Future Perfect : Engaging Local Communities In Sustainability

City of Albany, NY

The Capital Region of New York has recently published a draft Sustainability Plan, (CC, 2010, UpstateNyer)

It is an understandably gloomy beginning to the New Year. Global climate change negotiations have failed yet again, this time at a meet held in Qatar in late 2012, leaving the rest of us wondering why they hold these high-level talks with such depressing regularity. State-side, a crippling drought, wildfires and the incredibly destructive Hurricane Sandy has done precious little to break the stony silence emanating from Washington. Does that mean we start going the way of “climate adapters” and stock up on disaster rations? Thankfully, there is still hope for our future. Local governments, both big and small, are stepping up to the challenge of creating resilient, sustainable and vibrant communities of tomorrow. The US is leading the effort with over 600 state & city governments that have incorporated sustainability into their planning processes. These pioneering communities are part of a network known as ICLEI – Local Governments For Sustainability, working together to transform the climate change debate from the bottom up. Continue reading


5 Things To Do Before Starting A “Buy Local” Campaign

A Farmer's Market at Saline, MI (cc Dwight Burdette, 2010)

A Farmer’s Market at Saline, MI (cc Dwight Burdette, 2010)

As the holiday season draws to a close and the New Year looms on the horizon, it seems like a good moment to sit back, draw a deep breath and reflect on the months past. And time to start sorting out those receipts. Let’s face it. The year-end festivities have become one-long shopping extravaganza. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average shopper will part with $740.57, adding up to a whopping $586.1 billion nationwide. Family gifts will make up the biggest share of the budget, a good $420. Shoppers are likely to shell out over $100 on candy and food, $45+ on cards and flowers and $50+ on decor. (Yes, that is right, all that holiday decor adds up to a $6.9 billion industry!) Continue reading

On Being Brave On Twitter (And Doing Good On Facebook)

“We are living in a new world, Facebook World” – Kony 2012, Invisible Children Inc.

It is difficult not to get excited about the power of social media. Companies trying to sell products can potentially reach millions of new customers in a hop, skip and a tweet. Cause marketers can co-ordinate a huge fundraising drive by asking “1 million to donate $1”. Activists can get swarms of American teenagers to share a controversial video on a Central African militia leader. And they can do this instantly, easily and without paying a dime. Marketing 2.0 in a brave, new world. And if the pundits are to be believed, they haven’t even scratched the surface yet. At SXSW’s Eco Conference this year, the enthusiasm for social media to drive sustainable change was palpable. In a Guardian report on the event, social media is seen as the foundation to establishing a new-age, responsible company. The author talks about how social networks would oversee ethical sourcing, manage responsible supply chains, make the board accountable to all stakeholders and give employees a platform to design new sustainable business models. If that were not enough, a former aide to G W Bush, Mark Pfeifle, went on record to say that Twitter should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in the Iranian protests a few years ago.

Two words: Slow down. Continue reading

Making Sustainability As American As Apple Pie

Trust a politician with your home and …
(c) R J Matson, Cagle Cartoons

Two down, one more to go. The score – Obama:1, Romney:1, our future: 0. After watching the second debate in a series of empty promises, political weaselry and some downright childish whining, I am certain any concerned voter would have serious reservations. And while the two candidates jabbed, parried and danced around the usual suspects – jobs, outsourcing, taxes and immigration- no one wanted to talk about the very real effects of climate change that America is experiencing in recent years. This year’s drought, the worst in two decades or more, affected nearly 80% of all agricultural land, driving up food prices and pushing small farmers to the brink of collapse. Dry areas of the country, notably the Southwest, are facing fresh water shortages that will only be exacerbated over time. Eastern states are still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irene, one year after it killed 67 people and caused nearly $50 billion-worth of property damage. And the problems are not just state-side. As the rest of the world enters a new era of scarcity, extreme weather and ensuing poverty, global peace and stability cannot be taken for granted forever. The worst failing this year was the washout-that-was Rio+20, a mega-conference of world leaders with nothing concrete to show for the time spent. This is why I am frustrated by the games politicians play on-screen and off. Why is our future being held ransom by these peddlers of flimflam? Continue reading

Engaging Millennial Employees in Sustainability Campaigns

[Watch an introductory video on Millennials by Erin Schrode of Teens Turning Green, SB 2011]

People make a company. This simple truth is becoming increasing relevant for businesses looking to hire and retain a younger workforce, one that will take companies forward for the next few decades. The challenge is, the emerging pool of talent is dominated by ‘millennials‘, a group that is changing the rules of the game. Remember a time when a steady paycheck was enough to ensure lifelong commitment from employees? No more.  A 2011 PWC study on those born between 1980 and 2000 indicates that millennials actively seek multiple employers, sometimes at the same time. They are willing to forgo financial reward for enhanced personal development opportunity and a better work/life balance. And in a radical breakaway from earlier generations, nearly 60% of millennials say they would only work for an employer whose social and environmental values resonate their own progressive views. A stunning 86% would consider leaving an employer whose ethics did not match their own. They are constantly asking the question, “Why do I want to work here?”, driven by the belief that their work can change the world. One respondent sums it up as, “My career will be one of choice, not one chosen out of desperation. It will align who I am with what I do.” Continue reading

“Made In USA” Claims: A Quick And Dirty Guide

“Made in USA”, Lupor Metal Products, NY (CC Joe M., 2007)

Have you ever bought a product because it said “Made in USA”? I have, because I believe in buying local. Because I hoped that my money would go towards creating jobs and help businesses grow, creating local economies that are largely self-supporting. I looked at the label that boldly stated that it was manufactured in this country and I trusted the company. Ah, the innocence! Little did I know that claiming to be “Made in USA” is a territory marked with loopholes, misinformation, ambiguous labeling and outright lies. “All-American” goods like Converse sneakers and Levi’s jeans are made overseas. Good old American cars are from Mexico. Coors is equal part Canadian, Brazilian and South African as it is American. New Balance is in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the advertising watchdog, for making “American Made” claims, as was Craftsman. The list is long and saddening. Continue reading

Introducing Landis Arboretum’s New Website – Landis Live

This was a pretty good year at Landis. We had a vibrant variety of well-attended programs, classes and events, capped off by the successful debut of the ‘Live at Landis’ series of music concerts. Our volunteers renovated the Meeting House as an intimate venue for events and performances. The Native Plant Trail is now interactive with strategically-placed QR codes that stream Ed Miller’s knowledgeable commentary to your phone. Finally, we hosted two fantastic Plant Sales, bringing in visitors from near and afar.

With so much going on and much more to come in 2014, we wanted our website to be our focal point online. With timeless botanical collections, a rich annual calendar, nature education and expert advice, Landis Arboretum has so much to offer to a wide variety of people. Now all this and more is available online 24/7.

We are excited to announce ‘Landis Live’, our new interactive, feature-rich website. Loaded with stunning images of the Arb, notes about our collections & history and regularly updated articles from the editorial committee, Landis Live is a one-stop-shop for the Arboretum. Some of the highlights are;

The Visit section of the website has short introductory write-ups to our botanical collections. Here, you can read about the unique lilac collection at Landis, including Lape’s own beautiful late blooming white lilac ‘Summer White” or delve into research being done on Tough Trees for Tough Sites. Visitors can listen to audio guides narrated by our Trail Curator, Ed Miller, covering the highlights of the Native Plant trail, a special treat! You can also download and print detailed trail guides before a visit by accessing our guide library.

We have reworked the events calendar to make it as easy to use as possible. By splitting our annual calendar into four types of Activities – Live Performances, Arts & Classes, Nature Education & Gardening, Fundraising Events – members can find events that interest them quickly without having to scroll through a long list. If you prefer a chronological list, activities are also categorized month-by-month.

Our most exciting features are to be found in the Interact section. Landis volunteers regularly post articles, news and other announcements on our new blog, News & Notes. Fred Breglia, our Director, is moderating a members-only Ask Fred Forum, where our supporters can ask for horticulture advice any time of the year. Have questions about preparing your garden for winter or caring for a fussy indoor plant? Don’t hesitate to join in!

Finally, we have made it simple to Support us in a number of ways. A Membership Form is now online, you are just a couple of clicks away from enjoying VIP privileges at the Arb. If you would like to contribute your skills and time to helping Landis, consider signing up online under the Volunteer section. We also very grateful for your monetary support, more information can be found under Donations, Memorials and Sponsorships, with the ability to make a Paypal contribution with ease.

To access the website, go to www.landisarboretum.org and ‘click to enter’. We invite all our members to visit the new website and send us your comments or suggestions. Please write to us by filling in the online Contact form. Coming soon – a fully online Acorn Shop and a dedicated Weddings & Rentals section. Stay tuned!

Sharing the Magic of Landis Through Pictures – Quick Guide to Flickr

Landis Arboretum Summer Newsletter, 2013


Our beloved Arb is many things to many people, but to a poetic few, she is a thing of beauty, waiting to be frozen on film for posterity. Over the years, visitors have captured her many moods and secrets and lovingly stored away those memories in photo albums and more recently, on their hard drive. What if these pictures could be freely shared with the rest of community? What if these memories could be preserved for future generations? We could create a beautiful, visual record of the Arboretum that can be freely accessed online for years to come. To do this, we would need a website that allows individuals to pool their images, creating a photo-gallery that can be seen by anyone around the world.

This is where Flickr comes in. Flickr is, at heart, a photo-sharing service. Instead of sending digital photographs to friends and family by email, photo-sharing sites allow people to upload their images online and send a link across that allows others to view the album. A number of sites have the ability to share pictures; Shutterfly, Picasa and Facebook are some examples. What sets Flickr apart is the ability to share beautiful images with a global community of amateur photographers. While Flickr can be used to send the family snaps from Grandma’s 80th birthday, it offers much more to those who want to showcase their photographs as art.

Flickr has, arguably, one of the largest and most fascinating visual record of our world today. Try the Explore function as a start. This section of Flickr showcases some of the best images brought together in one place. The Commons, of example, is a collection of historic images from museums, universities and public libraries. The Getty Collection is a jaw-dropping album of stock photography and Flickr users can submit their work for consideration. Galleries are publicly curated images of fellow Flickr photographers, an endlessly entertaining section. My personal favorite is the World Map – search for any place on Earth and you will be greeted by clusters of pink dots. Clicking on each dot feels something like unwrapping up a tiny picture present.

Flickr’s outstanding feature is its community, one that shares tips and tricks, offers feedback and helps novices perfect their technique. Most amateur photographers try to categorize their work based on camera, style or subject and share them through the various Groups on the site. These range from the expected (Birds of the World) to the esoteric (Lonely Chairs). Our own Arb has an open Flickr Group and we invite photographers of all skill levels to contribute images online.

So, how do you get started with Flickr? Go to www.flickr.com and sign up using your Yahoo, Facebook or Google ID. The first screen you see is your home screen, similar to Facebook’s newsfeed. This is where you would see updates and recommendations from friends. The menu on the top of the page has five parts – You, Contacts, Groups, Explore and Upload. Start with the Upload function by choosing a photograph you would like to share with the world. Flickr automatically pulls up the ‘EXIF’ data, information such as the date you snapped the image and make and model of camera. Once the picture in on Flickr, you will be directed to an Edit page that allows you to add tags, assign the image to a ‘Set’ within your collection or to a larger, public ‘Group’ that you are a part of. The default license indicates that you have reserved all rights, however, you can choose to allow others to use your work through a Creative Commons license. The photograph is also, by default, visible to the public. You can modify this if you would like to share this with only friends and family. You are now ready to show your art to the world!

Please visit http://www.flickr.com/groups/landisarboretum/ to see some stunning images of Landis shared by current members of the Group.

5 Things I Did Not Know Before Local Lift 2013

Local Lift's fantastic venue - HVCC's new TEC-SMART Campus

Local Lift’s fantastic venue – HVCC’s new TEC-SMART Campus

Local Lift 2013 lived up to its promise and more. An initiative of Capital District Local First, Local Lift was a one-day workshop for independent business located in and around Albany, Saratoga, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties. The event was built around a number of sessions addressing insurance, finance, marketing, social media and green certifications, creating a fast-paced, information-rich day for those who attended. Here are my top five takeaways from the event.

Health insurance for small business owners is about to get simpler.

Starting this October, small businesses and individuals are about to get the same bargaining power as large corporations in selecting affordable health insurance. The New York Health Exchange‘s Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) will allow employers to open up a gamut of options, allowing employees to choose between multiple carriers, different plans and coverage tiers. Employers can set contributions caps by percentage or fixed dollar amounts and will receive a single bill every month. While the Affordable Care Act makes health coverage a mandatory offering for larger companies (50+ employees), the Health Exchange does create opportunities for smaller companies to do the right thing. Enrollment begins October 1, 2013.

Community Service Society offers counselling and guidance to employers looking to navigate the changing health insurance landscape. Their Small Business Assistance Program provides more details, including a helpline number.

Mentoring is an email away.

This event wasn’t the first time I had heard of SCORE, a nationwide association of volunteer business mentors, but it was the first time the message really sunk in. I had access to experienced professionals ready to counsel, advise and guide me for free! This was an opportunity no newbie entrepreneur should pass up. SCORE offers access to over 13000 mentors online, each with a detailed individual profile listing their areas of expertise and years of experience. The website has dozens of templates and worksheets, ranging from basic business plans and book-keeping essentials to advice on mergers and exit strategies. SCORE Northeast offers face-to-face counselling at their Albany office, meetings can be setup online. The representatives at Local Lift were exceptionally welcoming, full of energy and charm. They have definitely convinced one entrepreneur to make an appointment.

There are ways for small businesses to get free legal help.

The Legal Project, a non-profit founded by the Capital District Women’s Bar Association, offers pro-bono legal services for a variety of needs, small business being one of them. They cover a wide range of issues, from starting or expanding a business, negotiating leases and contracts, reviewing copyright and trademark claims to managing employment issues.

Affordable alternatives to the home office exist.

Beahive, Beacon’s export to Albany, is much more than shared work space. Offering a mix of work and recreation amenities, Beahive is open, flexible and surprisingly affordable. Solo-preneurs can choose to work at the location once a month and expand to a monthly rental with access to a number of conveniences. For those finding it increasing hard to work from home or just plain bored, Beahive could be your new hang-out.

Chambers of Commerce are not the only options for business networking.

Local First of the Capital Region is shaping up to be an exciting alternative business association in the area. For enterprises that believe in circulating money in the local economy, Local First plans to offer referral programs, cooperative marketing and advertisement discounts, networking events, group discounts and bartering opportunities. They have streamlined their membership application and they did a bang-up job of organizing Local Lift this year on volunteer time. Here’s wishing them greater success!

[ The venue for Local Lift, the shiny, new TEC-SMART campus of Hudson Valley Community College deserves special mention. Dedicated to the high-tech course offerings of HVCC, the campus houses a dozen classrooms, labs and an intimate auditorium, all enclosed in a strikingly beautiful building. The campus is powered by a combination of wind, solar and geothermal energy and makes for a fantastic conference venue in the Capital Region. ]

Psychology And The Art Of Climate Change Communication

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, CC 2012 Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, CC 2012 Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard

Until recently, climate change has been something that happens to someone else. Most people understand the effects of a warmer planet – or try to – and end up shrugging their shoulders in disinterest. Climate change is too vast, too long-term and too distant to get people fired up about it today. Unfortunately, most of the blame for this widespread apathy can be attributed to poor communication. For years, the focus of climate change communicators has been to harp on the facts and bombard the public with mountains of scientific information. Data and statistics have been the the driving force of presentation and persuasion. In recent years, communicators are attempting to make these mind-boggling numbers more visual by adding graphs, charts and infographics. And yet, a large chunk of the population is not engaged. What is wrong with climate communication?

The problem may lie with a failure to understand human psychology.

In an illustrated guide to Climate Psychology, Columbia University researchers present their case for making climate communication more accessible –

“The ultimate solutions to climate change are workable, cost-effective technologies which permit society to improve living standards while limiting and adapting to changes in the climate. Yet scientific, engineering, and organizational solutions are not enough. Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes.

For that, the public must be able to interpret and respond to often bewildering scientific, technological, and economic information. Social psychologists are aware, through their painstaking scientific research, of the difficulties that individuals and groups have in processing and responding effectively to the information surrounding long-term and complex societal challenges.”

The guide lists a few key principles to boosting climate communication. Let’s examine them in detail –

1. Know your audience

Have you ever been in a heated debate with someone over climate change? Have you observed how climate deniers can cherry-pick certain facts and observations to make their point? We operate on mental models, thought processes that explains how the world works. These mental models are based on past experience, knowledge and learned biases, and they shape perception, behavior and problem-solving. Unfortunately, while mental models are an essential tool for survival, they also determine what information we absorb from the environment. We tend to pick those facts that fit with our models, an effect known as confirmation bias. This explains why climate-doubters misinterpret or deny hard science when it opposes their world-view.

Thankfully, mental models are not static and people are willing to analyze and accept new facts, if presented in the right way. Understanding why your audience is not engaged by climate communication and working with them to improve your approach can be very powerful.

2. Frame your message

In an earlier post, we discussed the value of localizing climate messages. In a 2012 report by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication that examined American attitudes on extreme weather and climate change, 73% connected global warming with altered weather patterns in the United States. Nearly half recall an unusual weather event in 2012 and 1 in 5 say they suffered harm to property, health or finances due to unnatural weather. When climate change is scaled down to a country, state, county or town, people connect with the message at a more personal level.

Framing is more than localizing climate communication. It involves careful selection of words (tax vs. offset, for example), presenting both the opportunities (promotion focus) and responsibilities (prevention focus) of community action and emphasizing the future risks of climate inaction.

3. Build a story

The human brain processes information through two distinct channels; the experiential pathway deals with emotions and instinct; the analytical channel crunches numbers and information. Evidence suggests that emotions are much more powerful in driving action, and yet, most climate communication has been heavily focused on data presentation. Personal stories of loss and devastation can help strengthen climate messages by adding the much-needed human dimension.

However, emotional appeals have inherent dangers. Over-using them in an attempt to engage audiences can backfire. People have a limited capacity for anxiety, known as the finite pool of worry. Once this capacity has been reached, audiences become emotionally numb and fail to react to additional appeals of a similar nature.

4. Stress on the certainties

Climate science has made enormous progress over the last decade. While scientists predict scenarios well into the future, they cannot do so with 100% certainty  This has led to some confusion in public communication with people mistaking uncertainty for doubt. To help counter this lack of trust in climate science, it is essential that communicators stress what is known for certain first. This helps build a concrete foundation to develop a more nuanced understanding of scenarios and projections.

5. Encourage group participation

Small sets of people with strong affiliations to the group are ideal forums for climate presentations. Small groups put people at ease and allow for greater interaction and participation. Strong group affiliations can foster a sense of community responsibility and help develop workable goals and action plans.

Climate change is a frightening enough prospect without having to make sense of complex data, theories and projections. Good communication can help humanize the issue and motivate people to action. And that cannot happen soon enough.

A Love Story Can Save Our Planet

Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Island Tortoises. (CC putneymark, 2007)

“100 critically endangered species at the brink of extinction”

“Only 3000 tigers left in wild”

“36 football fields deforested each minute”

Grim, isn’t it? The world we manage seems to get worse every day and all we can do is shake our heads in helplessness. We want to do something, anything, but all we feel is a pervasive sense of gloom and a slow-spreading paralysis. We are fast losing most of our natural wealth and we seem unable to reverse the situation. Why do we not jump up and save the world? If anything, these frightening messages of “irreparable loss” have the opposite effect on most of us. We end up pulling a warm, fuzzy blanket over our heads and try to bury ourselves in a little bit deeper. Continue reading

Seeding Change

Winter Squash Harvest (CC 2006 Californiacondor)

Every time I walk through the supermarket produce section, I feel like I have entered a child’s picture book. Take the bright yellow, flawless, waxy fruits for instance, they would be under ‘B’ for Bananas. And the greenish-red, sour, tennis ball would be ‘M’ for Mango. For a growing number of fruits, vegetables and herbs, there is one perfectly shaped, blemish-free variety that appears miraculously on store shelves all through the year. The picture-perfect Mango, with a capital M, cuts deepest. I can close my eyes and conjure up memories of having eaten countless different types, each with a distinct shape, flavor, texture, juiciness and color. You had to peel and cube some varieties and eat them delicately, while others were sucked on till the juice dribbled down your chin. Who replaced all that pulpy goodness with the Mango? Continue reading