It’s time our environmental movements come together

Feb 18, 2009 at 6:00 am
Photo and graphic by Ron Jasin

Half an hour early for the meeting, seven people sit and chat politely in a long, rectangular room with electric purple walls and window treatments, modern decor, and a flat-screen television showing a news program. It seems like any other meeting place, except for a few things: Instead of incandescent light bulbs, some fixtures hold LEDs. There’s a composting machine between the mini-fridge and the coffee maker. Earthenirvana, despite its ethereal name, is a place for people interested in environmental sustainability to ground themselves, get together. It’s got wi-fi and snacks, and no rental fee. In other words, it is the perfect place for a grassroots happening.

Tonight’s occupants are the volunteers of Green Convene, a coalition whose aim is to organize Louisville’s many, disparate environmental groups into a cohesive political force. In a way, they want to create a green lobby that is to the mayor’s office what the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace and the rest of the gang are to Congress. What started as grumblings, then rumblings, then a manifesto, now appears to be a bona fide coalition, complete with its own eponymous convention — happening this weekend.

“It began in a coffee shop,” says activist and bike shop owner Jackie Green, who leads the group. “Probably a half-dozen of us simply discussing the lamentable lack of a group that is being very active and inclusive regarding sustainability, vis-à-vis public policy.” Today dozens of volunteers are involved, and their primary goal is to pull off this conference.

The Green Convene is the first effort on this scale to push environmental policy in Louisville. Last year, the group’s website looked more like a party platform than a coalition mission statement, complete with suggestions for candidates for public office. Discussions on- and offline followed suit. Now Green Convene’s message places more emphasis on the building of coalitions, and on harnessing the power of all the environmental groups/websites/projects/publications/programs/activists sprouting and growing in Louisville.

Prior to this, the Louisville People’s Agenda of the 1990s might have been the closet thing to a concerted effort at grassroots policy change. Another, the Rubbertown Emergency Action Committee (REAct), spearheaded by residents near an industrial cluster in the West End, gained national attention for its success in curbing industrial pollution that seriously affected residents’ health. REAct has helped change the way both government and business in Louisville address pollution.

But Green Convene is about sustainability from top to bottom, via public policy. The group defines sustainable as “having a level of equitably shared human activity that Earth can support indefinitely.” The definition you’d most likely encounter comes from a 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development — that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Neither of these is as lofty as the goals set by our very own Congress with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which called for a national policy to “create and maintain conditions under which [humans] and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” (N.B.: On the web page where it claims to offer the history and definition of sustainability, the Environmental Protection Agency incorrectly attributes those words to a January 2007 executive order by President George W. Bush. Maybe this sustainability stuff really is political.)

In recent years, Louisville has earned a number of best-place-to-live credits from national magazines and organizations, often in part because of green characteristics such as numerous parks, a planned walking/biking loop, and other initiatives emanating from Mayor Jerry Abramson’s office. Official policy has been to wear the green badge with pride. Metro government can boast participation in the Partnership for a Green City, along with Jefferson County Public Schools and the University of Louisville. The group gives the three organizations the purchasing power to make environmentally friendly products more cost effective. Last year brought the city’s “Go Green Louisville” campaign, which is heavy on citizen engagement in environmental protection.

The Partnership is also changing the way city government operates day-to-day, says Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “Energy-saving has become a priority. I keep my coat on in the office all the time for that reason,” she says. “And in the summer it’s 72 [degrees] or higher. We’re just going to keep cranking it up ’til people are passing out.”

Abramson himself is a signatory to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a promise to meet progressive international environmental goals the Bush administration had refused to adopt. Still, these internal policies are guidelines that aren’t necessarily applied or monitored uniformly throughout Metro government. And there’s no formal communication between the executive and legislative branches about laws to bolster the outreach campaigns and cooperative efforts. The “Kilowatt Crackdown,” a voluntary yearlong contest among commercial building owners to increase energy efficiency, could help determine reasonable standards for energy efficiency — standards that could be legally enforced.

Richardson says it is an intriguing concept to legally solidify these ideas so that future administrations would have to adhere to them. In the meantime, she says the city is receptive to suggestions from private agencies, individuals and groups like Green Convene.

From beneath Louisville’s first government-owned green roof (think plants in place of shingles), director of economic development Bruce Traughber says the city has a strong track record of effective citizen action, and encourages the Green Convene to participate. His department includes the Air Pollution Control District, and oversaw a recent feasibility study on a downtown municipal farmers market. In reality, development has a heavy hand in much of the large-scale change happening in Louisville. Some level of citizen participation is built into its operating processes, “but I think what Jackie [Green] is really envisioning is that you infuse environmental awareness in every element of governance, from the budgets down to the policy,” he says.

Is that possible?

“Certainly,” said Traughber, noting that “development interfaces on a regular basis with environment.” That said, the city’s track record does not even hint at the sort of systemic environmental consideration Green Convene hopes to usher in. Citizen input often comes late in the planning process, and those with environmental concerns often come away with the idea that projects will continue as planned, regardless of their protests.  

Green Convene is predicated on the idea that such pervasive consideration of environmental impact is the only way to move beyond feel-good campaigns. “[In Louisville] our green is only skin deep,” Green says. “It’s neither deep nor broad, and it’s not fast.” That response is not surprising from an activist whose reputation among some fellow activists is as something of an eco-purist.

Back at the planning meeting, Green, whose slender frame is topped off by the tidy gray hair of middle age, is just as high-energy as he was a few weeks ago, when the two of us met in his sparse office in the Clifton neighborhood. A small desk situated against the wall held papers and a phone, but he parked himself and his laptop at a stool and bar that looked lonely in the middle of the concrete room. A stack of colorful foam puzzle pieces, ready to be assembled should his young daughter visit and need a soft place to play, were the only possible distraction. At that point, 75 people had registered for the event, which would sell out by the time this issue went to print — capacity 250. The advertising was still a couple weeks away.

I have a simple question for him. If Metro’s looking fairly proactive, elected officials don’t embarrass easily over green lip service and your average citizen at large is still on his ass about environmental policy, what’s the point of this kind of conference?

“Political capital,” Green answers. “[Politicians] need to be able to say, ‘look, the citizenry is demanding that we act in these areas.’ Metro is making some strides, but we’ve got a long way to go. … That’s a simple reality of politics, that unless they’ve got the public making demands that we’ve got to go in that direction, they’re not gonna go there.”

By then, Green Convene had held a number of meetings with figures throughout Metro government. They’ve also invested a great deal of time in courting Greater Louisville Inc., the city’s chamber of commerce, an integral part of making big things happen.

“To try to engage government without engaging business is total folly,” Green says. “To try to address sustainability without engaging business is equal folly.”

Business will be important to greening policy for a host of reasons, not the least of which is money. Even though “green” has gone mainstream and been thoroughly commodified, the other kind of green — money — has recaptured political attention as worldwide economic troubles persist. Parts of the $5 billion in the Obama administration’s stimulus package that include some of its most progressive elements, such as green jobs training, have come under threat or been slashed as they compete for dollars with projects that will, for instance, relieve some of the traffic hassle of driving a car into Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Louisville continues flipping pockets inside out and checking couch cushions for any way to address an estimated $20 million revenue shortfall without dipping into emergency funds.

Jackie Green doesn’t believe the tanking economy will be a serious obstacle for Green Convene, for a couple reasons:

First, he thinks people are beginning to recognize that the economy of early 2008 was not sustainable, and the green economy is on the horizon. He is expanding his own bicycle sale and repair business even as other businesses in the community slow and shut down.

Second, Green maintains that sustainable public policy does not always require cash. “We don’t need money to re-engineer streets to make them safe [for non-drivers],” he says. Metro government could simply shift the balance of power on those streets with laws that favor people using sustainable modes of transportation. For example, a city ordinance providing undisputed right-of-way within three blocks of schools and parks would make it safer for children and others to walk and bike to these places. Strict enforcement could make failure to yield to a cyclist as taboo as failure to yield to an ambulance.

It’s a good thing money isn’t Green Convene’s only tool. When the meeting at Earthenirvana rolls around to the subject of finances, the conversation is short and the numbers small. Energy is high, though, and so are the standards. It’s time to talk details — “seams,” as Green keeps saying — but keeping true to the cause of sustainability adds kinks here and there. At one point, a possible donation of drinking cups sets off a debate.

“Aren’t we using the Ecosteward cups?” somebody asks.

“Wait, are those compostable?” asks another.

“Yeah, they’re made of corn,” answers a third.

“Corn? You mean polylactic acid,” chimes in yet another, with disdain.

“Well then what about paper cups?” offers somebody else.

“You mean coated paper?”

More disdain.

“No, not coated.”

“The cups they’re offering — are they recyclable or just reusable?”

“Those corn cups are only biodegrade if you cut them into little tiny pieces, and nobody’s gonna do that.”

“Paper biodegrades.”

“Well what’s the bias here, recycling or exposing people to new products?”

“Neither. It’s carbon footprint.”

And so on.

The exchange lasts only a few minutes, but it’s perhaps an indication of what might come this weekend, when 250 people come together to get behind a few common causes among many (slightly) disparate ones. The group hopes to come away from the two days with two or three issues on which Green Convene can take immediate action. They’re looking for areas that will be broad in their impact, so that issues that don’t get direct attention might see improvement as a result of action on umbrella issues like land use, energy consumption, or even quality of life.

As far as cups, they finally decide on paper, and event moderator Claude Stephens will take them home for his chicken compost.

After a pause, Matt Martin, owner of Earthenirvana, adds a closing note.

“Look, there are 84 different shades of green, people,” he says.  “We don’t have to be dark pine green.”

It’s funny he should mention shades, because other than the walls and the artwork, there’s a notable lack of color in the room. Green, who is white, says it’s not for lack of trying: They’d moved meetings downtown early on in order to encourage participation from those dependent on public transportation. Recent studies have shown that the vast majority of Louisville’s low-income residents do not have access to personal vehicles, and anyone who rides TARC regularly throughout the city will find that most of the passengers are minorities. Almost every TARC bus finds its way downtown or close to it, so Green Convene’s move was a good way to try and diversify.

“But when no one was getting there, we moved them back to the Highlands and Frankfort Avenue, and our participation went up because it was just easier for those who were interested to get there,” he says. “This is a huge frustration.”

Another problem is that the group does most of its communication through e-mail. That is cheap and fast, and practical for a dispersed group of volunteers, but it automatically excludes those — albeit few — without Internet access. When it comes to diversity, Green says, “from my perspective, I’ve failed there.”

“There’s been no response from the African-American community,” George Lee says. He’s been the only African American at Green Convene meetings, he says, and he’s tried to help the group reach out to others, but civic and church leaders he contacted showed no interest. What’s more important, he says, is being able to communicate the message in a way that the uninitiated can understand. As director of a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, Lee thought he could help bring the message to marginalized groups. “Every movement has a language, and I wanted to learn it so I could get out there and talk to people about it,” he says.

There’s another obstacle, something also happening on a national scale: Those economic issues that don’t get in the way of top-down change might still deter bottom-up involvement. “Low-income people are so tuned into surviving from day to day, asking people to start recycling and saving the earth — that’s just not something they’re willing to listen to right now,” Lee says.

Everyone agrees that an all-white, mostly male group like the one in the room this evening will never be fully effective. And the all-encompassing nature of sustainability means issues will arise that demand different voices. For instance, Green questions the environmental sustainability of busing students all over town, and says it sends a message to the bussed that their communities aren’t worth investing in. Yet he admits that would be a touchy issue for Green Convene to tackle.

“We’re stepping on soil here that’s laden with mines because there’s some racial history,” he says. Not to mention issues that affect minorities of all stripes and status.

The Green Convene conference will feature Metro Council president David Tandy, D-4, a popular African American. His presence at the inaugural event could help raise awareness or interest among his mostly black constituents and others.

Tandy says a lack of participation due to economic preoccupation is only part of the problem. He points out that citizen mobilization in Rubbertown happened when people discovered pollution was directly harming their health.

“That’s what you’ll have in a lot of your urban centers, where the focus is on issues affecting their quaility of life right now,” he says. “They’re looking at things very objectively, as opposed to something more abstract.”

Does he think his involvement will motivate African Americans?

“I certainly would hope so, but that’s not all that I hope would come of it,” he says. “We’re hoping that once you make it so that everybody can do some little things while at the same time making an impact, that will increase involvement.”

As council president, Tandy says this year he will focus on making the nearly 140-year-old City Hall more energy efficient.

No matter who shows up, the point of the event is for like minds to come together and clarify goals. Although there will be some well-known names at this first event — such as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth; Cathy Hinko, executive director of Metropolitan Housing Coalition; and Metro Council members, Green says the organizers aren’t people who “wield significant power in the community.”

The weekend is also supposed to produce a statement of unity that all participants can agree to.

“So we’re looking for a lot from this one-day conference,” Green says, unapologetically.

As the evening winds down, it’s clear the group has come a long way, and there’s still so much work to do before the first event. There’s a constant effort to keep talk focused on the big day, because so many in the room are dreaming of the future.

When the group officially breaks, everyone’s free to verbalize their visions of that future. A lawyer talks about working pro bono to look into whether closing bridges for Thunder Over Louisville poses a constitutional concern. An architect is hopeful about zoning laws that would favor fully solar-powered homes like the one he just finished for a family in eastern Jefferson County. And there will be more on the big day, more in the days after that. Because of its emphasis on consensus, the group’s vision will likely see continuous shifts until it finds the right shape, especially at the conference. There’s clearly excitement and nervousness that the elements of the event simply cannot be planned.

“There’s some that would say if we knew exactly what was going to happen in the meeting then there’s no need to have it,” says Claude Stephens, as worry seems to cross a few faces.

That’s a good point, and a fitting place to start a movement.

For more on the Green Convene, as well as a full schedule of events, speakers and workshops, please visit www.greenconvene.org