Kathleen Whitley, a Long Island native, is program manager of the Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island.

Sunday, 26 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

It’s an interesting story how I came to be writing these diaries for Grist Magazine.

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Two months ago, I happened to be in Loudoun County, Va., with my oldest daughter’s softball team. They had made it to a national tournament, and we were spending the week in Sterling, a township of Loudoun. Anyway, for those of you who read Daily Grist, you may remember an item from some weeks ago about the escalating urban sprawl in — you guessed it — Loudoun County. I immediately wrote in to share my observations firsthand, and the next thing I knew, I received an email asking if I would like to write the diary for a week. Being the huge fan I am of Grist, how could I say no?

A little background information: I am the self-appointed program manager for the Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island (SEA). I say “self-appointed” because none of us is paid for what we do here … we all contribute our time to this cause outside of other jobs, families, and other commitments. SEA is a nonprofit coalition of environmental, civic, and health organizations that have come together to create a sustainable and healthy energy future for Long Island. The end goal of our mission? To produce a comprehensive “Citizens Energy Plan for Long Island” (something that has never existed but is badly needed), with an emphasis on reducing energy waste and increasing efficiency.

The main thrust of our agenda is centered around energy production and the faux energy crisis excuse the Bush administration is using to justify building 20 new power plants a week for the next 10 years (you do the math). For Long Island, this is a dangerous proposition — our narrow, overdeveloped, overpopulated, global warming-threatened island is part of the third-worst smog region in the country (along with New York City, of course). We are at a major crossroads of energy change here on Long Island and cannot afford to address our energy needs with outdated, 20th-century solutions anymore.

There is, of course, the list of usual suspects when it comes to obstacles we are facing in our uphill battle for change. Political agendas, legal and regulatory hurdles, NIMBY-ism (lots of that here), and economic considerations all cloud the realities of how traditional power plant production negatively effects public health and our fragile environment. For Long Islanders, this issue becomes more acute, because we draw our drinking water from a federally designated sole source aquifer. Whenever a power plant is built, we not only have more toxic emissions seeping into our soil and groundwater, but also the storage of hazardous backup fuels is a potential threat in terms of contamination, should a leak occur. We also must be concerned about our declining air quality, already under siege from too many cars (you cannot believe the traffic congestion) and too much industry in a concentrated area. Plus, we are the unlucky recipients of emissions from those Midwestern coal-fired plants you here so much about in the news.

But perhaps our greatest challenge lies with public perception. It absolutely baffles me every day how little people really understand about power generation or its adverse effects. We have become so numbed by all our conveniences and modern technology that we don’t even make the connection anymore between flicking a switch on the wall and where the power comes from. I call this phenomena “The Human Disconnect.” It scares me that people listen so much to, and actually believe, what they hear on the news and what the big, profit-driven power industries (all fossil fuel based, of course) tell them. If we don’t wake up and start thinking for ourselves — including taking responsibility for our share of the problem — we won’t have much of a sustainable future for us or our kids.

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This is why we created the Sustainable Energy Alliance. Our job is to educate people and help them understand how energy production affects their daily lives. The urban sprawl in Loudoun County, Va., is an excellent example of a disturbing trend in our country that has everything to do with our inability to achieve sustainability and wise energy consumption. We have to understand and embrace the reality that, for every action, there is a consequence. Never has that concept been more true than in the dawn of this new century, when having more, and refusing to do with less, is the mantra of the day.

Monday, 27 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

It’s 10:30 p.m., and the end of another exhausting day spent mostly on the computer, trying to get caught up with this never-ending pile of things to do. The television is on in the background (two teenage daughters — you get the picture) and a list of chores awaits me in the kitchen. My husband comes into the room, shakes his head, and says, “Again?… what could you possibly have to do on the computer every single night?” I give my usual answer … there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and please, just give me five more minutes.

Such is a typical day for me. I had to laugh at the title Grist gives this section of the magazine — “My Week and Welcome to It.” I can’t imagine anyone who would actually volunteer to do what I do, day in and day out. But I love it and I believe in our cause, or else I wouldn’t give so much of my time and energy to this alliance.

I have an especially busy week ahead — press conference to attend, meetings and deadlines to meet. I should explain that the Sustainable Energy Alliance is in the very work-intensive process of developing a “Citizens Energy Plan” for Long Island residents. The work that goes on behind the scenes is tremendous, and yours truly is the rudder steering the ship, if you will. SEA is composed of 27 member groups and at least 30 other organizations that want to participate in the development process behind this plan. Trying to keep everyone on the same page and on task is both rewarding and frustrating.

This morning began with a follow-up check of all emails, attachments, and requests I sent out over the weekend. I pause to remember that most people take the weekend off, so I try to be patient while waiting for responses. A great portion of my job is to fill the gap between weekly meetings by typing notes I took from the most recent meeting and forwarding them to group members. This becomes a little more complicated, because, in addition to the parent group, we have all split up and volunteered time for six “working groups,” which tackle different components of the overall plan. (I am in two of these groups as well.) I have spent the entire day waiting for group leaders to email me back with information regarding their next scheduled meeting, but so far only two have given firm commitments. Not good.

I finally finish typing up my meeting notes — what a job this always is. Several key assignments have been distributed and will be due by our next meeting, so I email all members of the working groups with stern reminders to not forget what they promised to do. As I click through my online address book, emails begin to pour in … my director needs me to send our group sign-on letter of support ASAP; someone else wants to join our alliance and needs information; another member asks me if I know what happened to a piece of legislation in the senate that was proposed six months ago. I dutifully reply to them all in sequence and continue with my mounds of work. I need to redesign a “Declaration of Support for the Citizens Energy Plan” by Wednesday to present to the public outreach working group ( I am a coleader), as well as provide sample letters promoting our goal and plan for members to personalize and submit to the news media. Another inter
ruption … can I find out what is wrong with our website? It is linking to some business that has nothing to do with us. Like Alice in Wonderland, I am getting behinder and behinder …

Lunch and dinnertime come and go. I squeeze in my least-favorite chore (food shopping) and head straight back to the computer to email urgent reminders to all SEA members. There is a press conference Wednesday morning, and we need members to show up and speak. Don’t forget the meeting Wednesday night for public outreach members at 6:00 p.m. sharp! And Friday is the absolute deadline for all chapter drafts that the groups are composing for review. In between all this, I have to create a master list of all remaining civic, environmental, health groups, etc., and send an outreach letter inviting them to join SEA.

It is now 11:20 p.m., and my family has gone to bed. I know they think I am crazy, but deep down I hope they understand that I do this because I care, and I want to try and make a difference. Something tells me they do.

Tuesday, 28 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

Mornings like these definitely call for a second cup of strong coffee. Almost halfway through the work week and I feel like I will never get caught up. Probably should just forget about the house stuff … it can wait, but deadlines won’t. As I stare at a wall in my kitchen covered top to bottom with kids’ schedules, drawings, appointments, and various greeting cards, I am drawn to one of my favorite quotes hanging crooked and faded from the sun. “What we do in life echoes in Eternity.” Anyone who saw the movie Gladiator remembers this famous line uttered by Russell Crowe in that incredible opening battle scene. Strength and honor — those were the attributes worth fighting for, and the movie’s main theme. In the end, Crowe’s character gave up his life for both.

Thank goodness we don’t have to go that far in our daily struggles at SEA, but I find myself thinking more often about what it means to possess strength and honor these days. Especially when it comes to the struggle between humanity and our environment. (One could make the case that there is no strength or honor at all in Washington, D.C., but hey, that’s another problem altogether. ) I think about what it all means in relation to what our group would like to accomplish and achieve with the Citizens Energy Plan. Are we exhibiting personal strength and honor in our weekly meetings? Are we truly composing a plan that balances the needs of people, other species, and Mother Nature? Or are some of us there with our own personal agendas to pursue? Do we rise above the negative rhetoric and media soundbites we are bombarded with daily? Or are we just a part of the noise?

The phone rings, and my thoughts turn back to the tasks ahead. A group member wants to discuss a potential problem — how to deal with the slackers in the working groups who aren’t pulling their weight with the alliance. Okay, so much for strength and honor. It isn’t fair, he says, to give them credit in the final plan if they are contributing nothing to the overall effort. I agree. Very often the same handful of people end up doing all the work in groups like ours, but that doesn’t make it right. Though it isn’t a top priority for me, I do my best to assure him that only people who actually do the work on the plan will get the credit.

Time to check my email. Remember the request I made yesterday for group leaders to let me know about upcoming meetings? Still no responses. And no word on the press conference scheduled for today. Great. A member wants me to include an important light pollution component to our plan. Light pollution is a little-understood — yet serious — contributor to health, environmental, and economic problems throughout the U.S. Excess lighting is not only a wasteful misuse of energy, but it carries airborne pollutants, creates glare for motorists, obscures the night sky, and disrupts natural habitats for plants and animals. New York state is currently considering important legislation that will go a long way in reducing light pollution, protecting public health, and saving money and energy. I email her back right away and ask her to compose a draft chapter outline with recommendations to be integrated into the citizens energy plan.

My coleader on the health and environment group calls next and wants to discuss our chapter contribution. We spend the next hour and a half hammering out facts and figures, statistics, pros and cons, feasible solutions, economic considerations, and recommendations. Pretty exhausting stuff, but I think we captured the essence of what we want pretty well. Then, out of nowhere, he tells me that he thinks I am doing an amazing job at SEA and thanks me on behalf of the entire coalition. “I know no one ever tells you this,” he says, “but you are the glue that holds this effort together. We couldn’t be doing any of this without you.”

I smile and thank him for the kind words. I believe in trying to do the right things in life, and it’s nice to hear that my efforts are having a positive effect on the group. Strength and honor. Who knows? Maybe they do echo in eternity after all.

Wednesday, 29 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

I returned home a short while ago from the Sustainable Energy Alliance’s biweekly public outreach working group meeting. It was rather productive, considering the way the rest of the week has gone. The press conference scheduled for this morning has been moved back a week, due to technical problems (the 20-foot inflatable oil derrick we intended to use for visual impact purposes is still sitting at LaGuardia Airport — our tribute to George W.). Also, we originally planned to use this media opportunity as a way of putting pressure on our two state senators (Clinton and Schumer), as well as local congressional leaders, to vote against the Bush energy plan. The group finally decided it might be best to wait and see if the Senate actually votes on the plan before holding our press conference. Then we can go after the “bad guys.”

SEA members who have volunteered to work on the citizens energy plan meet weekly in working groups to hammer out proposals, recommendations, etc. Fortunately for our group, our draft is close to being complete, so we spent a good portion of time editing and revising the chapter, and discussing future projects. Unlike the other groups, which address the concrete aspects of our plan — technical, legal, regulatory, energy alternatives, conservation, health, environment, and economic impacts — public outreach is not so much about making recommendations as it is about making ongoing commitments to conduct public education, media contact, direct mailings, lobbying, and partnerships with businesses, government sectors, and other civic, environmental, faith-based, and health organizations. It will definitely take a lot of time, energy, and money to produce these materials and get them out there to the 2 million-plus residents of Long Island.

We weren’t too far into our meeting when one of our members interjected. All this stuff is great, he said, but you are forgetting the largest and most ignored segment of our population … the working poor and minority communities. Who are the people least able to do anything about energy efficiency or conservation? The middle and upper classes don’t have this problem — they have the money and the means for the most part to purchase energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs, and air conditioners. And as far as higher-income people are concerned, the great irony is that they use the most energy (bigger homes, cars, and material items), yet have the least incentive to cut back and use less. But what about disenfranchised communities? Many don’t have computers, let alone Internet access. So inviting them to view our website or get information from power providers is pointless. How do we reach them, educate them about cleaner, sustainable energ
y production for their families and neighborhoods? How do we help them improve their quality of life and save money by reducing energy waste? More importantly, how do we convince them to care when the choice is often between feeding their families or buying an energy-efficient appliance?

We discuss among ourselves a variety of solutions and ideas. We agreed that we must translate all our materials and outreach efforts into Spanish in order to reach the large Spanish-speaking population on Long Island. Perhaps a legislative initiative mandating low income energy assistance to families in need from our local utility provider. Greater access to conservation and efficiency programs that they currently cannot afford. Why not provide direct rebate coupons to low income customers in their monthly bills, rather than making them available only at the nearest Home Depot store? An even better option would be to conduct a mass-mailing of energy-efficient light bulbs to all utility customers, or at least the ones who fall below a certain income level.

The reality of this problem is more than just regional — it is nationwide, scattered throughout inner cities and traditionally poor suburbs. As the gap between rich and poor widens throughout the country, utility companies must increase their efforts to insure that no one is left without reliable, affordable service and the most efficient, cost-saving means of delivering it. Part of the problem with the Bush plan is that there is too little emphasis on saving American taxpayer dollars through increased efficiency measures, and too much concern with throwing those dollars at the huge fossil fuel companies in the form of tax subsidies. Why is our government more concerned with increasing their profit margins instead of looking at ways to fund a more sustainable, healthier energy future for its citizens? Inevitably, as with most problems our society faces today, it will be the have-nots that lose out in the end.

Thursday, 30 Aug 2001

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

The end of another week, and with it the reminder that summer is almost over. I glance at the calendar — is this really Labor Day weekend? Several of my coworkers in the Sustainable Energy Alliance emailed me reminders (some funny, some stern), scolding me not to work over a holiday weekend. They all know Friday is the day chapter drafts are due for the citizens energy plan. I promised I wouldn’t, but I think they know better.

I left several messages for our website guy, Brian, today, but no answer. The link to the SEA website is down (again) and that’s causing problems. I have already sent requests to member groups asking them to link their sites with ours, so it is rather embarrassing if people go there and it is not working … not to mention Grist readers trying to do the same thing. Every day lost is not good, especially when we are trying to gather public support for our citizens energy plan.

I check the rest of my messages — my director asks if I would like to speak at next week’s press conference on Wednesday. Absolutely, I tell him, and email him back with some preferences regarding what I would like to talk about. Next message is a press release from a local legislator’s office in Suffolk County — she is directing the county energy advisory committee to develop and submit their own energy master plan for Long Island by no later than December 2002. Although this legislator says their committee must “consider and evaluate any report or recommendations issued by the Sustainable Energy Alliance,” I wonder just what kind of impact this will have on our efforts. On the one hand, our plan will be done way before December 2002, so they won’t steal our thunder by releasing something first. But if legislators drag their feet — which politicians are known to do — it could be bad for us, too. I am concerned they will simply relegate our plan to the sidelines and claim they can’t do anything until their own plan is finished. I sent off an email to my director right away, asking him what he thinks about all this. No wonder I dislike politics so much these days.

On the bright side, I received a wonderful pastoral letter from an official with the Catholic Diocese here on Long Island, a member group of SEA. The author wanted my opinion on its contents and tone before submitting it to higher officials. In this letter, he discusses the increasing commitment by the church over the past decade to a challenge issued in 1991 by the U.S. Catholic Conference entitled “Renewing the Earth.” Issues of spiritual stewardship, air and water quality, open space preservation, and a vision for a sustainable energy future are all eloquently addressed. Personally, I welcome this embrace by the Catholic church and hope its influence will help guide us to much-needed change. Very often, environmentalists are ridiculed as tree-huggers, rather than good stewards of the environment. But, when the Church steps forward and reiterates the same ideals, people listen and respect the message.

The following is from “Environmentalism is not Just for Tree-Huggers,” by Ken Midkiff of the Missouri Sierra Club. I think it is an appropriate way to end my week of diaries and the message of sustainability our alliance is striving to convey here on Long Island.

A very wise man a couple of millennia ago stated: “What you do to the least of these, you do also to me.” That is the essence of environmentalism. We cannot abuse the earth without suffering the consequences. We cannot stand apart. Environmentalism is all about protecting people — our communities, our neighborhoods. It is not some pie-in-the-sky idealism, rather it is directed at the very core of life.”