Leadership Institute Blog / “Environment Program Day” by Amanda Cochrane

When the topic of global climate change and our society’s role in it comes up I often feel a sense of hopelessness and fear that our society will not change its behavior until it is too late. Scientists warn us that the changes already made to the environment are serious and intractable. However, after our SLI program day on the environment, I left feeling more hopeful that individuals can and will make the changes that will curb our trajectory towards global climate crisis. My optimism grew from hearing about local companies efforts to impact climate change, in their own ways. I also began to reflect more on how the communities of Lawrence and Lowell might have more solutions than some might think to our environmental challenges. Also, the sense of openness and growth I felt within our group led me to believe that people can change their behaviors/attitudes about the environment.

The first panel discussion of three professionals was fascinating in that is presented options for potential innovators on the kinds of approaches one could take to the huge issue of climate change.  The first speaker from UMASS Lowell spoke about how his department was tasked to make a significant decrease in the university’s carbon footprint and was taking real and tangible steps to make that happen—investing upfront in benefits that would be felt down the road. This was a wonderful example of leadership and of moving in the right direction. The second professional was an owner of Solectria Renewables, a company the makes a component of solar panels, right here in Lawrence. This company also pointed a way forward. Their business model is for the propagation of a renewable energy source that also provides much needed jobs to the Merrimack Valley. The last presenter was the owner of Brewed Awakenings, a coffee shop in Lowell that practices “green” business practices like using recyclable products and other strategies. The owner mentioned that he was moved to do so because he just couldn’t stand thinking about contributing to more waste via the ubiquitous to-go non-recyclable coffee cup. This last example offers a way all businesses (small as well as large) can participate in being more environmentally friendly – because it is the right thing to do.

After considering business strategies that could impact climate change, we heard from Heather McMann and Rose Gonzalez who shared their experience with Groundwork Lawrence as well as Lydia Sisson with Mill City Grows. The panelists explained environmental justice and the fact that much of the negative impact of environmental negligence is felt in communities of poverty. The idea that stuck with me from that dialogue was that while there are many challenges faced by cities like Lowell and Lawrence regarding their access to environmental assets these communities offer part of viable solution to some of our biggest climate challenges. The communities were built to be walkable, livable and not necessarily reliant upon vehicles like much of the surrounding suburbs. In addition, housing in these communities is largely dense – individuals live at a much lower sq.ft./person ratio than suburban communities. This sort of scaled down living at a closer proximity to one another has to be a part of a future that is less reliant on the overuse of fossil fuels.

For me, as a staff member at Groundwork Lawrence I think about the context of the community every day—the parks, the access to open space and clean healthy food growing land. What I don’t usually get to do is to hear the perspective of those who are not focused professionally on environmental justice or the environmental in general share their views on the issue. One classmate pointed out that as a homeowner, she didn’t realize that solar panels are something that could be a viable option for her. The costs are no longer as exorbitant as they once were and that was something she and others took away from the day. Another comment from a classmate that you never actually “throw anything away”, that there really is no “away” spurred in myself in others more of an awareness that reducing our use of disposable items and not only recycling them is where we need to go as a society. Hearing the voices of my classmates share their learning and move my own along instilled in me the belief that with attention and caring we can change our behavior to make our world more sustainable.

Here’s to the glass half full.