Cover Story: 2009 Green TeamTuesday April 14, 2009 04:00 am EDT
Each year, CL shines a spotlight on metro Atlanta’s boldest and brightest environmental trailblazers. From farmers to light bulb installers, sustainability gurus to Gold Dome policymakers, these six metro Atlantans understand that if we don't protect Earth, we won’t have anything left to protect at all.
Jill Johnson, Georgia Conservation Voters program director
In the Georgia General Assembly, a good piece of environmental legislation can quickly turn bad if enough lawmakers get their hands on it.
Jill Johnson knows this all too well. On the final night of the recently concluded legislative session, the program director and lobbyist for Georgia Conservation Voters watched a bill go from simple — allowing tax assessors to alert property owners if their land is in a floodplain — to cumbersome, having been all but destroyed by unfriendly amendments pushing unrelated pet projects.
“It became loaded up like a Christmas tree and ended up dying,” Johnson says.
Such is the unfortunate reality at the Capitol, where Johnson works with a handful of environmental activists who fight for clean water, healthy air, and renewable energy against more than 1,600 registered lobbyists who wine and dine lawmakers on behalf of environmentally hurtful big-business interests.
“She’s earned the nickname ‘Iron Jill’ for her tireless work as an advocate," says longtime Gold Dome lobbyist Neill Herring of the Sierra Club, who often collaborates with Johnson.
Thanks to Johnson’s past lobbying, legislators agreed to offer tax credits to property owners who conserve their land for future generations. This year, she convinced on-the-fence lawmakers to oppose a perennial piece of legislation pushed by the billboard industry that threatened trees on public land. With the help of the Garden Club of Georgia, Johnson blocked the bill.
“I’m a pretty competitive person," Johnson says. "Part of it is, I just want to win. But I also want to figure out how we can start playing offense, and have incremental change in terms of moving us forward with environmental protection."
Tony C. Anderson, founder of Let’s Raise A Million
Before you go into a man’s home and ask him to change, Tony C. Anderson says you first must earn enough trust to walk through his door. That’s the logic Anderson employed when he came up with an idea to help the city’s least fortunate neighborhoods make a go at being green.
During his junior year of college, Anderson, a recent political philosophy graduate of Morehouse College, installed a compact fluorescent bulb in his grandmother’s house. Months later, he says, the elderly woman who’d previously given little thought to her carbon footprint was talking about going green.
An idea hit him: Distribute the eco-friendly and money-saving devices to communities of modest means. Communities, Anderson says, which have mostly been left out of the environmental movement.
"We’ve been having the conversation about the trees, the bees, the whales, the birds," he says. "That’s important, but it’s not really registering. Our targets are these communities that haven’t been having these conversations. So we say go green by saving money, and then we connect them on the back end."
With the help of dormmates, Anderson started Let's Raise A Million. The goal: Convince people to live more sustainable lives, starting with installing a simple light bulb — 1 million of them. The organization’s currently halfway through its pilot program of 28,000 bulbs, which is focused in southwest Atlanta.
Anderson says he and his fellow staffers have an advantage over outside groups who swoop in to change behavior.
“We’re actually on the ground,” he says, “staying in and organizing in these communities.”
True to their mission, Anderson and another LRAM staffer live and work in a home on Peeples Street in southwest Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. The organization also leases another house nearby and converted the garage into a light bulb warehouse.
Anderson sees the organization growing and sharing its basic model with other colleges and communities. (Grambling State University, South Carolina State University and the University of Georgia are starting their own campaigns.) He’s also in talks with philanthropic foundations and companies for partnerships.
“When eco-equity and the green economy comes, we want to be a part of it,” Anderson says. “If not, then it’s going to be co-opted by the eco-chic and the eco-elite, and we’re gonna have eco-apartheid — and we do not want to go there."
Ciannat Howett, Emory University’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives director
Now in her third year as Emory’s sustainability initiatives director, Ciannat Howett's led a series of programs to make the esteemed school one of the greenest — if not the greenest — campuses in the country.
The university, which boasts the largest square footage of energy-efficient buildings in the nation, is nearly halfway through an ambitious 10-year plan that will reduce energy use and change behaviors about the environment.
“By the time the students leave here, they’ll have been affected in a deep way through their own lifestyle,” Howett says. “And when they go out into the world, they’ll live more sustainably.”
Ask Howett, the former director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia and Alabama office, to run through the programs she’s overseen at Emory and her eyes light up.
Underground cisterns store 300,000 gallons of rainwater used to irrigate the campus’s landscaping and flush toilets. Large “heat wheels” ventilate buildings and trap condensate — 4 million gallons each year — to run through the university’s chilled-water system. All new buildings must be LEED-certified and existing buildings must be retrofitted to seal off ducts and save energy. New construction requires 85 percent of materials be recycled. The Cliff, the campus’s transit system, is the second largest people-moving system in metro Atlanta and runs entirely on alternative fuels — predominantly recycled cooking oil from campus cafeterias.
And the meals served in those cafeterias? The university has pledged to make 75 percent of its food locally or sustainably produced by 2015.
“That was really saying we’re going to the moon in four years,” Howett says of the pledge. “But I think there’s something really important when a university makes that kind of statement. It starts to shift things and shows farmers that there’s a demand.”
There are hurdles, however. Whereas other states and utilities offer incentives for colleges to promote energy efficiency, Georgia and its power companies, until recently, offered few such perks.
“We’re not getting state subsidies to build green,” Howett says. “We’re not getting utility subsidies to build green. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is LEED-certified. The difference is, in Seattle, they got $3 million in utility subsidies to build green. We did not.”
Despite the challenges, Howett says, she thinks other colleges — and even communities — can see the success and adopt similar models.
“It’s met the triple-bottom-line: Socially, environmentally and economically, it makes sense. And what a cool case study. If we can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”
Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds, Love Is Love Farm
On a recent Saturday morning at the Cathedral of St. Philip’s farmer’s market in Buckhead, Joe Reynolds opened an overflowing bag of fresh mustard greens, handed me a leaf, and asked me to take a taste.
The leaf snapped and released a mellow mustard flavor mixed with earthy greenness.
“Pretty good, huh?” Reynolds says with a smile.
The crop was harvested by Reynolds, 30, and Judith Winfrey, 35, two organic farmers who operate Love Is Love Farms in Douglasville. The two met while working side-by-side at Decatur’s Brick Store Pub. Soon after, Reynolds started interning on a farm and Winfrey took a job at Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organic farming and sustainable agriculture organization. When the owners of the Douglasville farm decided to retire, they asked the young couple to continue organic farming there.
“It was a perfect marriage of all of our interests,” Winfrey says of the 40-acre farm. “It’s activist work, it’s people’s work, it’s food work, it’s environmental work. It was a confluence of everything important to us.”
In less than two years, the two have become one of metro Atlanta’s burgeoning organic farming success stories. The two started a community-supported agriculture program in which they deliver fresh produce — garlic, carrots, beets, peas and strawberries are on the way — to metro Atlantans. If you can’t sign up, you can find their produce at the Local Farm Store, which they co-own, next to Star Provisions off Howell Mill Road.
They’ve also leveraged existing relationships with friends at Counter Culture Coffee and 5 Seasons Brewing in Sandy Springs into partnerships, using used coffee and brewing grounds to nurture the farm’s soil. And they’re planning an internship program to teach other young farmers how to grow organic food.
Winfrey, who’s a co-leader of grassroots group Slow Food Atlanta, says the Douglasville farm is a rarity in metro Atlanta, where most developable land has given way to subdivisions. But at a time when people are waking up to the fact that agriculture plays a major role in global warming — food travels an average of 1,500 miles over the course of a week to get from farm to plate — people need fresh, healthy options closer to home.
“We just hope that through personal example, and trying to connect with people who are in our age group, we let them know all the possibilities in terms of organic farming,” Reynolds says. “It’s meaningful and legitimate work.”
Mandy Schmitt, director of the city of Atlanta’s Sustainability Office
How’s this for a daunting task: help decide how the city of Atlanta — whose government is responsible for emitting 540,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year — can grow in a sustainable way, mirroring such cities as Chicago and Seattle.
Oh, and while you’re at it, you need to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent in the next three years.
Now, try planning a green wedding at the same time.
Mandy Schmitt, the city’s director of sustainability, is doing all three.
Working in conjunction with Sustainable Atlanta, Schmitt is helping draft the city’s Climate Action Plan. Among its goals: reducing energy use in municipal buildings by 10 percent, water use by 5 percent and the municipal fleet’s fossil fuel use by 3 percent.
“It’s quite a challenge,” Schmitt admits. But she’s optimistic about the city’s efforts to ease the wear and tear that urban living has cost the environment.
Schmitt says Georgia’s showing signs of promise — approving tax incentives for energy-efficiency, for instance. But she says it can do more to give back to Mother Earth, especially when it comes to taking advantage of the state’s natural strengths.
Compared to such eco-minded states as North Carolina and New Jersey, Schmitt says, Georgia is viewed by environmental experts as “virgin territory.”
“In one way, that's horrible, because we're behind the curve.” But she adds that there’s an upside: The state can learn from those success stories as clean energy technologies and sustainability practices decrease in cost. And federal incentives, such as President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, will help in that effort.
She also says a state policy on renewable energy must be created before real change can come. “We have to go further,” she says. “We cannot settle.”