Sunday, December 12, 2010

The role of grassroots sustainability organizing

Summary: After the midterm election, selling climate change got even tougher than it was before. Since the NYC sustainability discussion is mainly framed as climate change response, civic and business leaders should expand it to include the more marketable concepts of increasing resilience, and preparing for higher and more volatile energy prices. Those price changes are coming in the next five years, acccording to sources including the US military and the International Energy Agency, but NYC isn't talking about them, let alone preparing for them. In this post and the next, two parallel strategies to change that are set out, based on the time-honored principle of WIFM - "what's in it for me?" First, highly targeted outreach to networks of thought leaders, on how their fields will benefit from initiatives that conserve energy, lower costs and build local resiliency. Second, outreach to NYC civic networks on behalf of appealing sustainability projects that offer something to all participants. Volunteers and collaborators will be invited.


The role of grassroots sustainability organizing

Changing the sustainability discussion is important, as a means of getting people involved in practical, effective efforts to make their communities more sustainable. Discussion must lead to action. Otherwise, mere talk, no matter how well informed and well intentioned, is cheap.

Many activists responded to failure of national and international climate change legislation by turning to decentralized grassroots action. Joining the invitation from  to a global work party on 10/10/10, people at over 7,000 events in 188 countries, got to work on the climate crisis. By digging community gardens, installing solar panels, planting trees and more, they aimed to send a message to political leaders: “if we can get to work, so can you!”

This is clearly informed by the Transition method of community organizing, now being applied in many UK towns and cities, as described in the New York Times. Neighbors educate themselves about climate change and fuel depletion, envision their community having successfully adapted twenty years in the future, and then work backward, planning what needs to be done to make that future possible. Collaborating on local projects, participants begin creating that future piece by piece.

In large cities, environmental and sustainability groups organize presentations and films all the time, but without recruiting partners who live in close proximity, and who share permanent social networks. However, many city residents are very involved in neighborhood concerns through countless civic groups.

Seeking happy attractors

Can sustainability initiatives be distributed through well-established local networks? Perhaps – if one can find initiatives appealing enough to inspire different sets of volunteers, who usually operate in different realms, to collaborate. What initiatives might fill this role? What initiatives offer enough benefits to be easily sold, implemented, duplicated and expanded? What will motivate environmental activists, neighborhood leaders, and additional volunteers and partners? The initiative must:

- inspire climate change and sustainability activists to volunteer themselves and promote it to others;

- offer clear cost benefits or savings, without considering environmental benefits;

- be easy to understand, describe, and see as positive;

- must be quick, inexpensive, and simple enough so volunteers can dive in and successfully accomplish projects, inspiring others to follow; and

- must offer enough public relations benefits to local partners and civic groups so that they have an incentive to expedite these projects.

One comparatively simple way to lower the City’s air conditioning use in the summer happens to fit all these requirements. It is a happy attractor: there is nothing distressing about it; it is empowering, patriotic, and it distributes goodies all around with minimal cost. It offends no one, has no enemies, and is welcome at parties. It is a great conversation starter. If you can think of other programs like this, please let us know immediately!

Painting roofs white

Black surfaces absorb more of the sun’s heat than white surfaces. Each summer, NYC’s many flat, black tar roofs can get up to 100 degrees hotter than outdoor air temperatures, increasing the amount of air conditioning required to cool the building below. This means more energy used, more carbon emissions, more pressure on the City’s already strained electric grid, and higher risk of blackouts. By radiating that heat to their surroundings, black roofs contribute to the heat island effect, whereby urban areas can reach temperatures up to 15% hotter than surrounding rural areas.

White roof coating projects are an important part of NYC’s climate change response, with the NYC Cool Roofs program.   “Reflective rooftops are a simple yet powerful tool in the fight we have been leading against climate change,” said Mayor Bloomberg, and a means to channel “the power of our volunteers to address some of the City’s greatest needs.” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called for “white roofs everywhere” to help fight climate change.

In the fall of 2010, inspired by’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party, several groups collaborated with NYC government agencies to paint the roofs of four nonprofit facilities white: the Bowery Mission, Harlem’s Democracy Prep Charter School, Fountain House in midtown Manhattan, and the SCO Ottillie Campus in Briarwood, Queens. Organizers and volunteers came from StopOilNYC, White Roof Campaign, White Roof Project, Manhattan Young Democrats,, Greenpeace, OxFam, NYPIRG, and New York University student environmental groups.

Projects like these will not only make real improvements in lowering energy use, but can help recruit more partners and volunteers, and set up other local sustainability initiatives. To find potential nonprofit facilities with roofs to paint in 2011, we’ll start with the Council Members we contacted who were eager to refer us to nonprofits in their districts.

The matter of paying for the paint creates an opportunity. Instead of seeking corporate donations, we’ll work with the nonprofit to organize winter events to raise the money locally. Besides gaining local supporters and media attention, these projects allow environmentalists from outside the neighborhood to wield rollers and brushes alongside volunteers from within it.

For the full proposal for neighborhood leaders, and flyers from the City Cool Roofs program, go to or Beyond Oil NYC

Green neighborhood Trojan horses

With positive relationships already established between organizers and the nonprofit contacts seeking to fund their white roof project, we can introduce the next stage of the project. What are the overlaps between community needs, and the green services that are already available in the City but not adequately distributed? Usually centered on promotion of energy efficiency programs, government agencies regularly set up panels at which representatives pitch several programs to neighborhood leaders and residents.

- Are energy bills too high? Con Edison and NYSERDA, the State agency which incentivizes energy efficiency retrofits, offer a number of cost-cutting energy efficiency upgrades for homes and businesses.

- Do neighbors want more fresh fruits and vegetables in local stores? Green markets? Many nonprofits offer gardening classes, and want to help residents convert lawns and yards into vegetable gardens, and set up community gardens and composting areas.

- Are there complaints about inadequate mass transit service? Let’s find the advocates and alternatives who can address this community need.

- Job training providers, for both green and conventional programs.

- Food assistance and public health programs for those in need.

White roof project organizers can introduce community leaders to these other programs, making their outreach efforts easier, and reinforcing the new green network forming within the neighborhood.

This might work something like a Transition initiative. Here, the organizing process would start, not with a common education process around climate change and fuel depletion, but with unthreatening projects that have something to offer a broad range of participants. Should the ingredients come together – and external events reinforce the importance of more sustainable and resilient neighborhoods – the project may be able to recruit more volunteers, develop a network, and evolve in other productive directions.

Some questions on which you might like to comment:

Would you like to intern, volunteer or collaborate with a white roof project?

Are there happy attractors and green Trojan horses better than white roof painting?

Or ones that you like better that you would like to collaborate on with us?

What's going on with Transition initiatives in the United States, and what can we learn from them about how to make NYC more sustainable?

1 comment:

  1. metal system only use in the uk and usa so in the lower country people use wooden roof for the snow safety.