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How To Save The Planet Over Dinner

Sometimes the environmental crisis can seem like an endless daytime talk show, all heartache, accusation, and betrayal, with no real surprises. In my small town of Silver City, New Mexico -- 50 miles from the nearest highway, with a population of 10,000 -- my friends include a number of former hippies and back-to-the-land types who have since become middle-class consumers. (That pretty much describes me, too.) My friends and I are all sick of group rants suffused with anger, guilt, and fear over our inability to save rainforests and coral reefs, much less remember to take the cloth bags from the backseat of the car into the supermarket. In my social circle the phrase global warming can shut down meaningful dialogue and then linger like a damp miasma. Simply put, we're tired of talking about problems we feel powerless to solve.

It might seem odd, then, that I recently found myself organizing a "discussion circle" for Global Warming: Changing CO2urse, a sort of home-schooling program for adults developed by the Northwest Earth Institute, a Portland, Oregon-based group that focuses on environmental education. A discussion group? What good could come of more talk?

I have friends in town who learned how to live more sustainably through one of the institute's programs, and they even had some fun.Their gatherings were social events as much as anything else. Considering that I am in the business of talking, as both a teacher and a writer, I wasn't quite ready to abandon -- or dismiss -- my favorite activity as part of the solution to the world's problems.

What's on the menu?

Organizing a discussion circle of your own is easy. Start by visiting the Northwest Earth Institute's Web site for a list of course offerings. If you're not sure what topic is best for you and your friends, the institute's outreach team will help you choose and offer advice in selecting the right mix of 8 to 12 people for your discussion group. To find step-by-step guidelines and contact information for the institute's outreach staff, visit the Northwest Earth Institute's Web site.  Printed guidebooks may be ordered online for $25.

The institute offers courses on topics ranging from deep ecology to voluntary simplicity as a way of life, and its goal is to change the world "one conversation at a time." I'm one of more than 88,000 to sign on since the organization was founded in 1993. You can start small -- four weekly sessions on global warming -- or go for broke with nine sessions on globalization, among other options. The institute sends study guides with articles and essays, along with suggestions for how to facilitate meetings and get the conversation going. The basic rules of thumb: don't let the group get too big, and keep the discussion focused on personal experiences and perspectives.

In organizing my group, I was cautious. I wanted people whom I could trust not to start yelling (or weeping) about our national leaders and world problems, not to dominate the discussion, not to be overly defensive about their own consumerism, and not to be judgmental about my own. I wanted some common ground, but I also wanted to hear different viewpoints. I approached one of my best friends, Patty, a family therapist, and her husband, Fred, a family-practice doctor. My husband, Peter, the city planner for Silver City, joined our group, and we invited Marilyn and Tris, a couple we're friendly with who work together renovating houses. To round out our crew we brought in another husband and wife: Rich, who runs a residential construction business, and Mary, who is a public health educator.

After settling on four sessions about global warming, I ordered our course materials. Then we made another essential decision: we would have a potluck dinner for each meeting. The first dinner was at my house. I don't like to cook, so I bought fancy cheeses and crackers. Mary made pizza, Patty baked chocolate chip cookies, and the others contributed a Greek salad and plenty of wine. We were ready to go.

The subject of cloth shopping bags came up almost immediately. Patty, the therapist in the group, just couldn't understand why this was a habit she had not yet been able to form. She would either forget to take the bags from the house to the car, or she would forget to take them from the car into the store. She felt like an idiot. Mary remarked that she had been using cloth bags for years. (Only a saint wouldn't have looked smug.) The checkers at Wal-Mart called her the Bag Lady.

Patty asked if she could e-mail the group every time she remembered to use cloth instead of plastic. She was a highly social person, she said, and reaching out to us for approval would be her reward for good behavior. I listened impatiently. Yes, I mostly forget my cloth bags, too. But I wanted to talk about the bigger issues covered in our readings for that night: melting ice caps, the Kyoto Protocol, a carbon tax.

I ate another slice of homemade pizza and wondered what real good it would do if Patty and I remembered our cloth bags. We were just two people in little Silver City. What do such truly minuscule actions add up to? Aren't they just symbolic? A feel-good measure? I made the mistake of wondering this out loud. My seven earnest friends, their mouths full of cheese and crackers, pounced on me.

Multiply yourself by a million! You are a consumer -- embrace your power!

"Isn't symbolism important?" Fred asked. "Feel-good can be important, too," Rich added.

I argued back: "But it has to happen large-scale! I'd be more interested in working politically to make the government -- city or state -- outlaw plastic."

"You can do that, too," Patty said. "But downplaying individual actions is another way we rationalize our behavior." Ouch.

"Well, that's true," I mumbled.

In fact, of all the reading material provided by the Northwest Earth Institute for those four sessions, the essay that influenced me the most had to do with small, individual actions. In a piece originally published in the New York Times, Andrew Postman wrote about an "energy diet" in which he cut his household's energy consumption by unplugging appliances and switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Postman dialed back his energy use by just 5 percent. I could do that. I could do better. I too could turn curbing my energy use into a numbers game: washing my clothes in colder water would shave 70 pounds off my annual CO2 emissions; changing the sleep mode on my computer would cut another 250 pounds; canceling catalogs, 75 pounds. While taking a hot shower, I now think about the energy I could save by taking a shorter one. (Sometimes I think for a long time...)

After our third session, I joined the Silver City Mayor's Advisory Council on Climate Change, the group charged with creating a plan to reduce the city's energy consumption. For his part, my husband started riding his bike to work. Rich and Mary invested in solar panels for their home, and Rich began to encourage his clients to use green building materials, such as insulation made from recycled blue jeans. He even asked them: "Have you considered building something smaller?"

Not one of us altered his or her life dramatically. Instead we worked with the grain of our inclinations and psyches. Our changes felt good -- almost easy -- and we all agreed that talking had been the catalyst.

At the last meeting, Tris had a confession to make. "I didn't want to come to this group," he said. "I felt pretty pessimistic about the situation, and I think I still do. But now I feel a little more hopeful about feeling so hopeless."

Tris laughed at himself, but we all understood what he meant. We hadn't come up with brilliant ways to end-run the inevitable consequences of global warming. All we had done was generate a willingness to make small changes in our lives. Through the mysterious physics of emotion, that willingness to change had generated a sense of hope. Feeling hopeful made us even more willing to take action. Suddenly we had a nice feedback loop.

During each discussion we saw our values reflected in a friendly world, albeit a world the size of a dinner table. The group became a sounding board, a support system, and a powerful form of peer pressure. At that last meeting we agreed to reconvene a year later, and I knew I would be looking ahead to that meeting, eager to report my successes and failures.

I'm already thinking about trying the institute's newest course, Menu for the Future. Each of the sessions focuses on some aspect of our modern eating habits: the historical shift away from family farms toward industrialized agriculture; alternative, localized food networks; personal food choices and health; and social justice issues related to hunger. The readings include essays by well-known writers such as Frances Moore Lappé and Michael Pollan as well as inspiring personal stories about turning lawns into vegetable gardens and gardens into organic food showcases.

The bad news is that I am a person who really appreciates a chocolate chip cookie, even if it is sold at Wal-Mart. I like processed foods made from corn and cheap fruit out of season. I like to shop fast without reading labels. I feel helpless before the juggernaut of our industrialized food system, agribusiness lobbyists, and biotech companies that genetically engineer the corn that gets put in my cookies.

But, you know...let's talk. Talk is cheap and, really, that's a good thing. Talking is a great human resource that we can all afford. It is abundant and accessible. It can be done right at home. And like the sun and the wind, the power of talk might just change the world, if we can learn to harness it correctly.

image of Sharman Apt Russell
Sharman Apt Russell is an award-winning nature and science writer whose most recent book is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books). She teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and Antioch Universi... READ MORE >

Thanks for the personal reflection on how the NWEI groups work. We each need to figure out what positive reinforcement will help us change our own behavior. I hope your friend actually did email the group each time she remembered her cloth bags. That's a terrific solution. And the NWEI curriculum about food is AWESOME.

Thanks for this! I'm starting the same course and really looking forward to it.

I have a friend here in Eugene, OR who reminded us to explore our personal "sphere of influence" and work within it. For some that is politics, some their neighborhood and I like to have conversations with strangers in the produce section which lead to their considering eating local and fresh (you can afford it), where to find recipes for vegetables you are a stranger to, winter gardening, etc. And yes, I forget the cloth bags in the car, but I have a demon at home waiting to rant me out if I come in with plastic, so I've kept many a clerk waiting to bag while I sprint to the parking lot or carried a small load out, unbagged.