What’s Your Sustainability Superpower?

What’s your sustainability superpower? This is one of the questions we ask as part of our admissions process (along with what’s your kryptonite). It’s a fun question that helps us understand what motivates someone to “act sustainably,” which is a useful barometer to gauge a student’s interest in and readiness for our program. So, we thought we’d turn the mirror around on our staff and ask the same questions. After all, professionally and intellectually, there are myriad opportunities one could pursue, so why sustainability? It turns out that the research suggests it has a lot less to do with “saving the planet” and lot more to do with the personal satisfaction of living a purposeful, inspired, and stimulating life.

So, what’s your sustainability super power? Feel free to comment below. Here’s what our staff had to say.

Jeff Sharpe, Founder and Executive Director

What’s your sustainability superpower?

I should start off by saying that my superpowers only look special relative to the typical American. I try not to lose site of the privilege that has enabled me to have the choices I do, which isn’t even an option for billions of people globally.

One of those choices was to live in a city, and to try and do so in as environmentally responsible a manner as possible. I am not by nature someone who is a “city person” but NYC has its charms and there are very compelling arguments that cities are a big part of the solution to global climate change. I don’t think simply living in a modern city really makes all that much difference in and of itself. There are plenty of folks homesteading in rural places in the US that have a MUCH smaller environmental footprint than your typical New Yorker. But living in a city certainly sets you up to lead a more sustainable lifestyle than the average American if you incorporate some pretty easy behavioral changes.

We did the home composting thing, before NYC rolled out its municipal compost program, hauling our food scraps to local drop off points. We actually still keep food scraps in our freezer since the compost bin in our building is in the basement, so we don’t have take food scraps to the basement every day.

Living in an apartment building also presents a lot of great opportunities to not only reduce your environmental footprint but help others do so as well. I live with my wife and 2 kids in a 950sf 2-bedroom apartment in a pre-war building with 30 apartment units. I’m on the board of our coop and have been leading energy efficiency initiatives and a project to install solar panels on our roof and I’m also active in “fine-tuning” our composting, recycling, and gardening efforts so that we can help other residents make some of the small changes, that in aggregate, can really make a big difference. Working at this sort of scale is really empowering, because one person can really push through a lot of positive changes — sometimes quite quickly and without having to make huge financial or lifestyle sacrifices.

I could talk for hours about all the amazing possibilities that urban density enables (and the big challenges, too), but the last “superpower” I’ll mention is my day-to-day transportation footprint. I love that I can quickly and easily get just about anywhere in the city without having to use a car. I have probably used a taxi or car service less than dozen times in the fifteen years that I’ve lived in NYC. I don’t even use the subway very often, even though NYC’s subways emit just 0.17 pounds of greenhouse gases per passenger mile traveled. Instead, I take my two kids to school (and travel to my office) every day by bike. I have a cargo aka long-tail bike, so my two kids get strapped in their seats in the back and we use human-power to get around, even when in the winter (unless its icy). Its about 3 miles each way, the majority through Prospect Park, and then another half mile to my office. So about 7 miles biking every day. The extra weight of the cargo bike and the kids turns “the hill” in Prospect Park into light aerobic exercise, which is something I wouldn’t be getting much of on a daily basis if I didn’t bike. The handful of times I’ve commuted on the subway in the last year I’ve wished I had taken the bike instead, even on those really bitter cold winter days.

I really like this biking example as probably my best sustainability superpower, because it is such a great example of how a little bit of outside the box thinking can yield so many positive outcomes, which is precisely the key to so many of the sustainability challenges we face as a society. It’s just the scale of it that is so daunting. I think a lot of people would never consider taking their two kids to school on a bike in winter, even if they own a bike and enjoy riding it. Obviously a lot of people also don’t have favorable geography for bike commuting with two kids, but when my wife and I made the decision to move out of our tiny 1-bedroom apartment 18 months ago we wanted to keep our daily routine “human-scaled.” That was a very conscious decision and it not only has real positive impact on our environmental footprint, but also a significant impact on our overall quality of life.

What’s your sustainability kryptonite?

Cheese! There are actually a great many things that I could be doing better, but food is a common denominator among all of us and many of our students are quite a bit “greener” than I am on the food front. I’ve been vegetarian here and there over the years, and my family currently eats fish a couple of times a week (but no meat otherwise). But one thing that I don’t know how I could ever give up is cheese. I’m a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, which has an extraordinary selection of very reasonably priced cheeses. I could probably eat an entire wheel of taleggio on a baguette in a single sitting. That’s how much I love it. I do prefer cow’s milk cheese, which is the worst from an environmental standpoint, too. All that methane is a big problem without any obvious solution short of a lot fewer livestock.

I tend to come at these problems from the perspective that people are only going to get on board with behavioral change if they see the upside in doing so. All of my sustainability “superpowers” have a lot of hidden benefits for me and not just society at large. Same thing with electric vehicles, solar panels, and all the other cool tech stuff in the sustainability field. In a lot of circumstances, buying an electric vehicle or installing solar panels is an excellent financial decision that confers some positive externalities (ie; benefit to society). Everybody wins. I have yet to find that product in the world of cow’s milk cheeses. If I were a more enterprising person, I would be examining this conundrum in my very own kitchen. However, my epicurean endeavors are currently committed to exploring fermentation of another product that involves malted grains, hops, and interesting yeast strains. Perhaps my greatest contribution to society will be inspiring a future participant on one of our programs to solve this problem. One can hope.

Joanna Johnson, Program Director

What’s your sustainability superpower?

I’ll share three.

First, remembering the human aspect of sustainability, namely that a sustainable future also demands social justice and spiritual fulfillment. A superpower of mine is making sure to keep environmental and social justice at the forefront of my work in sustainability. For me, that means supporting my communities to ensure everyone has access to basic human rights. Right now, I volunteer at a free health clinic for people who are unable to get health insurance. Access to healthcare, to education, to healthy food…are all necessary components of an empowered, self sufficient community. Guaranteeing people have equitable access to services is a part of my definition of sustainability.

Second, connecting people with the natural world; helping people change their relationship with things that have been scary, or gross, or uncomfortable to them in the past. For example, I worked with kindergarteners for a few school years. To a kindergartener, a worm is intuitively kind of yucky, but I was consistently able to help those students look at worms differently. Somewhat analogous, I’ve worked with high school and college students to gain a new appreciation for the many kinds of decomposers turning our food waste into useable compost. Supporting folks through transformative experiences is a superpower.

Third, patience! I’ve been slowly making changes in my daily consumption. My methodology is to following the steps of 1. use what I have first, 2. reuse what I can, and then 3. replace only when I need to, and only with either second hand or well made, plastic free items. It can be easy to get ‘inspired’ and want to make these changes quickly, but being slow and thoughtful about what I ‘need’ has been a superpower as well. Patience with yourself through the process is key, when you are working in a system that wants you to consume.

What’s your sustainability kryptonite?

Travel 🙁

This past year in particular allowed me to visit parts of the world I never thought I’d be able to see, and it was such a privilege. Travel has been a huge component of my life, and I’ve always felt grateful for the people and places that I’ve known, and how much travel has shaped my life. I’m also wildly aware of the impact of air travel on our planet – it doesn’t matter what else I do in my life to reduce my impact, every time I get on a plane I’m contributing to climate change and air pollution.

It’s a hard one to work out. I know I’ll be traveling in the next year. But this is also the most important part of moving towards a sustainable future – awareness and willingness to make real changes to our lifestyles.

Maya Funada, Program Assistant

What’s your sustainability superpower?

Before I became passionate about sustainability, I would do my laundry once a week, just like most people. However, now I only use a washer once every three to four weeks and I still look and smell absolutely fine! Unless you sweat a lot or stain your outfit, wearing the same clothes for three to four times doesn’t cause any issue (at least it hasn’t for me!). But the key is to wash your socks and underwear manually during a shower so that they are fresh and clean every day. Most importantly, make sure you don’t repeat the same outfit on three consecutive days so that people won’t notice your clothes may not be sparkling clean! 

What’s your sustainability kryptonite?

Speaking of cleanliness, most Japanese people enjoy taking a hot bath every night (and to my family specifically, a nice hot bath needs to be at least 110 °F.) Although this practice requires a lot more water and energy than showering alone, I can never give it up during the cold winter. Luckily, however, I do not have a bathtub in my current residence, physically preventing me from pursuing this highly resource-intensive activity.

What have you been doing to be a more sustainable traveler?

Being from Japan, I take a 14-hour flight between New York and Tokyo at least twice a year. On top of that, I love to travel internationally, so I need to take extra measures to counter my carbon footprint from flying. Yet, if I were able to ignore the environmental damage of flying, I would humbly call myself a sustainable traveler. 

My favorite means of transportation are walking and biking, which allow me to observe local cultures in significant detail while producing almost zero emissions. To travel long-distance, I always take public transportation, and if no public transportation is available, I try hitchhiking instead of Ubering, depending on safety of the location. 

Also, extensive backpacking around the world made me minimalist since I only carry items necessary for basic survival when traveling. Once I became accustomed to having a single backpack for months, I started to view material ownership as trivial and even annoying. 

Finally, I almost always couchsurf to find accommodation, which means I share a residential space with a local stranger for free (usually I get a separate room, though). By optimizing an unused space, I can budget for my travel and also increase energy efficiency compared to staying in a hotel room. Aside from sustainability reasons, I genuinely believe couchsurfing is one of the best ways to meet local people and learn about their authentic (i.e. not touristy) everyday experiences. 

Yet, no matter what I do to minimize my carbon footprint, flying is still one of the worst ways in which individuals contribute to climate change. That said, the most important thing I can do for the environment is simply fly less. I have already decided that I will never take flights solely for my solo-traveling, and if I do need to fly somewhere, I will stay there as long as possible to appreciate quality time over quantity.