Earth Day is Only a Place to Start

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Tompkins Weekly      4-10-24

By Aaron Fernando

While traveling years ago, I made friends with perhaps the only person I know who has a negative carbon footprint.

He plants trees for a small stipend. He doesn’t own a vehicle, and when he needs to get around, he borrows a small motorcycle. Mostly, he walks. He has never taken a flight. His family lives in a dwelling made of cloth, scrap metal, and plastic. His home has no electricity, and when he charges his phone, he uses solar power from nearby buildings because the electrical grid has been non-functional for years. He has little education and no meaningful economic opportunities. His name is Krichna, and he is a 26 year-old Haitian.

If we focus on a simple, individualistic metric—the carbon footprint—Krichna is doing amazing. But if we understand the world in all its fullness and empathize with real people, we know that all is not right with this oversimplified understanding of sustainability. If you feel Krichna is not thrilled with his life, you would be correct. He wants to move to the United States, where our carbon footprints are massive. He wants this because the quality of life he experiences with a negative carbon footprint—in the inequitable and unjust world we have arrived at today—is completely untenable.

A mural by local artist Margaret Kops Kuveke titled Msit No’kmaq, or “All My Relations” in Mi’kmaq at CCE Tompkins. The mural was one of the pieces of art funded by CCE Tompkins’ energy programs, and highlights an Indigenous worldview of interconnectedness between species. Photo provided.

To address a global ecological crisis, many centuries in the making, we cannot just engage in business as usual. It cannot be the same folks doing the same things in the same organizations, reinforcing the same structures that keep our carbon footprint huge, while harming and oppressing those who have done little damage to this earth. Civilization has to shift. As we see with the weather, it is already shifting.

The set of interlocking problems that we must solve in order to “address climate change” actually demands that we increase the quality of life for all. These problems now demand that we rethink and re-shape the structures that shape our lives. And we must do this while increasing equity and restoring the natural systems that support life on this planet.

So, how do we do this? Some do it by becoming environmental advocates or activists fighting for policy change. Although they’re highly visible, activists make up a tiny portion of society. Then there are those who are environmental in a professional sense: people like me who get our paychecks by working on issues like climate change. We’re also a rather small subset.

But what about the immigrant grandparents who grow their own vegetables and compost the scraps? What about the schoolteacher who explains the water cycle to her students? Or the contractor that takes a smaller profit by recommending less toxic materials? What about the painters and musicians? What about Krichna and those struggling to get by, locally? Is there a just and equitable future that isn’t just occupied by these people, but is actually built by them?

This crisis is about foregrounding the experiences of people like Krichna and those much, much closer to home who want to improve the well-being of their families while doing ecologically-sound work, but don’t know how to do it. It’s about the survival of the birds that chirp at your window. It’s about deciding whether all generations who come after us will have a terrible future, or a beautiful one.

At Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Tompkins, we know that climate change and environmental issues worry many people, but taking action can feel out of reach.

We’re working to increase our reach beyond the community members who are already engaged with environmental issues. One of our programs funded the painters who created visions of an ecological future on electrical boxes around town. Another program trains folks with barriers to employment to get well-paying clean energy jobs. Others help folks with tight budgets reduce energy costs so that they can alleviate some financial stress.

We know we haven’t reached everyone we would like to work with, and that we need to build perennial trust and understanding in the community to do this work right.

So on Saturday, April 20 on the Ithaca Commons, CCE Tompkins and the City of Ithaca will host the Earth Day Festival, starting at noon. We invite all to come watch a puppet show, dance to the DJ, enjoy some catered, local dishes, learn about environmental initiatives in the region, and even play a little cornhole. I hope that if you haven’t previously felt like environmental efforts are for you, that you will swing by, even for a little.

Because none of us will figure out how to get to a better world in isolation. First, we have to learn to understand each other and really see each other’s struggles and capabilities. Then, we have to build a society far better than anything we’ve ever seen. Are you ready?

Aaron Fernando is the communications coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins’ Energy & Climate Change programs.

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