The Natural Step Monona: What it means to be a grassroots environmental organization


From The Herald Independent, May 3rd, 2013.  Yes my birthday!!!


When I joined The Natural Step Monona (TNS Monona) as a volunteer back in the fall of 2008, I was just starting my graduate study: working to understand and document the connections between scientific information, sustainability, and grassroots movements. I wanted to be part of grassroots action to promote sustainable behavior, and saw TNS Monona as an environmental sustainability group with a clearly stated mission to serve the Monona community.

As an environmental studies graduate student, I have observed that good science does not necessarily translate into good policy or good behavior. This gap between scientific findings and public action is bridged by TNS Monona facilitating grassroots actions toward a more sustainable future.

You might wonder, what is so cool about that? I see two “cool” aspects: the grassroots part and the environmental part coming together in changing a community for the better. This excites me.

Understanding what “grassroots” means has been a process. For now, I define grassroots action as the have-nots organizing movement against the haves. A simple example is what happens in the political arena, where people working at the top of the political pyramid, who are a minority in number, hold the most power and make it their business to limit other people’s ability to join them at the top. The grassroots or have-nots are everyone else.

While academics and scientists train to be objective, sometimes they, too, become part of the establishment that the grassroots oppose.

What I find fascinating about the grassroots level is the attitude of the people. Those in the grassroots are eager to do something meaningful to them. When they find a cause worthy of their attention, they unselfishly offer their energy and time to do whatever is necessary to advance that cause.

Now let me share what I find so compelling about the second aspect, the environment. As an example, I will use an environmental challenge that people all over the world are discussing— the importance of addressing climate change—and show how grassroots action can help make sense of it.

The majority of climate change information is generated from scientific research and study. This information is helpful in making us more aware that the climate is changing, and that we are part of the problem. This increased public awareness would not happen without robust and in-depth scientific findings from which to learn.

The problem occurs when scientists use academic and scientific language to suggest ways to explain the problems and solutions. With this example, instead of “climate change,” scientists once used the term “global warming” much more often. “Global warming” is an accurate description of earth’s increasingly warming atmosphere, which holds more moisture and causes more erratic and extreme weather patterns.

But many non-scientists hear the phrase “global warming” and, because they do not truly understand what it means, take the phrase on face value alone. Because this complex problem’s name is misunderstood, after every big snowstorm you will hear people say things like, “See, global warming isn’t real,” helping perpetuate the notion that those who best understand what is happening with the climate—the climate scientists—are wrong, and that action to slow global warming isn’t necessary.

In addition, scientists most often suggest actions that policymakers, not your average person, need to take. These would be things best achieved at municipal, state, national, or even global levels to affect the larger societies within the larger environmental systems. Scientists rarely zoom down to actions that most of us can use in our homes, backyards, workplaces, or with our lifestyles. “Pie in the sky” instructions, such as changing transit systems or land use policies can make sustainable actions seem impractical or intimidating, causing people to put personal changes low on their list of priorities.

Why do scientists help create communication problems? It is because scientists do their best work in the lab or in the field, not in the world of communications or advocacy. Sharing information in a way that non-scientists can use is not rocket science, but it is different from the way that scientific research is circulated. Scientists play a very important role, but we also need “translators;” we need people who can take this information, and—using the right communication tools, common sense, and human energy—connect scientific information to the average person.

The Natural Step Monona fits into this role. TNS Monona members are not scientists, but we have knowledge about sustainability and the “backyard” methods that can help people to be more sustainable in ways that matter to them. We are willing to work to share what we know with residents of Monona and surrounding communities. We have been engaging our neighbors and friends in a series of conversations about how to help each other implement sustainable ideas. In generating these conversations and circulating our stories, we help people have a better understanding of sustainable practices in the real world.

I value the grassroots attitude of unselfish commitment to advancing a worthy cause. During the five years since I joined TNS Monona, I have continually learned about how grassroots groups can make positive change in their communities. Because I value this empowering attitude, I want to ensure that this beneficial organization continues to serve local residents. To that end, I recently joined the TNS Monona Board, and bring my desire to connect TNS Monona with individuals or institutions that could support it, particularly in the fundraising area.

TNS Monona has done wonderful things for Monona and surrounding communities. While I still see TNS Monona as an environmental sustainability group, in the years since I joined, I have learned it is much more. TNS Monona is also a bridge and a translator, weaving the message about environmental, social, and economic sustainability into our lives and community in ways that are meaningful and lasting to each of us. The grassroots are us, and we have much to learn from and share with one another to live our values of becoming ever more sustainable.