Pull out the firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads! It’s time for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, where we’re writing about our big dreams for 2013.

My big dream is to advance a meme.

Memes are catchy ideas that stick in one’s imagination and influence one’s worldview. SmartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change contains many examples of nonprofits deliberately disrupting existing social memes and creating new ones.

Here’s an example of an environmental organization’s disruption of a popular meme:

Greenpeace satirized GMOs with this ad campaign.
Greenpeace satirized genetically modified corn with this ad.

The meme I want to promote this year is about a broader topic than Greenpeace’s – and it might appeal to a wide range of people.

Here it is:

Our environment is the root of our economy.

Everything we manufacture, produce, sell and trade comes from the planet we inhabit. If we disregard our environment, we will have no economy left to show. This is all we have – our somewhat damaged planet and its many resources.

Since I like automotive analogies, I’ll make one here. Imagine that you’re moving from New York to Arizona with everything you own in the back of your truck. As you drive across the desert, your truck starts having mechanical problems and your cell phone dies. It’s time to get out the wrench set.

Similarly, if we want a healthy planet, it’s time to repair our decisions and set a better course. Like the driver in the middle of the desert, we have no alternative. The repair will have to include economic adaptation and innovation. Businesses have the energy to transform society.

How do I plan to advance this meme in 2013? I plan to tweet and write about the green economy. I want to focus on solutions, reconstruction, and the repair of our existing systems.

How will this influence what I write? There are multiple avenues I can pursue to expand on this meme and make it part of my work.

  1. Using constructive angles in journalism and in this blog can motivate readers to take positive actions at home and at their jobs.
  2. Breaking news about university research can disseminate creative solutions.
  3. Supporting cross-pollination between sectors can build collaboration.
  4. Writing about urban sustainability projects can shine a light of possibility on the road to economic and environmental recovery.
  5. Building work relationships with larger organizations that support this meme can give me the tools and resources to take this message to larger audiences.

I work for an organization which supports sustainable business decisions and plan to make connections with other groups in New England which are doing the same. These groups include Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and E2Tech.

Do you have any other ideas about ways to advance this meme about the environment and the economy?

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit oicweave.org.

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

For months, I’ve been reading posts from environmental news sources saying that belief in the existence of climate change has become a “culture war.” Framing the issue this way is destructive because it draws a line in the sand, further polarizing an already divided community.

Notice that I said “a community.” Regardless of political spin, the United States is  *one* community. Our country is a composite community of many parts, some of which disagree with each other. Isn’t internal disagreement typical in any neighborhood, let alone a nation?

If one spends a lot of one’s time on the Internet – as news reporters often do – it’s tempting to generalize the polarization one sees online to the rest of the world. But people do not communicate the same way offline as they do online. Online, discussions become polarized quickly and easily. If I want to resolve a disagreement, I usually take it off the Internet as soon as possible.

I hesitate to frame *any* ideological disagreement as a “culture war.” Calling a heated discussion a “war” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It tends to escalate the debate rather than reducing tension. And it makes it almost impossible to build bridges.

If David Roberts, Andrew Hoffman and other writers are genuinely interested in resolving the climate change debate and not escalating it, they should skip the military metaphors and start calling the conversation what it is: a controversy. Yes, it’s a culturally loaded controversy. But that is all it is. It’s not a war.

There are more than enough climate scientists receiving violent hate mail as it is. We need to use de-escalating language.

How does one de-escalate conflict to reach solutions? I’ve been studying this topic intermittently for years. Here are some ideas:

  1. Find common ground. What values do you share with the people who oppose you? What can you agree on – at least, provisionally?
  2. Set ground rules about civility and basic respect.
  3. Don’t make assumptions about the people who disagree with you. This is especially true if you have not talked with them and don’t really understand their perspectives.
  4. Take difficult conversations off the Internet. If you aren’t able to do so, moderate online conversations assertively and reduce anonymity. Research has shown repeatedly that online communication is polarizing.
  5. Find ways of getting people out of the “us vs. them” mindset. There are organizations such as Public Conversations Project which specialize in doing this.
  6. Stop seeing the political spectrum as a one-dimensional line between conservative and liberal. The best websites I have seen about political affiliation all agree that there are multiple dimensions to political preference. The Political Compass is a two-dimensional example. There are other models which are more complex.
  7. Get to know people who are different from you in person and preferably offline. Go out in the community and talk to someone who isn’t dressed the same way as you are.
  8. Stop taking things personally. (This is good advice for life in general.)

With that said, I find it completely understandable that Americans confronted with the need to dramatically scale back their lifestyles in response to an environmental threat would retreat into arguments that aren’t logical, oppose change, and dig in their heels.

We live in a country where wealth, productivity and consumption are highly valued by many people. Expecting our entire national community to suddenly put its values and materially based self-image on hold, even in response to a dire environmental need, would be extremely naive.

The environmental movement needs to offer hope, collaborate, and build constructive solutions in the face of intense fear, global risk, and polarized debate. Let’s stop talking about “culture wars” and start talking about solutions. We need new hope, better ideals, and a value system that doesn’t depend on what kind of car we own.

The Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts’ Sustainability Leadership Summit 2012 on June 7 opened my eyes to the multidimensional value of supporting local businesses. This value is especially high when communities develop  business-to-business relationships.

Before attending the summit, I was already aware of how buying goods from local farms and supporting local tradespeople reduces the environmental impact of freight transportation. But, when I thought of supporting local businesses, I also thought of paying high prices for high-quality products. This perception may discourage some working class and middle class people from buying locally.

At the summit, I learned how much supporting sustainable, locally owned businesses can create a network of community resilience. Rather than being islands in the marketplace, businesses can form connections and support one another, building their local economies and creating jobs.

Andrew Meyer, co-founder of Vermont Soy and founder of Vermont Natural Coatings, described how businesses support each other in the small community of Hardwick, Vermont. Hardwick has attracted national attention because its network of local businesses generated over 100 jobs during the recession. A researcher concluded that the secret to Hardwick’s success was that local businesses supported one another. Business leaders socialized, collaborated, and shared resources. This resource sharing allowed the businesses to become more efficient and expand their operations.

Joe Grafton, Executive Director of Somerville Local First, described the massive growth of local business support networks in New England during the last few years. The number of networks has increased from three to 20. These groups are now scattered throughout New England. Many of them participate in awareness-raising campaigns such as Buy Local Week.

Tech Networks of Boston‘s CEO, Susan Labandibar, has created an infographic showing the advantages of supporting her locally owned business. Tech Networks spends 72 percent of its revenues within Massachusetts, produces 28 local jobs, invests in job skills training and tree planting, and uses a radically equitable pay scale for its employees.

Labandibar describes sustainable business practices as “generative” rather than “extractive.” Many speakers at the summit said that they want to see the role of business move toward a generative model. Sustainable businesses can partner with the communities they serve and share resources with the other businesses that are in their neighborhoods.

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) has collected research on the benefits of encouraging locally owned business development. The advantages range from local economic stability to job creation and a stronger tax base. For more information, you can visit the websites of BALLE or the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The article below is an edited reprint of a story about worker safety which I wrote last year. I’m posting it in honor of May Day. 

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, 146 garment industry workers – mostly young Jewish and Italian women – died during the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The safety flaws that led to this tragedy – locked stairwells and exits, unsafe fire escapes, and lack of communication systems between floors  – seem nearly unthinkable today.  Yet the employer resistance to health and safety improvements that cost these women their lives 100 years ago sounds disturbingly similar to arguments that we hear today from industry trade groups opposing safer chemicals policies.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

After the fire, New York Governor John Alden Dix created a commission to investigate health and safety in New York factories.  The commission visited over 3000 factories in 20 industries. As a result, the state created its first workplace safety requirements, a set of 25 different laws passed over the objections of business owners and industry representatives. 100 years later, although some companies are adopting responsible practices, industry groups still use very similar objections to obstruct modern health and safety legislation.

Here are quotes from 100 years ago followed by similar statements that industry groups make today.

1911: Obstructing Factory Safety

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Before the Triangle Fire, there were no chemical safety rules for New York factories. After the fire, companies were required to provide hot water so employees could wash after handling chemicals. (Today, we know that this is highly inadequate, but it was a major step forward then.) One manufacturer downplayed the health and safety threat by saying the chemicals his workers used (such as lead) were not dangerous to workers unless they were careless.

“The only tendency toward illness comes to men who are intemperate in their habits.  In every case of poisoning I have heard of, the man was an exceedingly hard drinker….Where the men are temperate in their habits I never found a case…”
– Arthur S. Summers, a dry colors manufacturer

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

In the days before the fire, employees in cellar bakeries faced unsafe working conditions due to poor ventilation. Despite the cries of bakery owners and the real estate industry that the cost of bread would skyrocket and bakeries would vanish, the legislature prohibited opening new cellar bakeries.

“If you eliminate further bakeshops in the cellar… the poor man is going to suffer, and we are crying now for the high cost of living. If you will wipe out the cellar bakeries, the poor man will get a smaller loaf of bread.”
– Dr. Abraham Korn, president of the United Real Estate Owners’ Association

3:  Industry says: Employers will leave the state

When New York considered legislation after the fire, there was a massive outcry. Business organizations made threats that factories would flee the state if the new workplace safety rules became law.

“The Real Estate Board of New York is informed that thousands of factories are migrating to New Jersey and Connecticut in order to be freed from the oppressive laws of New York State.”
– Op-ed by George W. Olvany, special counsel to the Real Estate Board, “The Fire Hazard in Big Buildings,” New York Times, May 3, 1914.

However, these predictions appeared to be unfounded.

“Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.”
– From “Seeks To Simplify Building Inspection,” New York Times, July 27, 1914.

2010: Stalling Chemical Safety Measures

100 years later, industry groups often raise similar warnings and brush aside the need to introduce safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. The following quotes are taken from public testimony by industry representatives fighting the passage of the Safer Alternatives Bill in Massachusetts and the regulation of BPA by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Based on industry studies funded by the chemical industry, the FDA still classifies BPA as safe, although it is currently reevaluating that assessment. However, medical evidence of BPA’s toxicity, in particular at low levels, continues to accumulate in independently funded studies. The chemical industry continues to tout the safety of BPA.

“BPA is not a risk to human health, including the health of infants and children, at the very low levels that are present in consumer products.”
– American Chemistry Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

As Massachusetts regulators considered a ban on infant formula bottles containing BPA, industry representatives claimed that baby bottles would not be available despite the already widespread use of BPA-free bottles.

“This action is both unnecessary and not in the interest of Massachusetts infants and caregivers, as it would reduce the availability of infant formula products currently available in the Commonwealth.”
– International Formula Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

3: Industry says:  Employers will leave the state

Despite solid union support for the Safer Alternatives Bill, which will create a program in Massachusetts to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives whenever feasible, industry groups regularly promote the fear that jobs may leave the state if the bill passes.

“We urge you to consider the negative impact of this bill on jobs and investments in your district…”
– Associated Industries of Massachusetts statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill from testimony provided to the Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture in 2009

Jobs vs. Safety: We Don’t Have to Choose

When businesses, unions and legislators support safety for customers and workers, they can prevent disasters like the Triangle Fire. The following quote from a worker at the garment factory shows the value of forethought and responsibility.

“If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the streets. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”
– Rose Sabran, Triangle Waist Company employee

Today, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO – and many other organizations – support the Safer Alternatives Bill.

“We owe those who work in our state the safest and healthiest workplaces we can possibly provide. Where safer alternatives exist, there is no excuse for putting the health and welfare of workers at risk by making them work with completely avoidable toxic chemicals…. The many workers who will no longer be at risk of chronic disease or workplace injury and [their] families… will be profoundly grateful for your role in passing this legislation.”
– AFL-CIO statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill

The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and the changes that came about afterwards gives us hope that when we stand up for the human right to a healthy and safe workplace and community, we can win the protections that we deserve.  It also reminds us of the terrible tragedies that happen when we let age-old myths about regulation being damaging cloud our thinking and prevent us from taking basic steps to protect our health.


Tolle Graham of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and Elizabeth Saunders of The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow also contributed to this article.

Does environmental protection reduce the well-being of low-income people? A new discussion paper from Oxfam says it’s possible to improve the health and income of people living in poverty worldwide while still making environmentally sustainable choices. However, individual environmental policies may or may not help social well-being.

Oxfam uses an infographic to show the zone of sustainability required for global well-being. The graphic is in the shape of a doughnut; the inside ring is the requirements for human health and survival, while the outside ring is the requirements for reducing environmental impact. The paper’s author, Kate Raworth, believes we can live “within the doughnut.”

A colorful doughnut. Source: stock.xchng.

Diagrams in the report show how close we are to living within this zone of sustainability today. Raworth recommends reducing food losses, improving transportation efficiency, insulating homes, and expanding women’s reproductive rights.

According to Raworth, environmental policies can be socially sustainable because the resources needed to improve the health and income of the poor, globally speaking, are much less than the resources used by the wealthy. The massive environmental impacts we face today are directly related to global disparities in wealth.

Advocating a reduced standard of living for the upper and middle classes is unlikely to win many allies in the United States. The Oxfam discussion paper has received no press coverage in the United States, according to Google News. I found the link to the paper on George Monbiot’s blog at The Guardian.

It’s reassuring to hear this “yes, we can” message amid the cries of concern over global warming.

If you like this blog, visit my Facebook page and Twitter feed.

When I first moved to Boston, I became convinced the way we design houses needs to change. A persuasive editorial in the New York Times this week agrees with me. Building cookie-cutter houses for nuclear families has left us with houses that can’t adapt easily to hard economic times, changing lifestyles, and immigration.

In Chicago, one of my friends rented an apartment which was a former coach house and was built above a stable. The apartment was near the main house on the property, but detached from it. When recent graduates need to live with their parents, semi-detached apartments like that would give them autonomy.

Making housing modular – adding entrances and exits, providing small units that are partly detached from common spaces, and not assuming that everyone in the house will be part of a close-knit family – would add flexibility to home construction. If the traditional dream of owning a house is no longer families’ top priority, apartment buildings should be able to accommodate extended families and changes in their life situations.

The New York Times article talks about immigrant families sharing suburban houses. There are at least two more angles to that story:

  1. Families of choice are rarely – if ever – a target market for housing construction. But many people who are distant from their families of origin may prefer to share space with their friends. Buildings that combine shared space with private sections or apartments could accommodate this social reality.
  2. Since the recession, recent college and high school graduates often live with their parents. Since they are eager for autonomy and may even be in long-term relationships, this lack of privacy could cause family tension. Designing sections of houses with kitchenettes and independent entrances would make their lives easier.

The New York Times article recommends turning old industrial buildings into flexibly designed lofts that can accommodate larger families and changing work situations. A loft-style building would be one potential answer to the dilemma of families squeezing into small spaces in ways that may lead to conflict and stress.

Cohousing is another practical and relatively affordable model. In cohousing developments, shared spaces are surrounded by compact apartments or houses. Cohousing is usually designed for unrelated groups who share social values about common space. The same idea could be adapted for multi-generational families.

CommonWealth Magazine has reported the controversial funding and service cuts to Boston’s MBTA transit system hinge on an unlikely competition for dollars: snow removal vs. public transit. City leaders are concerned they will lack the resources to respond to a heavy snowfall and are considering cuts to public transit funding.

As far as I know, no one has seen the irony of this problem. Public transit reduces climate change, which is responsible for at least some of our increased snow and rain here in New England. Expanding and improving public transit should be part of our strategy for fighting climate change. In the face of increased weather risks, we should hurry to fund the MBTA and expand its routes and services.

Boston’s strategy for fighting climate change takes transit into account. The transit section of the city climate website doesn’t mention the MBTA, but the report A Climate of Progress mentions it repeatedly. Organizations like the T Riders Union have been struggling for years to improve the quality of services the MBTA provides. This fight would not be necessary if we saw the collective value of building a transit system that will outlast fluctuations in gasoline availability and price.

Since I’ve heard through the rumor mill that search engines and blog readers like bullet points, I’ve decided to toss Google a bone. This post is a series of statistics from The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States. These numbers may surprise you.

The Real State of America Atlas

Poverty and housing

  • In 2000, 12 percent of Native American houses on reservations lacked complete plumbing. This situation is almost nonexistent in the rest of the United States.
  • In 2009, 32 percent of Native Americans were living below the federally set poverty line. The matching statistic for whites was 9 percent.
  • Subprime mortgage lending has led to many people losing their homes. 61 percent of African-American women who borrowed mortgages in 2005 received subprime ones. The matching statistic for white women was 22 percent.

Journalism and diversity

  • In 2008, 88 percent of United States radio reporters and 76 percent of TV journalists were white. (In 2009, 75 percent of United States residents identified as white.)
  • 53 percent of foreign-born residents of the United States are from Latin America.
  • The national average number of foreign-born workers in the labor force is 16 percent.
  • Meanwhile, 64 percent of United States newspapers reduced their coverage of international news between 2007 and 2009. It’s unlikely immigrants made those newsroom decisions.

Environmental emotions and actions

  • 61 percent of Americans surveyed said they were sympathetic to the environmental movement in 2010.
  • As of November 2010, there were 1,280 Superfund sites in the United States in line for cleanup, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Does sympathy equal action? Not necessarily.
  • In 2005, women became the majority of motor vehicle owners in the United States. However, only 26 percent of auto industry employees are women. Women are also more likely than men to believe global warming is a serious concern. Guess who’s designing our cars?

An enlightening article in the Wall Street Journal informed me and other readers that belief in climate change is a religion.

This was news to me. Most religious beliefs – including the prophecy that the world will end in 2012 – are not tested by crowds of scientists working overtime.

But there is a grain of truth in the article. Movies such as The Day After Tomorrow do use apocalyptic images to describe climate change. In the real world, erratically changing corporate profits, peanut butter shortages, an end to Kentucky bourbon supplies, and even mass migrations are not apocalypses. Even a resource war over water or energy does not qualify as an apocalypse – although civilians and veterans might wish they still had bourbon after that.

Some of the more extreme peak oil preparation websites show how panic can grip people in the face of change. Faced by large-scale environmental revolt – unpredictable weather, changeable agriculture, species migration, and economic and global instability – environmentalists may be tempted to pick an apocalypse narrative as the best fit.

Choosing to call climate change an apocalypse is a serious tactical mistake because apocalypses are completely outside our control. It would be better to compare climate change to the Great Depression or World War II. We should mobilize, adapt, do public works projects, strengthen the social safety net, and set up systems of mutual aid.

And no, predicting poverty and war is not a religious or apocalyptic statement. Climate change isn’t equivalent to a near-earth supernova. However, we need to work hard to avert unnecessary suffering.

"We Can Do It!"
"We Can Do It!" Source: J. Howard Miller (Wikipedia)