Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 3: Instead of Cursing the Dark, Light a Candle

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Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 4:06 pm

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.

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