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Grassroots Green moves beyond the bad news

The locally-based organization offers a new approach to environmental activism

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-02-18


To hear John Steinbach tell it, he was just one of millions who had their eyes opened and their hearts shaken by An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s award-winning 2006 documentary about global warming.

Steinbach, his wife Pamela, and their two children had always been environmentally conscious. They had always been aware of the issues connected with global warming and had tried to do what they could in their own life to reduce their carbon footprint. But the movie left Steinbach absolutely stunned, and initially he did not walk out of the theater full of hope for mankind and eager to tackle the challenges of the future. His immediate reaction was much more succinct: we’re screwed.

“I saw the movie with my son, and he said ‘you make it sound like we’re going to grow up in hell,’” Steinbach recounts. “That was pretty impactful.”

But for the Steinbachs, forecasts of doom soon gave way to “well, what are we going to do about it?” They realized that what they were doing in their own lives to conserve energy and help the environment wasn’t enough if they were going to make the big impact they thought the issue deserved. They put geo-thermal heating in their house, bought compact fluorescent lightbulbs, bought a smaller car… all-in-all, they estimate that they reduced their own carbon footprint by 50-60%. “Now, we could get that to 80%, but it’s not going to save the world,” John Steinbach says.

Those limitations weren’t lost on their 14-year-old children. “They would say things like, ‘do you really think you’re going to save the planet by turning the heat down? Do you really think you’re going to save the planet by getting our friends to carpool more’” laughs Pam Steinbach. “’You haven’t saved the world yet guys. Would you hurry up and do something really impactful?’”

John and Pamela Steinbach were already well known in the local business community through J.P. Consultants, their 20-year-old firm that offers consulting for corporations and other organizations, and has worked with everyone from non-profits and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. Initially, their effort to bring attention to environmental issues focused on a fundraiser for green practices in Northeast Indiana, but the more they talked to business leaders, activists, farmers and other concerned people in the area, the more ambitious the project became.

The result is Grassroots Green, an independent environmental action group whose mission is to promote environmental awareness and appreciation along with environmentally friendly-living. In addition to the Steinbachs, the other partners in Grassroots Green are Dick and Carol Swartz (Dick is an a electrical engineer with over 30 years experience in the electrical motor industry and Carol is a graphic designer) and Jeff and Sue Britton, founders of Britton Marketing and Design Group (the Brittons are also involved in ACRES Land Trust, and Jeff Britton produces a weekly nature spot for NIPR).

Originally funded by the city as part of Mayor Richard’s Green Ribbon Commission Grassroots Green launched late in 2007 with the publication of the first annual Green Living Guide for Northeast Indiana. The magazine (printed with 100% soy-based ink on FSC-certified Mohawk Via Paper) is not only a guide to green living, but contains over 20 pages of coupons for environmentally friendly products and services.

Music technology retailer Sweetwater, Inc. hosted the kickoff event last December — an appropriate forum, since the company’s new campus incorporates a large range of environmentally friendly features: rapidly renewable materials (derived from plants harvested within a 10-year or shorter cycle); insulated, heat-treated glass to reduce solar heat gain and limit the “cooling load” of the building’s air conditioning; light sensors, and many others. Christopher Guerin, Sweetwater’s Director of Program Development, says the campus will be the first building in Indiana to be gold-certified LEED-compliant (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design), a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Guerin says Sweewater’s association with Grassroots Green was a natural fit. “Sweetwater has always been interested in green issues,” he says. “We were doing recycling for years and years, long before a lot of other places were.” In addition, part of the requirement for being LEED-certified is that companies are asked to inform both clients and employees about the benefits of using these “green techniques.” “Connecting that with Grassroots Green was just one more way to get the news out,” says Guerin. “We’re particularly pleased the Grassroots Green is here and doing what it’s doing.”

Pamela and John Steinbach say that talking to organizations and companies about global warming and energy conservation draws on some of the same skill set they use in JP Consulting. But just to make sure he “got it right,” John traveled to Nashville for three days in early 2007 to be trained by Al Gore himself. Only 3000 people are trained worldwide, and John says that for whatever reason, his biography appealed to Gore’s organization as being a presenter. “The first day is pretty much going through his presentation once, and then a second time to tell you what’s behind it and to bring in the scientists that can give you more background, so when you go out, you’re not just pointing at a slide and saying ‘I’m not sure what this chart means’ but you really understand it,” Steinbach says. “I walked away just extremely impressed that that organization and Mr. Gore himself were really dedicated to putting this message out.”

But Steinbach believes that the time is ripe to take the message a little further, to go beyond the bad news and concentrate on what can be done. That’s the emphasis of Grassroots Green. Steinbach finds that for many people and groups he speaks to, global climate change and environmental issues aren’t really news anymore. “Those people say ‘yeah, I get it. Now what do we do?’” Steinbach explains. “So that’s what we’re trying to focus on. If you don’t get it, we’ll give you a little information, and if you do get it, we’re going to give you a lot of information about what you personally can do, what your organization can do, what your school can do, what your church can do.”

One of the sectors Grassroots Green talks to is business, and this is where the organization’s approach sets itself apart from what might be thought of as typical environmental activism. Business has always seemed at odds with the environmental movement. In the last few decades, opponents of any regulations aimed towards environmental conservation have been pretty successful in painting the issue in simplistic terms — jobs and economic growth vs. pretty trees and owls. But the Steinbachs say that’s changing. On a national level, Pamela Steinbach points to how Nike recently made some changes with how they make their Nike Air shoe — apparently, the air in those shoes was greenhouse gas; just a little bit, but all those shoes add up. Yes, Nike was dragged kicking and screaming into environmental conservation, but Steinbach says now they’re realizing it helps their bottom line and they’re being much more proactive, recycling the shoes and quietly adding 5% organic cotton to all their shirts.

Locally, the Steinbachs say they’re finding many businesses receptive to their message. Part of it is that with 20 years of JP Consultants, the Steinbachs have earned their credibility with many of the business organizations they speak to — they have an understanding of ratios and profit margins and can explain the issue in language the people they are speaking to understand.

And that’s the key, John Steinbach says. “Here’s a distinction to make: if you present things to a business as an environmental concern, that’s different from presenting things to business as a concern over the intertwined issues of energy and environment,” Steinbach explains. “They don’t have any trouble going down the energy road with you, because one of the things I tell business groups is, ‘look, waste is waste, and one of the reasons our planet is in bad shape is that we’re wasteful.’ If you use fuels in an inefficient way, you produce more waste. If you use fuels more efficiently, you produce less waste. It also costs you less money.”

“These issues are not foreign to business,” he adds. “They’re about efficiency. They’re about use of resources.”

Chuck Surack, President of Sweetwater, Inc. says there was a lot of analysis of the long-term financial reward for employing “green techniques” in the construction and daily workings of Sweetwater’s new building. “In virtually every case, there is a significant financial return over time,” Surack says. “Yes, some of the techniques cost more money up front, but they earn that back in a few years, and the savings going forward are significant.”

As just one example, Steinbach frequently hears that businesses need to continue their reliance on coal because it’s the least expensive fuel. But if you factor in the long term health ramifications, the environmental degradation, and the cost associated with cleaning all that up, there’s nothing cheap about it. “If you talk to any kind of sophisticated business leader, they know this is coming,” Steinbach says. “We talk to energy executives who say ‘we just wish the federal government would do something so we know what the regulations are. They haven’t done it, we can’t make a business plan because we don’t know what to meet’.”

The biggest obstacle for the environmental movement isn’t the naysayers, the people who doubt climate change or believe it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon, or think that drilling more would solve our dwindling energy resources. Those people, John Steinbach says, are becoming “the fringe” these days. The biggest obstacle is that, in issues that matter most to your average U.S. citizen, “the environment” ranks as #11.

It would rank a lot higher, the Steinbachs argue, if people understood the relationship between energy and the environment. Almost every substantial issue we face as a society, from national security to poverty, can be tied to scarcity of resources. Globally, the biggest potential conflicts experts see coming all revolve around a scarcity of energy, water, and food. But you don’t hear those issues talked about in the presidential debates; we tend to view all these things as separate, distinct issues.

“If we don’t start looking at alternative energy, we become more at risk in our economy and dependent on unstable countries to supply that energy,” says Pamela Steinbach. “We have to decide how we’re going to use the energy we have left.”

And we have to do it soon. To produce, for example, the windmills and solar panels that could be sources of alternative energy will take a heck of a lot of resources, but it’ll seem cheap compared to what it’ll cost us in a decade or so. “If we wait 20 years, petroleum is going to be such a scarce resource compared to what it is now, that it’ll be almost impossible,” says John Steinbach. “If we start vigorously, like an Apollo project, we can get that done. If we don’t… well, we’ve already wasted decades where we knew what was coming, and we acted slowly.”

For more information on Grassroots Green and the Green Living Guide for Northeast Indiana, visit www.grassrootsgreen.us

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