Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sustainability Week: Learning How to Reach Out Beyond the Choir

This past week was Sustainability Week at the university where I work, which is a regular event I've been involved in putting on for three semesters now, and I am always left wondering what (if any) impact it had on the audiences we tried to reach.

With any environmental outreach efforts, you're always running the risk of only singing to the choir. That is, only reaching the folks who are already concerned enough to show up on their own.  As a card-carrying member of that choir, I admit that I love being sung to and you don't need free food to entice me to show up to a talk about population growth, sustainability & food, or reusing bikes to empower developing communities. (All real talks I went to this week).

Me, looking ridiculous in the homecoming parade for the benefit
of Mother Earth. Photo by Darrell Hoemann, News Gazette
But convincing the apathetic, the skeptics, and the oblivious to care just a little and show up is where the real challenge lies. I overheard more than one conversation this week between students, describing how they were only attending something because their teacher offered extra credit for going to that particular event. I suppose it's better than nothing, but it left me wondering if they were even paying attention during the talk, because I could see lots of phones and laptops out, just browsing online throughout the talk.

And we didn't only try to reach people through lecture-style events. We had an environmental expo with booths sharing free giveaways and information at one of the busiest dining halls for three hours around lunch time, and we had a fleet of decorated bicycles in the homecoming parade last night just for the sake of raising awareness. And while I know these other awareness-raising events didn't reach everyone we passed or who passed us, I do think they were worth the effort, and next year we'll do them even better to have an even greater impact.

A few take-aways from the week, as advice for planning sustainability events in a community:
  1. Good advertising is absolutely key, and should be done with every medium you've got. Flyers, chalk on sidewalks, facebook, etc. All of it. There needs to be someone in the planning group whose only responsibility is advertising, and they need a small team to help them execute the plans they develop.
  2. Be very clear on who your intended audience is for each event. It's very possible that each event will be slightly different in terms of who you're trying to reach, and knowing who that target audience is should inform how and where the event is advertised.
  3. Use each event to advertise for the other events, and for the week as a whole. Brand all of them as part of your Sustainability Week. You shouldn't have been able to walk through that expo without immediately realizing why we were having it, and also learning about 10 other things later in the week that you might want to attend. Instead, we had the expo on Thursday, after most of the week had already passed, and so many students came up to us asking "what is this?" For every one student that came up to ask that, 25 probably walked by completely unaware and thus untouched by our efforts.  It shouldn't have been possible to walk through those doors and know exactly what was going on.
  4. Get more people involved in planning from the start. Much of the weight of the week fell on a small handful of people's shoulders, so it's totally understandable that advertising and execution of certain events was a little low. If each event has a unique owner, that person can focus whole-heartedly on making it as awesome as possible. And if you're only asking each person to only do one thing, you'll have a much better chance of convincing them to sign up for the job. Don't be shy, invite everyone to the table, and then welcome their input and help.
  5. Get outside of the sustainability community while planning your events and partner up with other groups as a way to get beyond the choir. Most events had some obvious tie-ins to other areas of expertise, and we could have done a better job of taking advantage of existing communities that might have been interested in that topic, even if they had little interest in sustainability, per se.
  6. Find out who is coming to your events. Always have a sign-up sheet, and get contact info so you can inform attendees about your next event. Ask them how they heard about the event so you can get a sense of what advertising efforts are working and which ones aren't worth your time. Having a firm head count from each event can also be informative to compare interest in different topics, or to measure the success of different advertising efforts.
  7. Get more teachers to offer extra credit to their students for coming to your events. ;)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Opportunistic Bride

I'm getting married next summer, and it has occurred to me more than a few times that 'green weddings' are so much easier said than done.

A quick google search will introduce you to plenty of blogs, consultants, and planners with advice and services to help couples plan a 'green wedding' (Rent a hybrid limo! Choose a LEED certified venue! Ask your caterer to use organic ingredients!) but the fact is that any big event, no matter the purpose, is inevitably going to be a source of waste, carbon, and consumption.

Photo from the hilarious Practical Ryan Gosling.
I know that our wedding will be no exception. We've got a huge guest list, (that's what happens when you marry into an Irish Catholic family) from all over the country (that's what happens when you come from a family of nomads).

But it doesn't mean we're not trying wherever the effort seems worthwhile. We chose a location near the majority of our guests so that as few people as possible are traveling. The reception and ceremony are both on-site so there isn't any travel required between the two.  We're doing paperless invitations for most guests, and online RSVPs for all.  And so on and so forth.

I realized recently, though, that something I've been doing just to save my sanity is also helping to make our wedding greener: I am an Opportunistic Bride.

Instead of having an exact vision of what precise colors, flowers, decorations, etc. our wedding must have, I've been letting happenstance and luck determine our exact decor. Found an awesome container at a thrift store or in a dumpster? Dust it off and call it a flower vase! Some random pieces of ribbon that my aunt saved from someone else's wedding? They're perfect!

It doesn't mean that I take every old thing I find and plan on using it in the wedding. I'm being quite selective, in fact.  It just means that I don't need to hunt for very specific or perfectly matching items.

Instead, I keep an eye out for items matching the general look and feel that I hope to accomplish. I always have a few paint chips in my purse so that I can check to see if my opportunistic discoveries fit the general palette I'm going for.  I've given myself permission to match a broad color range instead of an exact hue, and to not need consistency or symmetry anywhere in our decor.

I'll still have to buy some things new, no doubt, but being open and flexible to reuse whatever objects I can find has allowed me to save a lot of used items from the landfill, not to mention saving my budget and my sanity as a bride.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

NIMBY vs. Renewables

Just found an interesting quote that speaks nicely to the post I wrote yesterday about local opposition to solar farms:
A recent poll said 63 percent of Americans support renewable energy investment…in theory. But in practice, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to new energy infrastructure prevents about 45 percent of renewable energy proposals from being built across the country, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
                                                      -Lee Patrick Sullivan, Energy Now.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Currently Researching: Solar Farms

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts going forward, just sharing my thoughts on what I'm currently looking into with regards to Sustainability, whether it's for work or just for fun. Today's research project is for my job.

I'm trying to find out what common questions and concerns people have about new solar farms, along with the answers available to address their concerns. This might be anything from the aesthetics and noise of solar arrays, to their impact on neighboring property values, to the effectiveness of solar power itself.

We're looking into building a solar farm here, and the idea is that (hopefully) my research will be able to help calm people's fears before they convince themselves and each other that this is a terrible idea. But in doing this research, I'm finding that there are way more questions out there than answers.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Energy Independence Alliance.
It seems that many people oppose the idea of a solar farm if one is proposed in their own community, and unfortunately there are very few facts easily available to assuage their fears.  Most of what I've found online are just discussion forums between concerned residents, fueling one another's apprehension.  Not surprisingly, I've also found tons of local news sources about potential solar farm projects that were shut down or seriously delayed before getting very far, simply due to neighbors' concerns.

It's amazing to me that NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) is able to win over the opportunity to develop a clean, renewable source of energy.

First of all, most of the concerns listed by neighbors are unfounded, for example people often bring up the worry that solar panels will be reflective and therefore blinding to drivers, when in fact the whole point of solar panels is to absorb the sun's energy, not reflect it, so the glare from these panels is quite minimal.  And of the concerns that may have some validity, I don't think the subjective eyesore of a solar farm is enough to outweigh its benefits, such as energy independence and carbon-and pollution-free electricity.

Hopefully, by addressing these concerns upfront when people first learn about the proposed solar farm here, we'll be able to avoid being yet another local news story about a solar farm that never was.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Footloose and Car-Free

I went to college in Southern California, where we all know the car is king.  My grandmother gave me her old car, a 1995 VW Golf, as a gift for my high school graduation. I remember crying with joy when I saw the keys.  I told her that she was giving me more than just a car, she was giving me independence.

I named the car Betty Jean Golf, and loved Betty Jean like a child. We had so many good times together, from late night runs to Del Taco, to road trips with my best friends to Utah or Baja, Mexico.  But after four years of studying sustainability and bemoaning the impacts of individual actions on the environment, I was over it. The insurance payments, fluctuating gas prices, and constant maintenance needs of a ten-year-old car may have helped to push me over the edge, but the long and short of it is that I wanted out.

When it came time to decide where to move after college, being able to get by without a car was one of my top priorities. In our classically nerdy fashion, Mike and I made a spreadsheet to compare all the different cities we were considering by all the different criteria that mattered most to us. Public transportation and walkability were at the top of my list.

Washington, D.C. won the spreadsheet contest, and shortly after moving there I donated my car to a charity. In the almost five years that we lived in DC, I loved not having a car. The Metro and bus systems in DC and surrounding suburbs are frequent, convenient, and fairly affordable. I also got a membership with ZipCar shortly after moving to DC, which came in handy for moving, the occasional IKEA shopping spree, impromptu camping trips, or visits to the vet.  All told, we really only ever used ZipCar a couple times a year, at most.

So DC gave us options outside of car ownership, which was wonderful. Not having a car saved us money and allowed us to live in (subjectively) better neighborhoods, where owning a car would have been such a pain. Thank you, smart growth.

Well, this past fall we relocated from DC to a tiny city (“micro-urban” is the term they use here) in the Midwest. Champaign-Urbana is actually two cities, with a humungous university spread across the two of them. Within the first two months of moving here, I had already found myself wanting a car more times than I did in 5 years in DC.  C-U has a great bus system considering the size of the city, and it’s relatively compact and walkable within the central area. I'm also riding my bike almost every day when the weather permits, something I was too terrified to do in DC.

But overall, it’s harder to get around than it was in DC.  The waiting time for busses is longer. The bus schedule is largely based on the University’s academic calendar, so weekend service is scaled back, as is service during school breaks. Thankfully, they have ZipCar here too, and we’ve already used it a few times, but even that proves less convenient here than it did in DC.

We decided when we moved here that not owning a car would be a social experiment, to see how long we could last here without one. The experiment continues, but I've already found myself checking out used cars on Craigslist, and I even emailed one of them this morning. (It's a hybrid, for what it's worth.)

It seems I have a lot of pros-and-cons lists to make, to decide if I'm really going to give up my foot loose and car-free lifestyle that I've been so proud of for almost six years, or if I'm going back to my west coast roots where a car isn't just a car, it's independence.