Friday, September 25, 2009

Give me spots on my apples...

Direct citizen action has always been at the heart of broad social movements, but discussions about “sustainability” and “green” are still vague concepts for some community members--something separate from their lives and perceived immediate needs. Others are remarkably engaged, both in terms of individual choices and through local activism—buying locally, modifying the transportation they use, and deciding to embrace ecological diversity rather than “paving paradise”….

“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot SPOT
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

…Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”

When Joni Mitchell wrote this song, Big Yellow Taxi, nearly 40 years ago environmental interest was decidedly strong. But such awareness has waxed and waned. Unfortunately, a popular preference against spots has sometimes surged against the concern expressed in what might be seen as her plaintive call (above) for sustainability in the web of our relationships both personal and global, and the felt loss when what we have is truly, finally gone.

Led by that concern—to promote discussion of what constitutes a sustainable community--this semester, in conjunction with Rice Creek Field Station, the Office of Business and Community Relations at SUNY Oswego has sponsored a Citizens Academy on Sustainability. It’s an experiment in fostering community activism that reflects both our college President Deborah Stanley’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and a call from the community itself for the college to promote awareness of sustainability.

The program uses a unique discussion group format with a workbook designed by the Northwest Earth Institute ( About 15 community members meet weekly on Saturday mornings at the Downtown SUNY Oswego location and talk about sustainability topics like ecological principles, consumer choices, buying locally, transportation, sustainable communities, business and the economy, and visioning the future.

Over the course of the next several weeks, through the program’s culmination in late October, I will write here about the discussions in the group, and the thoughts community members have about sustainable living in a small city, in a rural county, in Central Upstate NY.

--Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Think Globally, Act Locally

“Think globally, act locally” is a phrase that has been used in the environmental movement for many years now. It has its origin in the town planning of Scotsman Patrick Geddes at the turn of last century. It’s an old enough phrase to be considered a cliché, assigned to the same Earth-crunchy hamper as the peace sign, smiley face, and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”

A shame, because when it comes to the action required to make our communities sustainable, lower our dependence on fossil fuels, and reverse the effect of climate emissions, the bottom-up “think globally, act locally” ethos could do as much good as top-down protocols and initiatives from governments, such as cap-and-trade and carbon emissions limits.

I’m sure much will come out of the UN climate summit planned for Copenhagen this December. But the debate at these mega-conferences can seem awfully esoteric and irrelevant to our lives. There are still plenty of communities in the US that have no recycling programs, meaningful public transportation, or community gardens, let alone sustainable town planning (where’s Patrick Geddes?!), green infrastructure, or green jobs.

Targeted government intervention in sustainability would be better than vast treaties. That is, legislation along the lines of smoking bans or the American with Disabilities Act: the whole nation is quite used to smoke-free and accessible buildings now. Just one local act that could make a huge difference is the slow phasing out of gas engines for lawnmowers, weedwhackers, and the like. It would be a way for folks could get used to battery engines and for Toro, John Deere, and Bombardier to be thrust to cutting edge of green technology!

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence