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The Earth Sector: A Call To Action

April 28, 2008

Earth(Michael Seltzer, a noted authority on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. As president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, Seltzer was responsible for the buildout of the organization's new "green" headquarters in Manhattan.)

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally "fair." The road we have long been traveling as a nation is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed to near-certain disaster. The other road -— "the one less traveled by" -— offers our last, best hope to reach a destination that, in the words of pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson, assures the preservation of the earth.

When practically every new skyscraper that emerges on the Manhattan skyline is LEED-certified, it is easy for some to forget that the nonprofit sector and the environmental movement in particular originally birthed today’s interest in matters green.

Carson published her game-changing book, Silent Spring, in 1962 -- and, for perhaps the first time, human responsibility for the destruction of the natural environment was communicated to a vast audience. Through her work with the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and others, a grassroots movement was launched that resulted, among other things, in an eventual ban on DDT and other pesticides, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

A few years later, on the other coast, Stewart Brand, whose nonprofit organization published the first Whole Earth Catalog, gathered the tools, resources, and information that readers of Silent Spring could use to take individual action.

The work of Carson, Brand, and countless others led to the debut, in the spring of 1970, of the first Earth Day. Almost forty years later, Earth Day is a global phenomenon, with rallies and events taking place in thousands of communities and more than 140 countries across the planet.

In the 1960s, our environmental colleagues fought the good fight. Today, it's our turn. Nonprofit organizations of every stripe and in every field of endeavor can and must play a direct role in combating global warming and in educating the public about the steps individuals and organizations alike can take.

Indeed, "sustainability," today’s buzz word, does not simply refer to recycling or green design -— it encompasses all the factors upon which human life depends, from providing economic opportunity and a quality education to all citizens, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, to nourishing and preserving the unique cultural and historic legacies of our neighborhoods and communities, to protecting the environment for future generations.

On the work front, there are any number of things you can do to "green" your nonprofit. They include:

  • Purchasing office materials through Green Depot
  • Putting up signage explaining your choices in materials and why they matter
  • Communicating to supporters and constituents what you are doing and why it makes both dollar and mission sense
  • Exchanging "green" experiences/lessons with other nonprofits
  • Integrating sustainability into your organization’s programmatic work
  • Minimizing your employees' travel footprint
  • Recycling computers and other electronic equipment
  • Patronizing "green" vendors
  • Telling your "green" story on your Web site

(Source: True Green @Work: 100 Ways You Can Make the Environment Your Business, National Geographic Society, 2008)

It's up to each and every one of us to examine our values and our vision for a better world and to take the steps that ensure it comes to pass. Here's how Robert Frost might have put it were he alive today:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by DJ  |   April 29, 2008 at 11:00 AM


Your post, while written with obvious passion and conviction, raises some unease within me. The rush to "do something!" over global warming- which is still not an established fact- can have real human consequences, that we have to weigh before rushing headlong into something that is possibly counterproductive.

I find it ironic you mention Carson. The unintended and unforseen effect of Silent Spring was the increase in malaria cases in the 3rd world, since discontinuing DDT usage lead to more growth in mosquitos. And we are seeing the same thing repeated again today with the rush to biofuels, which only inconveniences us in the west with higher prices, but can be deadly to developing countries who rely on our surplus and exports. The growing backlash against (certain) biofuels illustrates that we need to go softly here.

That should also be part of the public education efforts on this issue.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   May 01, 2008 at 09:52 AM

Dear DJ,

Thank you for commenting on my column, The Earth Sector: A Call To Action.

I am a card-carrying graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, where I first read Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring. However, I will decline your invitation to debate the seriousness posed by global warming. I am confident that the threat is real and imminent, but others much more knowledgeable than I are better suited to weigh in on the matter.

The larger point of my article is that the stewardship of our planet extend to all organizations within the nonprofit sector. It is no longer solely the purview of environmental organizations, and that sustainability in the truest sense goes beyond a strict green interpretation.

Finally, greening our workspaces is one way that nonprofits can make common cause. I don't see how such measures
could be considered counter-productive.


Michael Seltzer

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