutions required climbing higher into the tree, so to speak, and were far more complex to implement because they involved getting millions of people to change their lifestyles.

The government's first order change tool of command and control was exactly right for addressing environmental protection when business was the problem. A company could be regulated and fined based on what came out of its smokestack. But when the daily lifestyle of individual human beings became the problem, the government was at a loss for meaningful action. You can't legislate lifestyle change. Financial incentives are not only just marginally effective, but politically difficult to implement. And information campaigns aimed at encouraging citizens to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyle practices are also only marginally effective for behavior change. The research data on this last strategy are quite emphatic about its limitations.

Sharon Dunwoody, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, states:

"When social problems erupt, one classic response of governments and organizations is to wage an information campaign. The goals are often noble ones, the dollars spent gargantuan, and the outcomes all too predictable: Messages seem to change the behavior of some people some of the time, but have almost no discernible impact on most people most of the time. This situation has so discouraged policy-makers in the past that the pattern was given its own dismal label: 'minimal effects.'"

Local and state government agencies needed a better way to create behavior change and our sustainable lifestyle program was the right tool at the right time. As a result, I soon had my first contract. The city of Portland, Ore., having heard about our program from an enthusiastic EcoTeam member and respected civic leader, wanted the program. I remember well the date that the municipal ordinance was passed by the city council providing funding. It was October 16, on my 50th birthday. What a great birthday present!

I had now answered my first two questions in the affirmative. Could this program help people change their behaviors and achieve substantive environmental improvements; and were these behaviors sustained over time? My final question, which had been looming large in my mind but never been answered, was now upon me. Could I scale up this program?

Join me in a month for the next installment.

Posted in David gershon, Policy, Public works on Monday, January 3, 2011 3:19 pm. Updated: 4:44 pm. | Tags: Citizen Engagement , David Gershon , U.s. Environmental Protection Agency , Strategy , Traffic , Vehicle Miles Traveled Comments (0)

Featured Events