Children mingle in New York City during the first Earth Day in 1970.
Bernard Gotfryd/Library of Congress
Children mingle in New York City during the first Earth Day in 1970.

I can grasp what a massive environmental problem we’re facing. Or I try to.

Determining truly effective measures to combat climate catastrophe is complicated. But planting the seeds of hope and doing ‘whatever it takes’ are more important than ever.

Annie Landenberger is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to these pages.

WILLIAMSVILLE-I marched with my mother in the first Earth Day Parade, on April 22, 1970, just a week before my 16th birthday. Manhattan's Fifth Avenue was all rainbows and flowers, picnics, and Frisbee games: we thronged - 100,000 of us - to march from 59th Street, at the southern edge of Central Park, to Washington Square Park, while fueled vehicles were held at bay.

For a teenager who'd never gone hungry and had always had clean air to breathe, it was, perhaps, an abstraction. But I do recall being bothered by Long Island Lighting Company erecting three massive, candy-striped towers on Asharoken, an isthmus across our stretch of Northport Harbor, and by the evermore frequent red tides that threatened safe swimming.

On that first Earth Day, 20 million people protested nationwide to raise awareness about the crisis facing our environment. I may have been too innocent then, too naïve to grasp what a massive problem this was, this would be. Now, just days away from 70, I do.

Or I try to. It seems that some solutions - electric vehicles, for example - might only pose more problems and that greed stymies the good intentions behind initiatives such as carbon offset dollars.

It is complicated.

* * *

A few years ago, I attended a meeting of, a movement for "bold climate action," at which I asked: "Wouldn't it be smart if folks in my village - especially time-flexible and older ones - started to pool their errands and resources more?"

I got a pretty abrupt shutdown. It won't make any difference, the 30-something leader said - emphatically. Tail between my legs, I've learned since to speak less on the subject and to listen more.

But I'm not programmed for despair, so when I can't sleep at night for worry about our kids and theirs in the face of climate catastrophe, I scan for solutions - little things that some would say won't amount to anything.

But the perennial Pollyanna I am believes that trying is better than turning our backs on the crisis, hands tossed up in resignation.

We try. Back in 2015, Efficiency Vermont conducted a full audit of my old Vermont village home; they plugged up the energy leaks, and I had solar panels mounted on the south-facing roof.

My partner and I eschew plastic; we cluster trips to town to get more bang for the gas buck; he drives a Prius, and I'm researching what direction to go with a car. We use e-bikes for running errands and have downsized our vacation expectations.

Hopping a train to the Pacific Northwest seemed preferable to flying to Europe, until an April 4 article in The New York Times cast doubt on the assumption that train travel has a smaller carbon footprint than air travel.

It is complicated.

* * *

A couple years ago, St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Brattleboro set out on a project, Building Hope for the Earth (BHE), aimed at making the whole church campus powered by 110% clean, renewable energy by 2030.

I jumped in to pledge - I pledged more than I could afford and more than I ever have to anything. Others did, too, and the $800,000 fundraising goal for phase one of the project was exceeded within five months. I guess a lot of people want to do something - anything - to dodge the despair and ameliorate the situation.

At St. Michael's annual meeting in January, the church community received an update from parishioner Cary Gaunt, who provided visionary leadership for the initiative.

"We never know how a seed we plant will grow, but that should never stop us from planting seeds," Gaunt said. "A seed planted as a dream way back in 2008, when church members began expressing interest in addressing the climate crisis and living our stewardship commitments through tangible actions, began to germinate with vigor in the fall of 2021."

That October, St. Michael's rector, Rev. Mary Lindquist, formed a team to explore the potential of switching to solar power for the church campus.

"None of us," Gaunt continues, "could have imagined that the seed would blossom into a whole-church energy transformation, […] nor could we imagine the generosity of the parish in supporting with time, talent, and financial resources such an audacious vision."

Gaunt elaborated on the choice of name for the Building Hope for the Earth project.

"Hope is so desperately needed by so many during this time of global upheaval, social and environmental injustice, and the climate crisis," she said.

"Earth's cries grow louder every day as evidenced with even a cursory glance at the headlines or an attentiveness to what is happening in our own communities," Gaunt continued.

"The cries are many," she added. "Those who hear are few. Those who hear and then decide to sow seeds of hope are fewer still."

Climate prophet and Vermonter Bill McKibben says that it is "high time for the human heart to do its job" in responding to these crises.

The BHE project involved installing a new roof to replace an irreparably leaky one, adding insulation, changing to more energy efficient light fixtures, transitioning from oil heat to electric mini splits and adding solar panels to the church and the rectory. Phase one was completed in early March.

Gaunt said that phase one "gets us a long way toward achieving our vision and goal, but there is more to go."

She added that the church community had submitted even more ideas for "tangible ways to better support and engage our broader community," and that BHE project leaders "look forward to re-engaging with the church community come late spring [...] to roll up our sleeves to build more hope for the earth and our community."

Phase two begins later this year.

* * *

As I walk and bike - and, OK, drive - around these days, I look at the buildings of other nonprofits, of businesses, and of private homes, and I keep spotting empty roofs that would be well-suited to solar paneling. With all the incentives out there and the clock ticking, it seems like a no-brainer: Go solar - or wind, or hydroelectric. Whatever it takes.

The National Weather Service reported that 2023 was Vermont's hottest year on record. According to the The National Centers for Environmental Information, in 2022, the average winter temperature statewide was 27.2 degrees F. In 2023 it was 31.3.

That's 4.1 degrees in a year.

Even considering El Niño - which, I confess, I'll never quite grok - that's huge. Extrapolate that.

The more I dig into climate disaster, the more riddled with paradox and confusion the climate landscape is, and the quicker the shifting sands one has to navigate to find a path toward amelioration.

I try to learn, and to act responsibly.

I only wish I could rewind the clock and caution my 16-year-old self and all her peers.

If I could, I would simply say, "Use less."

This Voices column by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates