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 21, 2014

Fossil Fuels a Thing of the Past by 2030?

Tompkins Weekly 4-21-14

By Richard Franke

The year is 2030. You live in Tompkins County, New York State. One hundred percent of your energy needs are met by wind, water and solar (WWS). No fracking was ever implemented. Biofuels were phased out and all land in the state is available for food crops, pasture, forest or other uses. Every year 4,000 fewer residents die prematurely from what had been air pollution 15 years earlier. Fewer get sick now and health care costs have dropped by $33 billion. New York State produces 100% of its energy needs and contributes nothing to large scale climate change.

You leave your home and notice the solar cells on the roof. As your gaze wanders down the street, you barely notice that all the other homes are partly solar powered – 5 million 5 kw photovoltaic roof top systems in New York State. You get into your electric car and drive to work, passing a nearby hill where a few of the state’s 4,020 onshore wind turbines spin slowly, now generating 10% of the entire electricity for New York.

You recall a recent salon organized by Sustainable Tompkins in which members of your generation thanked the leaders and activists of 2014 and just after for having adopted a plan to build those onshore wind sites, along with 12,700 offshore of Long Island that generated another 40% of energy needs. A speaker at the salon had noted that switching all power needs over to electricity and using renewables had made energy production and use in the New York 37% more efficient. A complete list of the power sources in 2030 includes:

-  4,020 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines

-  12,770 offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines

-  387 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants

-  828 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants

-  5 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems

-  500,000 100-kilowatt commercial/government rooftop photovoltaic systems

-  36 100-megawatt geothermal plants

-  1,910 0.75-megawatt wave devices

-  2,600 1-megawatt tidal turbines

-  7 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants, of which most already existed in 2015 when the transition began

The speaker further recalled that construction of this vast array of electrical generating devices had employed 4.5 million workers for several years of whom 58,000 retained permanent jobs.

The speaker reminded you that your generation of New Yorkers had much for which to thank your elders. Those elders had paid attention to an article by lead author Mark Jacobson in the March 13, 2013 issue of the journal Energy Policy Number 57, pages 585–601, that had laid out the conversion plan. Local officials and sustainability activists – starting in Tompkins County – had organized a campaign to pull investment funds out of fossil fuels – paralleling a separate divestment movement organized by a former New York Times journalist named Bill McKibben – and moved them into WWS. Two of the co-authors of the Energy Policy article had turned out to be local Cornell researchers: Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea. Enlightened university presidents, directors of pension funds, foundations, local banks and ordinary folk had joined together to spark the implementation of what had been laid out in the article as a feasibility study.

The Energy Policy article did not specifically build in a social justice component. Fortunately Tompkins County sustainability activists in a group called “Building Bridges” along with Sustainable Tompkins and other groups and individuals had pressured all the implementing institutions not only to pay above living wages as calculated by Alternatives Federal Credit Union. They had worked together to put former fossil fuel investment funds into creating worker owned cooperatives so that today children of some of the formerly poorest county residents now earned good money, elected their own managers and were building up decent pensions.  Social justice activists had insisted on making sure that overcoming racial, gender and rural-urban inequalities be an explicit component of each phase of the alternative energy construction. Special consideration was given to persons coming back from prison – many of them victims of a mass incarceration program that this previous generation successfully struggled to undo. The Tompkins County strategy of reforming society as well as energy production led to alliances with social justice groups around the state and the conversion to clean energy became a catalyst for conversion to a more just New York as well.

You arrive at your full time job at one of New York’s wind farms. You thank your parents’ generation for all they did. Now it’s your turn to look to the needs of a future generation.

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.



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.