Exactly 49 years ago today, 20 million people across the U.S. came together for the inaugural Earth Day. They demonstrated, protested, and otherwise supported the cry for a healthy, sustainable environment.
By the end of 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency had been created, and by 1990, the movement had gone global with events in more than 140 nations.
Penta spoke with John Oppermann, the executive director of the Earth Day Initiative, a non-profit organization that hosts Earth Day events every spring, and year-round programs that connect people to the different ways that they can green their lifestyle and have a positive impact on the environment.
Oppermann—who also acts as a real estate broker specializing in green and healthy homes in New York City—gave tips on small actions people can take to have a big impact on our planet.
Penta: What is the goal of the Earth Day Initiative?
John Oppermann: We're really trying to bring the spirit of the first Earth Day in 1970 to the 21st century. That first Earth Day brought out 20 million people, which is an insane number—it was 10% of the population of the country at the time. And it really was the birth of the modern environmental movement.
We're trying to bring that enthusiasm to our current situation. We see so many people that are really galvanized to move things in a positive direction, especially in a time when things can be a bit scary when it comes to environmental challenges, so we're trying to provide outlets for people to channel that enthusiasm into real impactful work.
What do you think encapsulated that original Earth Day spirit?
The spirit of the original Earth Day is a combination of recognizing how urgent action is, and channeling that into actual solutions.
A really big challenge with environmental issues in general is that often they're so large it can be abstract, and they're global, so you as an individual don't feel like you have much of an impact.
That first Earth Day was people coming out and saying there are some really awful environmental challenges we're facing, and we demand action. And then it led to actual action, things like the environmental legislation that we take for granted today that protects our air and water and the creation of the [United States Environmental Protection Agency], things we don't even really think about now, that didn't exist before, but that was really an outgrowth of that first Earth Day.
How can you help people feel like their smaller actions do have a larger impact?
We launched a campaign that is a countdown to next year’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day called the "Do Just 1 Thing" campaign.
We get asked over and over “what's one thing I could do?” And people get very overwhelmed by all the options.
But what we've done is we really broke it down to provide one thing at a time and the main thing that we're using as the entry point for the campaign is taking your own electricity supply into your own hands. And then once you join this campaign, we can provide you with other things, in a digestible way.
How can people take control of their electricity?
It's switching over to renewable energy in whatever way that you can. In some cases that means joining a community solar project, which means you lease a portion of panels at a rooftop solar farm right here in New York City, and then you get paid for the electricity generated by those panels. You end up saving money and you are a part of helping to build a brand new solar facility in your community.
In other cases, it could just be switching over your utility bills so that you start paying for renewable energy on your regular utility bill.
What’s the end goal of a drive like that?
There are a few possible outcomes. One is that it results in the actual construction of new, renewable energy facilities.
But it also sends a signal to business and to government. If more people switch over in whatever way they can, it sends a signal that people care about this.
It's similar to raising your voice in the form of a protest or going to an Earth Day event or getting back to that spirit of the first Earth Day of people demanding action. It sends the signal in a concrete way, that people want this. People want a more positive, sustainable future and they're acting by voting with their dollars to support renewable energy.
Aside from electricity and energy, what else can people do?
On the sustainable food side, most people have some basic understanding of what sustainable food means. They've heard of organic, they've heard of local, they've heard of a plant-based diet, and they understand the health and wellness and environmental benefits of having such a diet.
Sustainable fashion is just breaking through into the mainstream conversations where people have some general understanding of why you should pay attention to sustainability when it comes to your clothes.
But I got into the real estate side of things because I saw that there's a lot of inventory of greener, healthier buildings out there that people could be taking advantage of. You could live in a space that's better for you and your family and also better for the environment.
But people aren't aware yet that there are ways that their dwelling could actually affect the health and wellness of their family and the environment. If we brought a broader perspective to that and actually had people thinking about all the different ways that their lifestyle impacts the environment, then they would see food and fashion and their own home all as part of the overall continuum and they could be simultaneously pursuing more sustainable, healthier lifestyles in all of those routes.
What’s the latest trend you’re seeing in green real estate?
There's a move toward building designs that minimize the energy requirements for heating and cooling the home. By creating a super airtight building envelope and installing substantial natural insulation, buildings can reduce energy consumption by 90%.
Do the people adopting these greener initiatives tend to lean one way or the other politically?
I think if anything, the political lines around environmental issues have started to blur. Partly because people are experiencing more and more the local effects of global climate change and the aftermath of things like Hurricane Sandy or hurricanes in other parts of the world or wildfires or other extreme weather events. It resonates in a way that crosses political boundaries.
So we have seen people basically become climate activists and these people were not previously associated with climate activism. These aren't some hippy progressive people or sort of urban liberals that we've always associated with climate activism. We've seen groups of people get very involved in raising the alarm for climate change because they have really felt the local impact of global climate change.