Sustainable Finger Lakes Celebrates 18 Years

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly        5-25-22

By Gay Nicholson

Sustainable Tompkins was launched 18 years ago by a small team of local environmental and social justice activists. Weaving together our knowledge, networks and energy, we helped our community discover and adopt more sustainable patterns of living and working.

Through workshops, master classes, monthly potlucks, energy fairs, study circles, Earth Day rallies and multi-day regional conferences, we helped people understand the need to redesign our economic and cultural systems and build in much more resiliency and shared security for the years ahead.

Along the way, we helped launch the Green Resource Hub and its Sustainable Enterprise Network, gave out over $85,000 in Neighborhood Mini-Grants to 215 citizen-based initiatives and created the Finger Lakes Climate Fund — perhaps the oldest U.S. local carbon offset program — providing over $130,000 in grants to 77 lower-income families for clean energy improvements to their homes.

We all know that it isn’t enough to just oppose the harm and wrongdoing of the current system. We have to be actively building a new system based on principles of sustainable design and participatory democracy.

Attendees at the 2017 Climate Rally in Ithaca, organized by Sustainable Tompkins. Photo provided.

This work needs to take place at the local and regional levels simultaneously because of the interconnectedness of our natural systems and economies. We believe that we need more of a shared identity as a regional sustainability movement, working together to protect the very special landscapes of the Finger Lakes.

Thus, this spring, we changed our name to Sustainable Finger Lakes — setting out on a new journey to support the regional movement and look for ways to connect and catalyze cross-linked initiatives that support the emerging landscape of new social and economic structures based on ecological stewardship, justice and shared responsibility for our future.

We have always known that the regional scale is an essential dimension for this work even though many sustainability programs take place at the city or county level. But economies tend to be organized at the regional level, along with foodsheds and watersheds and a supply of workers.

Political scale is also important in terms of organizing local governments and business sectors to push for better state and federal policy and coordinate our own intermunicipal responses to head off climate disruption and economic upheaval.

When we started Sustainable Tompkins in 2004, we often heard participants say that they had thought they were nearly alone in their values and beliefs and that it was a great relief to feel part of a larger and stronger cultural force.

As our Tompkins County movement grew, we saw more and more people finding the inspiration and the social courage to advocate for change, shift their lifestyles or start a new business with a focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. We hope to provide similar connection and support to citizen leaders across the 14 counties of the Finger Lakes region.

We’ve been building some infrastructure for this work and have been reaching out to connect with others and celebrate their work. Our website ( is a place to share news and events as well as calls to action from groups across the region. You will also enjoy the Signs of Sustainability pages, where we share the profiles of businesses and organizations from our Regional Sustainability Map.

You can find over 700 entities on the map in eight major categories and 42 subcategories related to sustainability. We also offer a shared regional Sustainability Calendar, where you can post your event or check out what’s going on across the region that may be of interest to you.

We have already been working regionally through our Climate Fund, with awardees in 10 counties, and we hope to be able to partner up with sponsors and offer Neighborhood Mini-Grants to provide seed money for citizen and youth initiatives in other counties.

We are just getting started on new programming to help our communities anticipate and adapt to the complex challenges we face. This spring and fall, we are hosting a Finger Lakes Forecast webinar series where we are looking at how climate change will affect our lives here in the Finger Lakes.

Our April webinar, “Climate Disruption and Food Security” (click for the recording on our YouTube channel), featured local farmers and researchers on the frontlines of climate change for our region. Our May 25 webinar, “Reducing Flood Risk for Your Home,” focused on projected flooding patterns, insurance options and how residents can prepare their homes and businesses for flash floods, groundwater floods and river floods.

In June, we’ll take a look at harmful algae blooms and land use policies to address this growing threat to our water bodies.

We may be at an inflection point as climate change becomes a “threat multiplier” in combination with economic, political and demographic changes. We are fortunate to live in an area already working to safeguard our food system and water supply while making good progress on the transition to clean energy systems. But we’ll need to do much more thinking and planning together.

They say that altruism is enlightened self-interest, where the kind of cooperation and solidarity behind designing for the well-being of the next seven generations is the best guarantee of one’s own future. We hope you will join us on this journey.

Gay Nicholson is president and co-founder of Sustainable Finger Lakes.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles