Better than the Olympics

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Tompkins Weekly      10-24-16

By Caroline Levine

When I was a kid growing up in Syracuse in the 1970s, I knew a few people who jogged for exercise, but back then running still seemed like a strange way to spend your time. I couldn’t imagine running a full marathon. As a child, I marveled at the Olympic athletes who pushed their sinewy bodies across the finish line. They didn’t seem like ordinary mortals to me.

But nowadays, everyone seems to be racing. My Facebook feed is full of the smiles of those who have finished 10K runs for charity. Even marathons have become ordinary parts of life. I am surprised to say that I know several Iron Man competitors personally. (Real people can get their bodies to do that?)

It turns out that racing brings lots of pleasures. There’s the ambition of it – the thrill of tackling a challenge. There’s the health payoff – the knowledge that our bodies will be stronger and more vigorous if we run. There’s the pride that comes with rigorous training. And then there’s the fun of competition.

Have you tasted these pleasures? If you have ever competed or even imagined how exciting it is to compete, I’d like to tempt you to run a totally new kind of race. It has all the same satisfactions – ambition, health, pride and competitive fun. And the stakes are much, much higher.

It’s called a carbon race. You start by getting together with your friends or coworkers to form a team. Any school or business or group of friends can participate. The goal is to lower carbon emissions in the region. Your team wins if you contribute the most to a local offset program called the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.

How does it work? Every time we take a plane or drive, and every time we turn up the heat or the air conditioning, we’re contributing to the carbon emissions that are warming the upper atmosphere and triggering catastrophic effects for the earth’s climate. The average person in the U.S. is responsible for about 22 tons of carbon every year.

But it’s unrealistic to imagine that we will all suddenly stop heating our houses. We can’t just miss our daughter’s graduation or our friend’s wedding. We can’t stop driving to work if there’s no public transportation alternative.

With a carbon offset program, we figure out the cost of our own unavoidable carbon emissions and then we invest that money in new, sustainable clean energy projects. We offset the damage done in the short term by committing to the planet’s long-term health.

The Finger Lakes Climate Fund is an especially smart and creative carbon offset program. It combines economic justice with environmental action. That is, the Fund uses the offsets raised to help low and moderate-income local families make their homes more energy efficient – allowing them to insulate walls, seal leaks, and replace inefficient appliances.

To be sure, carbon offsets won’t do everything to stop the pace of climate change. We need other measures too. But this is a problem we can’t afford to wait to solve, and combined actions now – working together – can make a real difference. The Finger Lakes Climate Fund has already reduced emissions in the region by almost 2,000 tons. The goal for its 2016 “Seal the Cracks” race is to take another 500 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.

As the earth continues its dangerous warming, there is every reason to push ourselves as fast as we can go. This is a great time to run a race. Sign up your team up for the October-November carbon race at You may even win a prize, including free tickets from Cinemapolis, and gift cards from Gimme!, Waffle Frolic, Autumn Leaves and Ithaca Bakery. But the genius of this race is that it’s not just the best team that wins. Struggling families win by reducing their energy bills. The local economy wins by generating new contracts for green energy businesses like Snug Planet. And every single one of us benefits from lower carbon emissions. You’ve heard the expression “win-win”? This race is win-win-win-win.

Better than the Olympics. More meaningful than a marathon. This is a race where even ordinary mortals like me can taste the sweetness of victory.

Caroline Levine is a professor of English at Cornell University and author of “Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts.”

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