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The Resistance Is in Your Backyard

Turn your city into a climate sanctuary, rally on Main Street, and other ways to make change globally by acting locally.

Richard Mia

If you’re new to hometown activism, now is the time to get a few pointers. To start, recognize that no matter how small they seem, local resistance efforts matter—we’ve certainly seen it at the town hall meetings that are heating up around the country. Remember the famous words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Find local allies.

To make real change in your community, you can’t go it alone. Does your town have a conservation committee, a sustainability circle, or a friends group that supports the local park? How about a chapter of YIMBY (“Yes in my backyard”), Indivisible, or RISE Stronger? Reach out. Get on the listserv, attend the meetings, learn about the priorities of your fellow concerned citizens, and see where you can lend a hand. These groups can lay the groundwork for big changes in your community and often have a line of communication with elected officials to help advance their missions beyond the neighborhood.

Make your city a “climate sanctuary.”

Frustrated by the changing federal commitment to our clean energy future? By fighting back against the expansion of fossil fuels at home, you’ll help build momentum for a broader movement. Now that you’ve joined forces with one of the local green groups (see above), here are some goals to pursue.

  • Tackle the food waste stream: According to the U.S. Composting Council, we sent 25 million tons of food waste to landfills in 2005—where it sat around, off-gassing methane. If we composted all that waste, the council says, the impact to our emissions levels would be the same as removing 7.8 million cars from the road. With that big picture in mind, take the first steps by composting at home—it’s way easier than you think. Then work with one of your local green groups to conduct workshops for residents. Once the practice starts to gather traction, you can work toward setting up a community composting program. Some cities, like Seattle and Toronto, today run comprehensive, mandatory compost pickup programs that started small but now boast huge waste-diversion stats. Seattle, for example, reported that it diverted 56 percent of its waste from landfills in 2013 through composting and recycling.
  • Switch off brown energy: Lobby local officials to change your community’s default electricity provider to one that uses renewable power resources, like solar, wind, low-impact hydroelectric, or geothermal. It’s likely that a green energy company can save your town money, too, as officials in Georgetown, Texas, found when they switched to a wind and solar provider. You can help your town cut energy consumption on Main Street, too. Advocate for LED-powered streetlights (New York State provides a handy how-to guide), a “curfew” for commercial lighting through a dark-sky ordinance (as several Colorado cities have done), and energy-efficient appliances in municipal buildings.
  • Conserve water: Climate change is expected to shrink freshwater supplies and bring water shortages to a third of all counties in the Continental United States. But there’s plenty you can do to keep your city from contributing to the billions of gallons of water our country wastes daily as a result of leaky pipes, inefficient fixtures, and thirsty landscaping. By making a few changes, such as installing efficient toilets and sink faucets, you can save 11,000 gallons of water per year from your own home. Imagine what the impact would be if your entire neighborhood did the same. For inspiration, consider the city of Los Angeles, a leader in sustainable water management. Thanks to its comprehensive efficiency measures as well as its water treatment and stormwater capture systems, it has kept its water usage on par with the levels Angelenos consumed in the 1970s. That’s a pretty big deal considering that the city’s population has grown by more than a million new residents since that time.

Support a healthy habitat.

As federal environmental regulations weaken—or disappear—you’re right to be concerned about the health of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land you rely on. In addition to helping NRDC fight for these basic rights, you can also organize efforts at home to protect the local environment. Convene a cleanup of the local waterway, or a vine lop effort to beat back invasive plants taking over your town woods—a threat that has increased with climate change. Advocate for town ordinances that prevent pesticide use in parks or on lawns, or organize a tree-planting project. Over the course of eight years, 50,000 citizens contributed to planting and caring for one million trees in New York City as part of a project that has become a greening model for metropolises around the globe.

Get to know your elected officials.

There’s nothing like face time with your members of Congress to give your community a voice in the national agenda—and that’s why you should bookmark this calendar maintained by the Town Hall Project. Come prepared to share your story or ask questions of your elected officials and follow up with the office to continue pressing on the issues of most concern to you. There are other ways to engage locally in the federal decision-making process, too, such as attending public hearings or submitting opinions during comment periods, as many Washingtonians have done in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery plan in the North Cascades.

Host a party.

What are you doing Saturday night? You can combine your community work and play time by organizing a gathering of local activists. Coordinate a fund-raiser for a group that’s making a difference in your community’s environment (or on behalf of another environment under siege, such as the Standing Rock Sioux or Flint, Michigan). Host a congressional postcard-writing party, or plan a hometown rally with your new peers from the conservation committee—these are all great ways to recruit more neighbors to join your fight. 

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