Meet an Action Group founder: Geoffrey in Carpinteria, California

An appreciation for clean sand is the norm in his coastal community of Santa Barbara County, yet Connector Geoffrey Berz believes more can be done.

“Focusing on our beaches—a mutual love of just about everyone—can benefit Santa Barbara County by bringing those of all backgrounds to the beach cleanup and giving them a safe place for dialogue at various levels,” he says. “This dialogue can lead to identifying other needs in our community while building stronger ties between vastly different demographics.”

Surf Ready

Geoffrey ready to surf.

Strengthening ties across different groups and promoting collaboration is how Geoffrey spends his time when he’s not surfing and or playing beach volleyball. Professionally, he helps organizations scale up and problem-solve.

“This involves pooling resources, project management, shifting organizational responsibilities, and naturally, connecting individuals who have skills/needs that can foster positive change,” he says.

His Action Group, “Monthly Beach Cleanup,” is one extension of this work. Initially, he plans to reach out to the Idealist community to garner more support, and then go beyond, with an emphasis on face-to-face connection.

By being a part of the Network, Geoffrey ultimately hopes to expand his own circle of go-getting Idealists.

“Organizing action in an entrepreneurial spirit is not an easy task. It’s important to have individuals and organizations that are like-minded in the same place,” he says. “A place like Idealist.”

Feel the same way about clean beaches that Geoffrey does? Join his Action Group.

Curious about Action Groups? Find one near you or start one of your own!

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Why the Earth doesn’t need saving (but we do)

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

My cousin used to drive a battered Subaru Leone wagon. You know the kind: it was the low-slung, boxy prelude to the sleek and ubiquitous Outback, and like all ancient Subarus that survived to see the twenty-first century, it was baby blue and puttering slowly but steadily home from the moon. At least, according to the odometer.

It was the kind of car that separates a certain breed of dirt-under-the-nails environmentalist from their well-heeled, Prius-driving counterparts. Accordingly, plastered to its rattling rear bumper was a sticker bearing a wry inscription: “Save the Humans!” implored a Greenpeace-esque whale, entreating tailgaters and passers-by.

At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a darkly humorous joke. A decade later, I think it’s the best environmental slogan I’ve ever heard. That’s because the sentiment it mocks—the notion that humans could and should ‘save the Earth’—is misguided at best and preposterous at worst. Us humans are the ones with serious cause for concern, not the planet. The tongue-in-cheek sentiment of that bumper sticker is dead on: we are the ones in need of saving.

Source: Flickr/jsmif

Is this bumper sticker ironic or prophetic?
(image via Flickr/jsmif)

Let me be the first to admit that this sounds a tad melodramatic and more than a little unscientific. But I am a scientist (a geologist, specifically) and here, I will endeavor to convince you that this is the most rational conclusion to draw from the vast and heavy weight of geologic evidence.

Consider, for perspective, just these select episodes of the Earth’s long and incomprehensibly violent past:

For the first billion years of its existence, our whole sphere burned with angry flames of primordial rock. An entire planet made of lava that shuddered under an unrelenting rain of extra-terrestrial shrapnel—asteroids and comets and bits of other planets that failed to form from the solar nebula. One impact of a Mars-sized object was so catastrophic that it peeled off a wave of molten crust, thrusting it into orbit to become the moon.

In the relative calm of an adolescent solar system, life on Earth evolved, but sheepishly, out of sight, in the dark depths of the early oceans. Above water, the planet bore no resemblance to its current state. The continents had barely begun to grow, rising like fat to the top of a stockpot above the churning mantle. Carbon dioxide cloaked the planet in a torrid haze—concentrations may have been 25 times higher than they are today—trapping the precious radiation of a faint young sun and preventing the seas from crystallizing into solid ice.

The atmosphere then would have poisoned human lungs because it lacked even the slightest trace of oxygen. This gas did not become a major component of the atmosphere until about 2 billion years ago—half the Earth’s age—when the first photosynthetic bacteria belched it out in an accident of metabolic chemistry. For ninety percent of Earth’s history, nothing colonized its continents, not even so much as a chewing-gum smear of lichen. From afar, the planet would have looked aqueous and dull, lifeless and static.

Around 600 million years ago, after the Earth thawed from a bout of global glaciation known as Snowball Earth, life bigger than a grain of salt evolved for the first time. And then it was eradicated by a rogue meteor. And then it proliferated again. And again was flattened. In all, natural forces have quashed the diversity of life a staggering five times. The largest episode, when nearly all marine species went extinct 250 million years ago, may have been caused by the arrival of a new and highly successful bacteria that destroyed the environment that nourished it (sound familiar?).

pull quoteIn the last one million years alone, great ice sheets have waxed and waned at the beck and call of slight wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Armies of glaciers rode back and forth across Canada and the American Midwest. Antarctica and Greenland swelled and overflowed, together sucking three hundred feet of sea level into their frigid masses. These ice sheets came and went in a matter of millennia, radically transforming the planet with each revolution.

Basically, it boils down to this: the Earth has seen it all and there is little scientific doubt that until the sun explodes—engulfing the planet in burning garlands of hydrogen and helium about five billion years from now—the Earth, like the Dude, will abide.

Good story, I know, but can it help us make sense of the world we live in and the problems we face?

On the one hand, when viewed against the long gaze of geologic time, it is tempting to conclude that we are a meteor of a species, a plague of opportunistic bacteria, devastating the planet with blind greed and the reckless momentum of self-interest. In this formulation—a riff on the standard narrative of environmentalism—the Earth is the victim and humans are the agents of doom.

For example, it’s clear that humans have reshaped the planet on geologic scales of space and significance in the equivalent of a geologic instant; we live in a time for which there is no geologic analog. In a century, humans have rewound the clock four million years to the last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high. That carbon now permeates the ever-rising oceans, and is curdling its waters into an acidic solution that threatens to unravel the marine food web. New research even shows that the Earth now spins around a slightly different axis—in the last eight years, it has readjusted to regain its balance, compensating for the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

And those are just the climate effects.

We have defiled our waterways with toxic chemicals, antibiotics, fertilizer, and waste, which eventually make their way to the sea. These pollutants mingle with the islands of garbage that spin, despondent, in the lonely gyres of the oceans. Our refuse even litters the slopes of the deepest submarine canyons, places that know nothing of human life save its plastic legacy. We have reworked the terrestrial surface of our planet with unflagging vigor, and its scars can now be seen from space. Every year, through habitat destruction, inadvertent besiegement, or explicit eradication, we drive scores of other species out of existence.

This all sounds dire. However, one could reach an alternative conclusion from juxtaposing the current state of affairs with a geologic perspective on life and disaster in the universe:

The planet Earth has survived far worse trauma than we could possibly inflict upon it.

Though we are powerful, we cannot grow ice sheets on command, we cannot summon asteroids, we cannot remove oxygen from the atmosphere and ocean or burn enough fossil fuels to raise carbon dioxide levels as high as they have been before. Even our nuclear waste, perhaps our most lasting impact, will become benign within a million years—the blink of a geologic eye (or 0.02% of Earth’s history).

Bad for the ocean, yes, but mostly bad for us. Photo: Shutterstock.

Bad for the ocean, yes, but perhaps worse for people who depend on the ocean for survival—which is all of us. (photo via Shutterstock)

Truly, the mess we’ve created is mainly a problem for us.

We need clean water to drink and bathe in. We need stable growing seasons to produce food and commodities. We need the billions of dollars in ecosystems services that biodiversity and the natural world provide, free of cost, and which we seem hell-bent on undermining. We suffer from extreme weather—just one manifestation of climate change—which causes death and destruction and economic hardship. We mourn the loss of the fisheries we drove to collapse and the coastal systems we poisoned with runoff. We face the intimidating challenge of protecting the world’s low-lying cities through fortification or, more likely, relocation.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, problems of environmental degradation and climate change are not threats to the Earth at large. They are challenges to human survival.

This does not excuse the collateral damage we’ve inflicted on other innocent species. We have certainly destroyed many forms of life, but we cannot eradicate life itself. Life crawled back from the hydrothermal vents and rodents’ nests where it weathered the catastrophes of eons past, and there is no reason to think we will stand it its way now. New life, different life will recover. Except perhaps not human life. Homo sapiens may be committed to the ranks of ephemeral fossil species that came and went in 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. In all honesty, we’re bound there sooner or later, as nearly every species has been before us (except possibly a few primitive strains of bacteria).

If we as a species are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs at some point, then the question becomes one of temperance. Can we focus our hefty primate brains on the formidable tasks of foresight, prudence, and self-control? Can we dampen our eagerness to hasten our fate?

Scientists are hard at work trying to figure out how long we have to choose a wiser path before the costs become too great. However, there is strong consensus that the longer we wait, the more drastic our response must be. Our prodigious intellect certainly holds solutions to the predicament of our species. But first, we must abandon the charade that saving the Earth is anything more than an act of selfish necessity. If we thrive or fail, the planet will remain, just as it always has. Our selfishness may, in fact, be our only hope of surviving.

In light of this, it seems to me that we should reorient our relationship to the natural world. Don’t rally the masses to save the Earth. The Earth will be just fine. Instead, invert the rallying cry of the conservation movement: as the ironic whale has always said, “Save the humans.”

unnamedJulia Rosen will soon complete her PhD in geology at Oregon State University, where she studies ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to learn more about climate change. She is also a freelance science writer, an outdoor enthusiast, and a lover of this beautiful, fascinating, and indestructible planet.

 

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Fight for Light: Bringing clean, green awareness to black campuses

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of organizations working to increase awareness of climate change. If you take a step back though, it’s apparent that there are quite a few issues and population segments that are underrepresented in the environmental community.

One of these issues is how climate change affects people of color and the poor, and one of the most underrepresented groups of people in the environmental sector is African Americans.

Due to heat waves and air pollution in cities and increasing energy and food prices, climate change is poised to have a disproportionately large and negative effect on the urban African American community. African Americans are also generally underrepresented in the staff of environmental organizations, both public and private.

In 2009, Markese Bryant and John Jordan saw these growing problems as a call to raise awareness of environmental issues among African Americans. Then students at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, they teamed up and formed Fight for Light, which works “to transform Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation.”

Almost five years later, Markese and John are the leaders of a thriving nonprofit organization that’s inspiring campus leaders across the nation to become more environmentally active.

How did they do it?

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John Jordan, left, and Markese Bryant.
(photo via fightforlight.org)

Find something you care about

It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to devote your time to an issue that really resonates with you. If you plan on turning an idea into something concrete, you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time working on it.

Before they formed Fight for Light, Markese and John had been concerned about the environment as well as the lack of African American representation in many professional settings. After reading The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, Markese and John became interested in the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which would help lift people out of poverty while also encouraging the use of alternative energy sources and promoting conservation. Knowing this was something they could feel good about putting time into, they moved onto the next step.

Start small

Once Markese and John decided what to focus on, they wanted to get right to work. However, they were both still undergraduates, and couldn’t immediately invest all their energy into Fight for Light. So they started with small steps, first entering a nationwide student business competition and collaborating with organizations that shared their vision.

In 2010, Markese partnered with Green for All and helped develop the College Ambassador Program. This program encourages young leaders at 15 HBCUs to become advocates around the environmental issues that affect their communities. One year later, John began to manage a large grant given to Morehouse by the National Science Foundation, which helped Fight for Light encourage sustainability among the student body and also led to him managing student engagement at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

Somehow in that mix, Markese also found the time to team up with Green for All to film this music video:

Get support

All their efforts eventually led to a big reward. In 2012, Markese and John were selected as Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellows in recognition of their several years of slow but steady awareness-raising about environmental issues on HBCU campuses. With the fellowship came financial help and the freedom to turn Fight for Light into something bigger.

Expand

With the support provided by Echoing Green, Markese and John are now increasing the reach of Fight for Light across the country. Markese recently traveled to Nashville to serve as a keynote speaker at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, while both Markese and John traveled with students from the Atlanta University Center to the Power Shift 2013 conference in Pittsburgh.

As Fight for Light makes new contacts and continues to expand outside of the Atlanta metro area, its core mission remains the same. Every day, more students at HBCUs come into contact with the organization, and each new supporter is a fresh voice in the environmental awareness movement.

Your turn

How can you get involved? If you’re interested in raising awareness of environmental issues, particularly at HBCUs, just get in contact with Markese or John. If you like what Fight for Light is doing, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

What other organizations or people do you know who are addressing issues at the intersection of climate change and minority communities?

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How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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Realism over reverence: A loveable soil nerd’s advice for sustainable activism

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo via Facebook)

James Cassidy, a soil sciences instructor and faculty advisor to one of the longest-running organic student farms in the country, comes into his office at Oregon State University wearing a t-shirt that says “eat locals.” It shows a zombie chasing a guy on a tractor.

I’m here today to talk with James about food, sustainability, and the little things we can all do to make a difference in our food system. Now that there are so many different food organizations, sustainable farming projects, and trendy restaurants, the myriad of all things we “should” do when it comes to food can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people think you’re supposed to convert to sustainability like you have to join this religion or something,” James says. “But the creation of real lasting change isn’t about going full blast, it’s about doing little things over a long period of time. That’s what sustainability really means—an action that is possible for you to sustain for a long time.”

Doing small, reasonable acts to participate in sustainable food systems—like eating a little less meat than you might normally, or buying vegetables at a farmer’s market once a month—might not seem like much. But if enough people did these little things, it would make a big difference.

“If we could snap our fingers and get everybody to eat 5% less meat and 2% more whole grains, we could change the entire agricultural system overnight.”

It’s maybe not as sexy as becoming a full-blown urban homesteader with chickens and pickles and homemade soap, but that’s the point.

"Eat food, not rocks," says James.

“Eat food, not rocks.” (Photo via Facebook)

“Look, change is slow. And it’s not very dramatic or exciting. So you have to build activism into your life in a reasonable way,” he says. “The activism itself has to be sustainable.”

Less guilt, more fun

Having a whole bunch of fun helps too, he adds. Especially when it comes to mobilizing volunteers or starting community projects related to sustainability.

“You have to give an incentive for people to be there, not just tell them that they really ‘should.’ You gotta get the BBQ in there, you gotta get some music, you gotta make it actually fun and they’ll actually want to come. Less strict ‘eat your vegetables’ guilt-tripping and more birthday cake.”

Prioritizing reality over reverence has helped Cassidy’s student garden come into its own. In the early stages, he saw a lot of students sitting around having philosophical conversations about communities. It was too grand, too hypothetical. People kept dropping out because they weren’t having fun.

Now kids come out to the garden for a few minutes to pull weeds, have a warm meal together, and then get back to whatever else they want to do. It’s no pressure, and that works better for busy students who are more likely to come by if it’s not a huge commitment—and if they’re getting food out of the deal.

“Look, communities happen, they’re not built. And they happen if there’s a reason for them to happen. So if you can provide some reason or some opportunity for it—for us it was serving dinner to people who come to help—then you give it a chance to form itself.”

I ask him if there’s one thing he would want everybody on the planet to do or think about to help us become more sustainable. The simplicity of his answer surprises me.

“I think that every single person who lives on this planet Earth should put a seed into soil and water it and put it under a light or in the sun at least once a year. If everybody participated in this little tiny ritual, it would remind us how life on our planet actually works—seeds going into a porous media and swelling and growing and becoming something out of nothing. I think if everyone did this, it would actually improve people’s lives and change their perspective. I think it’s really as simple as that.”

If you need some inspiration for having fun and expressing ‘what’s on your mind,’ check out this Information Society video (NOTE: that’s James on the left with the big blue bass).

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Blazing new trails: How a New York City retiree found purpose in stonework

Originally from Cuba and now living in Poughkeepsie, New York, 61-year-old Artie Hidalgo worked for the New York City Transit Authority for 36 years before retiring as an assistant general manager in 2010. That year, he started building trails to make paths safer and more convenient for hikers. Hidalgo now co-leads the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, an all-volunteer group specializing in wilderness stonework. Below, he talks about his passion.

This post originally appeared on Next Avenue, a PBS website that informs and inspires the 50 + crowd. 

I knew volunteering would be an important aspect of my retirement. I also knew I wanted to do stuff outdoors.

An avid hiker, I was always fascinated by the dry stonework used on hiking trails to prevent erosion, as well as how it got there.

Dry stone has been around for thousands of years. Look at the Great Wall of China and the Aqueducts in Rome. They’re such beautiful structures. There’s something primitive about building with natural stone. It’s like sculpture, in a way.

Since 99 percent of the work on U.S. trails is done by volunteers, I developed a game plan to volunteer by doing dry stone building.

In 2010, I joined the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a nonprofit that monitors and maintains trails and took a dry stone building course. As soon as I finished, I began volunteering and put in almost 1,000 hours that season. It was the highest number of hours from a volunteer for the group in a single year.

profiles_in_volunteering_stone_cutter

Photo of Artie courtesy of the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew.

One of my jobs was working on a reroute of the Appalachian Trail on Bear Mountain. During the weekdays, there were hardly any volunteers so I had the opportunity to work directly with a professional trail crew that was overseeing volunteer training.

I developed a really close working relationship with them and they would ask me to do stuff that sometimes volunteers wouldn’t want to do because it was really hard, like turning big rocks into little rocks with a sledgehammer.

Toward the end of my first season, one of the guys took me to a site on Bear Mountain. “I need you to build a staircase here,” he said. “It’s probably going to be about 15 or 16 steps.”

I was shocked. Prior to that, I’d only built a two- or three-step staircase. I remember asking, “Tom, do you think I can do this?” He said, “Yeah, I think you can.”

I tell you, I worked for six or seven weeks on this project and it’s still so gratifying.

Sometimes, I walk new volunteers up it when we do an orientation because that staircase is so special to me. But I never think of it as my staircase. I always think of it as being done by all the guys on that crew who inspired me and gave me the opportunity to build it. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

I developed a special chemistry with two of the guys, Chris Ingui and Bob Brunner, and in 2011 the three of us built an all-volunteer crew specifically devoted to stonework, known as The Jolly Rovers.

We started with 12 volunteers who had little or no experience in trail building. We taught them how to do stonework and had an incredible season.

Now there are 23 Jolly Rover volunteers, men and women of all ages, and we have a deep connection that goes beyond stonework. This has become an extended family for all of us.

That’s the thing about my experience doing this kind of work. I’ve done it in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee and North Carolina and the quality and caliber of people I’ve met is astonishing. Nobody is pretentious. Nobody has a chip on his shoulder.

Ideally I’d like to see the crew evolve to the point where we can do what we’re doing on a national basis and expand internationally.

I feel so proud about what I’ve done as a volunteer.

I look back on my 36-year career with the Transit Authority and say, “Wow, what was that all about?” But when I look back on the last three years of my life, every structure that I built will outlive me, outlive my sons.

I remember taking my sons to Bear Mountain and they said, “I don’t believe this, Pop! This is awesome!”

They had heard me talk about what we did, but they never saw the magnitude of the structures that we built.

That stuff is going to be around for a long, long time. Nobody is going to put up a parking lot in any of these places. These are protected sites.

And that’s what I feel is so gratifying about it. In today’s modern culture, where else are you going to get the kind of opportunity I’ve had?

In the NY area and interested in doing trail work? The Jolly Rovers are always looking for volunteers.  

Interested in trail work in other parts of the country? Try searching Idealist for opportunities around the U.S. and world

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How an Irish nonprofit is helping kids be green

Leprechauns. Frothy mugs of green beer. Four-leaf clovers. Whether you celebrate it or not, these are likely the first images that pop in your head when you think of St. Patrick’s Day. But these universal symbols for the Irish holiday aren’t the only green products Ireland has to offer.

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Two boys create a completed circuit in Rediscovery Centre course on green energy.

Green businesses have grown in Ireland over the past few years. From small-scale organic farming programs to larger businesses manufacturing new wind power technology, environmentally sustainable projects in Ireland are both diverse and original.

One nonprofit in particular, Eastern Ireland’s Rediscovery Centre, has geared its environmental efforts towards the next generation of green thinkers by bringing waste reduction and sustainability tools into the classroom by partnering with teachers in schools across the region. Fortunately, the Irish government encourages primary schools teach a certain amount of classes focused on waste reduction and biodiversity through its Green Schools Program.

And it’s anything but dull. With sessions spent constructing terrariums or cooking with a homemade solar ovens, the center’s staff know how to make environmental education captivating for a range of ages. And based on student and teacher surveys that praise their alternative style of education, their method is working.

But it wasn’t always a breeze.

When the Rediscovery Centre first created its education program (it also serves as a store for recycled paint, restored furniture and eco products) in 2006, the staff had a simple framework for its classes—but needed in-class experience to truly understand what its students needed.

“It’s always been easier with the primary schools. They love the hands-on learning style and are willing to learn,” says Tara Singleton, manager of research and education at the organization. “But once the students get older, they’re sometimes too cool for school. They are more stubborn.”

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Students learn the ins and outs of recycling with a life-size Chutes and Ladders board game.

So her staff has to modify each lesson by age group, making the topic something both relatable and appealing to the students. The program’s Executive Manager, Sarah Miller, adds that education disparities within an age group can even create issue within a classroom.

“Some schools have engaged in quite comprehensive environmental awareness raising before they book a workshop, whereas others haven’t,” she says. “In order to deal with this we have developed a range of workshop activities and additional teaching aids.”

Working with teachers, who best know how the individual students work in a school setting, tends to be the quickest way to plan a lesson.

“It really depends on the teacher,” Singleton says. “Some are really welcoming to our program, and want to help us make our class work for their students, but others don’t seek us out.”

Which is another battle altogether. How does the staff make their resources attractive to public school teachers?

With classes based solely on these topics, the center has no trouble winning teachers over. For secondary classrooms, however, staff has to work harder to align its classes with topics covered in the school courses.

“We try to pair science and geography lessons up with our classes, but it’s not as simple as with the younger grades,” she says. “There’s less incentive there.”

But by dealing with these obstacles from the get-go, the center has been able to secure its roots in the surrounding community.

“We often get calls from delighted schools that have used our lessons throughout the school year,” says Singleton. “They say ‘look what we’ve done!’ Sure, it’s a hard slog to start up something like, but the interest is there. It’s worth it!”

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 Want to learn more about how to engage children in learning about sustainability and the environment? Feel free to contact Tara Singleton at tara@rediscoverycentre.ie and Sarah Miller at sarah@rediscoverycentre.ie.

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Should countries make happiness a priority?

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Should we put more emphasis on being happy? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

As we reported at the end of last year (“Happy Happy New Year!”), the idea that nations should pay attention not just to Gross National Product (GNP) but also to Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been spreading slowly since it was introduced by the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s.

This week, GNH will get more attention at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  During this conference, leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to explore how nations can combat poverty while ensuring environmental protection. While the agenda includes an array of topics such as job creation, food security, and sustainable cities, attendees will also try to answer this question:  Are economic measures of growth enough to determine a nation’s well being?

For Bhutan, a landlocked country in South Asia, the answer is still no.  At the conference, Bhutan will present a paper based on the work of its Center for Bhutan Studies, which measures the nation’s GNH. The center examines nine domains of happiness – including health, education, time use, and good governance – and uses the results to craft recommendations for policy makers, NGOs, and businesses. Though it started as an informal alternative to the Gross National Product (GNP), today more civic leaders around the world are wondering if the GNH provides more holistic picture of a community’s wellbeing.

Starting in our communities

Sustainable Seattle used the concept in my hometown to develop a local happiness index through The Happiness Initiative. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics used to create a profile of the region’s progress toward sustainability, and a personal survey that anyone can take. The results of the first survey completed in 2011 (summary shown in a graph on page 10 of The Happiness Report Card [PDF]), reveal that my neighbors feel a strong sense of trust and community support, yet struggle with time balance.  The Happiness Initiative also developed a set a of recommendations for policy makers and community members to tackle the challenges presented in the survey.

The Happiness Initiative is branching out beyond Seattle and attempting to measure the country’s happiness. Their first national survey conducted in March 2012, for example, indicated Americans are more satisfied with the state of the environment, education, arts, and culture than with government and time balance.  The Happiness Initiative is collecting more national data now; you can contribute to the next report yourself here.

What do you think? Should we expand the ways communities — and nations — measure progress and success?

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Green jobs have tripled! So how can you land one?

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Installing solar panels isn't the only way to work for a cleaner planet. (Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr/Creative Commons)

“Green jobs,” or jobs that touch on environmental sustainability in some way, are up, according to…our website! So how can you land one?

We recently spoke with New York Times reporter Austin Considine, whose piece Green Jobs Attract Graduates was published last weekend:

Amelia Byers, operations director for Idealist.org…said the number of jobs related to environmental work has roughly tripled in the last three years. “A lot of new graduates are coming out of a world where volunteerism and service has been something that has helped define their generation,” she said. “Finding a job with meaning is an important value to them.”

After we shared the article, the folks at Sacandaga Consulting tweeted back: “@idealist What tips would you give/what experience is needed for people looking to find a green job?

Good question. Here are some ideas…

Set yourself up for success.

Try some of the exercises in our free online Career Center and, if you’re looking specifically at the nonprofit sector, our Guides to Nonprofit Careers. Get really clear on the type of work you’re looking for, and prepare for interviews, salary and benefits negotiations, and success on the job.

Demonstrate your interest.

In Recent Graduates Head for Green Jobs, a response to the Times article, Care2.com blogger Amelia T. writes: “The worry, for me, is that “sustainability” will become so ubiquitous that it means nothing at all, another way for people to feel as though they’re doing something altruistic without much of an actual impact.”

Do smart searching!

Do you have additional tips or resources? Please share!

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Fun in the sun: Volunteer opportunities for you right now!

By Amy Potthast.

Summer! Aching for reasons to be out in the sun all day, everyday? Or just want to keep moving?
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Planting a community garden is good for you, the community, and people needing food. Photo by USFS Region 5 (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Consider volunteering outdoors this summer. There are countless ways you can build karma while working on your tan – and you can find most of ‘em on Idealist. Read on…

Restoring and maintaining natural places
People can overuse or over-love forests, rivers, and trails. Non-native plant species can take root and overpower the natives.

When a natural area is damaged in these and other ways, you can take steps to bring it back to life.

Work with others to:

Keywords when searching volunteer opps on Idealist: restoration, environment, ecology, watershed, invasive plant species.

Gardening, farming, and permaculture
Tending the earth in sustainable ways is good for community, people who are food-insecure, and for you.

Connect with organizations and neighbors to:

Keywords when searching volunteer opps on Idealist: gardening, permaculture, agriculture, education.

Sports and recreation
Being outdoors can be all fun and games. There are lots of ways community groups advocate for healthy, active lifestyles, from engaging clients in physical activities to organizing fundraising events involving athletic contests.

Find ways to move this summer:

Keywords when searching volunteer opps on Idealist: sports, recreation, health.

Note: volunteer positions — even outdoors — exist for people of all abilities. Look for or ask about volunteer positions that accommodate your needs, whatever they are.

How are you quenching your sun-thirst this summer?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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