Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

April 14, 2014

Showdown at the Climate Corral

Tompkins Weekly 4-14-14

By Gay Nicholson

At the end of March, lines were drawn in the sand and gauntlets thrown down.  On the same day that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their latest warning about the rapid escalation of climate disruption and its ever-widening impacts, ExxonMobil came out with a shareholder report assuring investors that it has every intention of extracting and selling their vast oil and gas reserves, and that they doubted any government would be willing to stop them.  It seems we have reached a showdown at the Climate Corral… and its not just ExxonMobil and the IPCC inside that arena.

Maybe it is time we really talked this through – because after all, the climate showdown is something that all of us must face someday.  Sustainable Tompkins is launching The People’s Salon: Conversations that Matter to Your Future with a shared public inquiry into the climate dilemma.  “The Climate, the Market, and the Commons” will be the theme for a series of conversation salons held on Thursday evenings, 7-9 pm, on April 17, May 8, June 5, and June 19 at the Sustainability Center, 111 N. Albany St., Ithaca.

The salon topics will explore four key questions:

April 17:  Why are we stuck in climate denial?

May 8:      Can business and technology save us?

June 5:     Will government intervene?

June 19:    Is it up to the citizenry?

Climate change presents a troubling predicament.  It’s a complex global problem with no easy local solutions.  Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are underway across the planet, and people of conscience are devoting themselves to various aspects of climate justice.  Meanwhile, business as usual is pursued and the majority of people inhabit parallel realities where climate disruption is recognized as a real threat and everyday life continues as if it were not.  Even though we will all pay the costs of climate change to some degree, most people are not participating in efforts to protect our atmospheric Commons.

We need to develop a better shared understanding of why we are so slow to respond, how the structure of our economy both creates the problem and offers solutions, and what (exactly) are we, The People, going to do about protecting our shared future.

Three speakers familiar with various perspectives on each topic will kick start the conversation before the audience is invited to share their own viewpoints, questions, speculations, and proposed actions.  At the opening salon on April 17, Nancy Menning (Philosophy & Religion) of Ithaca College, and Dave Wolfe (Horticulture) and Lauren Chambliss (Communication) of Cornell University, will outline some of our motivations for remaining in denial about climate change, and offer insights into how we might dismantle what seems to be a key barrier to our mobilization for the Climate Showdown.

There are at least three interpretations for why we aren’t taking aggressive action as a species to address climate disruption.  One is that denial is an individual psychological response to the threat of a loss.  We pretend it isn’t happening so that we don’t have to go through a painful inner process.  So denial is seen as the first stage in the grieving process of giving up our version of modern civilization and our memory of the planet we grew up on.

Another interpretation is more sociological/biological in that humans have had to be in constant denial all through our evolution because the world is a risky threatening place and if we allowed ourselves to be constantly aware of all the threats, we’d be paralyzed (not to mention very anxious).  So, perhaps denial is our normal state of consciousness and the challenge is just to make the threat more visible and immediate so we can understand the need to act.

A third common approach is that we are in denial through a rationalistic risk-based analysis.  This is an econometrics perspective that suggests that many have concluded they face a low personal risk from climate disruption so it is rational not to invest time or money in addressing a threat that will mainly hit other people in other places at another time.  Especially if you are making money based on business as usual.

Or is there a fourth possibility?  Perhaps we are participants in the “social organization of denial” and are responding to emotional cues from others that help us collectively maintain a sense of innocence in the face of very distressing information on climate change.  Perhaps our social norms and collective pattern of thinking keep us from disturbing each other with more than superficial small talk about the weird weather.

Probably all these processes are involved and maybe more.  But we should be having a much more public exploration of our shared denial, and how that may be sourced differently among different parts of the population.  If we had a clearer understanding of denial, perhaps we would be able to work together more effectively to overcome it in ourselves and in others.  By starting the salon series with this conversation about denial, we might avoid some false assumptions when we look for solutions to the climate dilemma.

We hope you will join us at The People’s Salon on April 17 and thereafter.  We really need to talk.

(Details about the other salon topics and guest speakers will be posted at

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Tompkins.

April 7, 2014

Spring into Sustainable Mobility!

Tompkins Weekly  4-7-14

By Chrisophia Somerfeldt

Have you ever wished you could do something radical—yet not overwhelming—about climate change? Here’s one idea: turn off your car. More specifically, turn off your ignition when parked and stop unnecessary idling. You can save money, reduce emissions and protect the health of kids, all at the same time.

Debunking Modern Idling Myths

Turning off the car during short stops often feels strange to my family, friends, and even to me. For starters, as a recent study by Vanderbilt University shows, the majority of Americans hold false, outdated beliefs about idling. Fact: modern cars warm up better by slow acceleration than by sitting still. A study by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation showed that a car driven (gently) for 12 minutes in 14-degree-Fahrenheit weather will reach the same temperature as one that idles for 30 minutes. Your car’s interior will also warm up faster in motion, and you won’t have to inhale the exhaust that often leaks into stationary cars.

What about wear and tear on the engine? More frequent restarting has little impact on modern engine components like the battery and starter. On the other hand, idling can contribute to incomplete combustion or “glazing” inside the engine, fouling of the spark plugs, aging of the catalytic converter, and increased corrosion of the exhaust system. Idling an engine forces it to operate in an inefficient and gasoline-rich mode that, over time, can degrade the engine’s performance and reduce fuel efficiency.

A third myth is that re-starting uses more gas than idling. Wrong! Running your car uses more gas. Two minutes of idling uses gas equal to about a mile’s worth of driving. A good rule of thumb is to turn off your car when stopped for just ten seconds or more—but the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, found that restarting a six-cylinder engine uses as much gas as idling the same car for just six seconds!

For Kids’ Sake

Warming a car by driving slowly and turning it off for even the shortest drop-off, chat or wait simply makes sense. But will that affect more than your wallet? Absolutely. Vehicle exhaust contains numerous carcinogens and can exacerbate cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung cancer, diabetes, and other health issues. When you turn off your car, you preserve local air quality and protect those most vulnerable: elders, people already facing health issues, and children.

In fact, schools everywhere are adopting anti-idling policies and practices, including in New York State, where DEC regulations prohibit more than five minutes of idling for all heavy duty vehicles and buses, except for certain functional or safety reasons. Ithaca City code also prohibits needless idling over five minutes, and at least 31 states and cities from Aspen, CO to Washington, D.C. have anti-idling laws, with D.C.’s involving a $1,000 fine for a first time violation by a commercial vehicle.

Reducing Greenhouse Gases

So what if we all turn our cars off for even the shortest (non-traffic) stops—would that really influence climate change? Idling is estimated to produce approximately 1.6 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States. According to research done by Natural Resources Canada, if 100 drivers of light duty vehicles avoided idling for 5 minutes a day, over the course of a year it would be equal to taking 8 vehicles off the road.

The Vanderbilt study mentioned earlier calculated that sitting in place while the engine is running cumulatively wastes more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year and that even “a one-minute decline in idling among those 57 percent of Americans estimated to hold inaccurate beliefs about idling would reduce CO2 emissions by roughly 8 million tons annually and eliminate the need for 903 million gallons of gasoline per year.” Add those emissions reductions to less gas being transported and cars lasting longer, and we are starting to get somewhere.

A Cultural Revolution?

What may be most radical about turning off our stopped cars, however, is the cultural shift involved. Idling myths are one barrier to stopping idling—another may be our emotional reluctance to turn off our cars. I have seen this in myself, my family, and my eco-conscious neighbors, who will insist: “Oh, we’re just talking for a minute!”(5 minutes) or “She’s just running in the house to grab something!” (10 minutes). It seems that leaving our vehicles running makes us feel, ironically, that we are being efficient, that somehow we are moving faster through our day. What if we just stop ‘running’ everywhere?! Let’s see what happens when we turn off our cars and just be present with a conversation, with waiting, with taking the time we need and being aware of our choices.

For more inspiration, a pledge opportunity and a cool sticker, go to Or contact local Transportation Educator Chrisophia Somerfeldt of Way2Go of Tompkins County Cooperative Extension, at or 607-272-2292.



March 31, 2014

‘Ecotopia’ Society Was Ahead of Its Time

Tompkins Weekly 3-31-14

By Richard W. Franke

In 1975 a tiny company called Banyan Tree Books in Berkeley, California, published Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. Twenty-five publishers had previously rejected the manuscript. This slim science fiction volume of 167 pages eventually sold over a million copies in twelve languages. More recent editions advertise it as “The first dramatic portrait of an ecologically sustainable society!” The author, Ernest Callenbach (1929−2012) claimed he got his ideas from reading Scientific American and Science magazines.

Ecotopia is organized around the fictional news dispatches and the personal diary entries of fictional correspondent William Weston who travels to the new nation of Ecotopia in 1999. In 1979 Northern California, Oregon and Washington had seceded from the U.S. and created an environmentally based new order. (How they managed to break away and stay separate is explained in the book.) As the first ever regular U.S. reporter to visit Ecotopia, Weston describes the new society they have built – and falls in love with a sexy and open-minded Ecotopian beauty.

Correspondent Weston finds a decentralized, eco-friendly non-up-tight culture with no cars, lots of high speed trains, local small-scale hospitals carrying out cradle-to-grave health coverage with less high-tech equipment and more preventive medical practices than in the rest of the U.S. The country is divided into five metropolitan and four rural sectors. Local governments have extensive powers. People live in groups of five to twenty; workers own the main productive institutions and education focuses on systems thinking. The elderly live in these groups and provide child care and early education. Homes are built of wood or of corn-based plastic tubing and all are centered around rail stations. People cannot inherit land; only personal articles.

All plastic is derived from plants; none from hydrocarbons. Plastics are thus biodegradable. Refrigerators run on household septic tank methane. Microwaves are illegal: you eat fresh food. People use the metric system and recycling containers are found everywhere (remember that this book was written in 1975 when hardly anyone recycled anything in the U.S.). Synthetic chemical fertilizers were totally abandoned and replaced with compost from food waste and sewage. Ecotopian scientists were working on strains of plants that could produce electricity from photosynthesis. “Your garden could recycle your sewage and garbage, provide your food and also light your house.” Books are accessible electronically via computer stations linked to a giant national library in Berkeley.

Taxes are levied only on enterprises (no payroll taxes); train cars are filled with hanging ferns and small plants. Streets are quiet (no cars, remember?) with only occasional electric taxis – even in the nation’s capital of San Francisco. Bus service is free and public bikes are found everywhere available for temporary use. The general work week is 20 hours. Wood is not exported from Ecotopia. Technicians are working on alternatives to the diesel log trucks that remain a stubborn reminder of the previous way of doing things. To build a house of wood you first have to work for a few months in a forest labor camp planting trees to replace the wood your house might use. However, “They cut trees and trim them with a strange, almost religious respect: showing the emotional intensity and care we might use in preparing a ballet.”

The GNP of Ecotopia is very low: “…mankind, the Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production….Instead, humans were meant to take their modest place in a seamless, stable-state web of living organisms.”

Want to guess whether Weston returns to the “other” U.S? Does this account sound similar to a manifesto of the sustainability movement today? Could such a society succeed? Callenbach thought so.

 Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.