Speeding the Shift

Sustainable Hudson Valley is a little organization with a big mission: to speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy with high quality of life for all.

In our first ten years, we have held summits and conferences on the latest creative ways to wake up and inspire communities, to cut carbon pollution, plan for a less predictable climate, and build economic opportunity in the process. We have uncovered business opportunities in green building and sustainable water management, created planning partnerships, and worked with large groups on scenarios for living well in a warmer, wetter and weirder climate. But we haven’t actually put into words what our mission means and how we are advancing it strategically – until now.

What’s the shift I’m talking about?

· Away from drafty old buildings constructed before most people were thinking about energy costs, to high-performing homes and workplaces that maximize savings, comfort and productivity

· Away from living in our cars, into communities designed so that home, work and play are nearby and we have choices about transportation…

· Away from centralized power plants using the finite resources of coal, oil and natural gas, toward a more distributed, adaptive energy system built on wind, water and sunlight…

· Away from industrial agriculture that depends on fossil fuels for every phase of its operation, instead embracing organic and local food production and the rich tables we can set on this foundation

· Away from systems of managing our water and waste streams as though they were infinite and cheap, with greatly scaled up recycling and re-use integrated into the design of our buildings, industries and landscapes.

· Above all, it’s a shift away from lives of detachment from the biggest crisis and opportunity of our era, into a culture of commitment and creativity.

That’s all good, but there are excellent organizations working on every one of these challenges, from the U.S. Green Building Council to Energize NY to the American Society of Landscape Architects.

What’s our piece?

We’re about speeding up the shift. That’s our passion and our skill set. While we’ve been at it, state agency pledges have been created and local climate action plans have been made by some communities; we can see a solar array here and an EV charging station there – amid the sameness of our communities. New York has created an easy, low-interest loan program to tighten up homes and business – and all of 1% of the market has signed up. A majority of people say we should develop more solar, wind and water power; but more people have bought pet rocks than solar panels.

How do we propose to speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy with high quality of life for all?

Some people say we need a World War II style mobilization to roll out clean energy systems everywhere. I’m not betting on anything quite so logical

Some people say it’s a matter of marketing energy efficiency and solar leases and ride share programs, one household at a time, and crafting our political messages with an oh-so-practical appeal. Those efforts certainly help. They have brought us the campaign models, known as Energize and Solarize, that created the pockets of progress we see today – for example, in New York and Connecticut there are local demonstration campaigns that have doubled the uptake of home energy retrofits and solar.

But by stressing convenience alone, we miss an unparalleled energy source, the passion of human beings who really get the need for transformative change and will take risks to be part of it. We believe that the essential way to speed up the shift is not to dumb down the challenge, but to bring people together with vision and conviction, and support them in taking ambitious action. Consider what’s happening in communities where they do that.

In Oberlin, Ohio, they are pulling together a model. This 10,000 person rust belt city, with a feisty little college in its midst, have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020 while revitalizing the economy and creating a 20,000 acre green belt around the city serving agriculture and open space for a post-fossil-fuel era. They are ahead of schedule, now getting 90% of the municipality’s energy from solar panels atop a parking garage and hotel. They have done deep renovations of historic buildings to create a cultural center, an office cluster, a world class hotel and a farmers’ market, and they have just begun. Mobilizing millions of dollars from private investment and the college’s endowment, they have found a groove of determined creativity and attracted investors who understand that the risk of losing some money is actually less than the risk of a warming destabilized world.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, they are putting together a model as well. Their historic downtown and University district are teamed with the Department of Energy, the regional utility, the community foundation, and a host of businesses, all working together to create Fort-ZED, the Fort Collins Zero Energy District. This sophisticated effort has begun by modernizing the existing energy distribution system to meter use and offer incentives for conservation, along with community energy reduction campaign, renewable energy planning for the district, recruitment of clean energy businesses and an invitation to every local business to innovate in its energy systems, from the brewery to the bank. So far, they estimate they’re 15% down the path, and will advance another 30% with the projects now in the pipeline. Like The Oberlin Project, Fort-ZED has brought forth a vision with the tools and organization to support its implementation, and a framework that has room for many independent experiments.

Look below the surface of these diverse efforts and you will see similar principles in action:

· There are ambitious goals, expressed in terms of basic benefits to the whole community, with well-conceived pathways to achieve them that draw in the resources of the entire community
· There are coalitions brought together to achieve the goal, with flexible means but the expectation that everyone takes meaningful action
· There are support and technical assistance from smart people who know what they are doing
· There are meaningful resources including dollars, dedicated people, and plenty of barter to get things done
· There is a strong connection to place and a sense that we are creating something unique in the place we call home
· And there is fresh thinking about risk.

This last point was brought to my attention by an investor and board member for The Oberlin Project, who says these projects are attracting investors who understand that the risk of a disrupted climate is worse than any risk to their portfolios.

The principles above are well documented basics of psychology and sociology. They resonate through developmental, social, and organizational psychology, and they show up equally in social movements and in innovative business organizations. Their common root is an understanding that humans do not flourish in isolation from the challenges of our time, or from each other. That is why we at SHV pursue our mission by bringing people together – with understanding, with visionary opportunities, and above all with kindred spirits for collaboration that is enjoyable.

Oberlin and Fort-ZED are models that serve as inspiration for our work in the Hudson Valley, but they are not formulas – and that is a good thing. They show the power of creative risk-taking, and the need for it. And they lead us to a galvanizing image that I believe has much greater power than the World War II style mobilization. We are not fighting a simple, external enemy; we are confronting the need to change our own lifestyles and technologies, and a wide-open frontier for doing that. So the metaphor I offer, that guides my choices, goes farther back in history. It’s the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was not a forced march – it was a cultural transformation that unfolded as many people invented new ways of pursuing science and technology, art and architecture, agriculture, mapmaking, medicine – everything. It arose out of horrific conditions, and some people took great risks. But it unfolded by attraction, not reaction. And it gave rise to a self-reinforcing dynamic. The more innovation happened, the more innovation was inspired. Initially, nobody said “Let’s have a renaissance.” It was too big to be imagined and therefore too big to be engineered.

That is where we are now with creating a low-carbon economy and society, with high quality of life for all. There are lots of little experiments bubbling up, but it’s a solar garden here and a zero energy building there, so when we look around, we see exceptions rather than patterns. What they have figured out how to do in Oberlin and in Fort Collins is to change the dominant approach to energy and the built environment, a little at a time but with a credible pathway to success. And success is transformation.

There is no reason this cannot start happening more widely and successfully, now that the early successes are emerging and the underlying dynamics can be studied. There is no reason why all our communities can’t open up to this creative impulse. As Guy Dauncey, a futurist who first planted the seeds of the Renaissance image in my mind is fond of reminding us – the Renaissance had its nay-sayers and its obstacles. But the Renaissance happened.