The effects of climate change leave many feeling hopeless. This year’s Bainbridge Island Environmental Conference on Saturday aims to inspire people to be part of the solution.
That’s the focus of Madeline Ostrander’s book, At Home on an Unruly Planet, which chronicles four stories of communities taking concrete action to combat the effects of climate change. Ostrander is the keynote speaker at this year’s conference.
People sometimes feel like their own actions aren’t significant enough to make a dent when it comes to the environment, that there needs to be large-scale change through laws or regulations. The people profiled in Ostrander’s book occupy a middle scale, she said.
“I write about communities in the book and how communities are searching for solutions related to climate change,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot of potential for people to make a big difference at that scale.” The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last August has prompted a push to organize communities all over the country to get involved in things like transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying transportation, she said.
What happens at the community scale also often inspires action at a higher level, she noted. “What happens at the level of the community can become an example that then can influence state policy and then, eventually, federal policy,” she said. “But there’s a lot you can do kind of quickly and simply and in a really empowering way at the local level.”
Finding community is an important part of finding purpose and hope, Ostrander added, whether related to climate change, global pandemics, or economic turmoil. Researchers have found that a crucial remedy for that kind of existential anxiety is “to be able to find community and to be able to come together and come up with shared things that inspire us, shared actions that are creating something positive. That’s hugely helpful for people’s ability to cope with whatever it happens to be, whether they’ve lived through a wildfire that’s burned down a lot of their community, or whether they’re really just coping with a sense of unease about how troubling things are right now.”
Ostrander said someone recently asked her on social media, “What’s one surprising solution to climate change that you’ve come across?”
“I said, ‘getting to know your neighbors,'” she said. “Because even though that seems small, there’s a lot that can come out of a conversation with your neighbors. And also we’re all more resilient against certain kinds of threats and impacts and crises when we get to know our neighbors.”
She pointed to a famous study that found that after a heatwave, communities where people knew their neighbors and there was more social cohesion were better able to withstand the heatwave with fewer health impacts, even if they had more vulnerable populations with, say, elderly residents, or people with lower incomes.
“The effect of people knowing their neighbors was as powerful as if you had given everybody an air conditioner, because people checked on each other,” she said. “So I think there’s a lot that comes from getting together in community and talking together about, how do we deal with the challenges we’re facing?”
Ostrander is a former editor of YES! Magazine, which was founded on Bainbridge Island. She credits her time at the magazine with planting the seed that would eventually grow into her book. During her tenure there, she traveled to the Bay area of California to talk to environmental justice groups working on climate change, she said. The community organizers she spoke with talked about climate change in a tangible, local way, she noted. They asked how it affected communities of color, people living in poverty, or other vulnerable populations.
“Because decisions that are made on a local level can either make better or make worse the kinds of disparities that we already have in our society,” Ostrander said. “But what was inspiring about all of that was that they had such a tangible, real way of talking about climate change — what does this mean for us here in our home? And I think that was one of the first threads that got me thinking about this book. How do we talk about this in a way that people understand it in places that are familiar to them, in contexts that are meaningful to them?”
Bainbridge Island Environmental Conference
Bainbridge Island Parks and Trails, Bainbridge Island Land Trust, Sustainable Bainbridge, EcoAdapt and Islandwood host the Bainbridge Island Environmental Conference, noon – 5 p.m., March 25, at the Bainbridge High School theater, 9330 High School Rd NE, Bainbridge Island. Madeline Ostrander delivers the keynote address. Register for event.
Learn more about Madeline Ostrander on her website.