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“Here are 5 things we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment” with Penny Bauder & John Oppermann

The effects of climate change are only going to become more apparent in the coming years. Being prepared for that is just smart planning. Implementing energy-efficiency practices will save you money on potentially rising energy prices, while supporting renewable energy programs and resiliency plans will help get us through potential disruptions to business as usual. […]

The effects of climate change are only going to become more apparent in the coming years. Being prepared for that is just smart planning. Implementing energy-efficiency practices will save you money on potentially rising energy prices, while supporting renewable energy programs and resiliency plans will help get us through potential disruptions to business as usual. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us, globally and locally, the ways that we could be better prepared for unforeseen disruptions. Setting ourselves up with contingency plans would be an intelligent strategy going forward.


As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Oppermann.

John is the Executive Director of Earth Day Initiative, an environmental organization that puts together the most high-traffic Earth Day events in the country every spring and operates year-round environmental awareness programs, including a sustainable food toolkit and a green building publication. The organization’s mission is to carry the enthusiasm and spirit of Earth Day into the 21st Century to meet today’s environmental challenges. John serves as the leader and spokesperson for the highly visible and public Earth Day events, which include partnerships with dozens of media outlets, non-profit organizations, government agencies, multinational companies, and educational institutions. John has been featured and quoted on a range of sustainability topics by MSNBC.com, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Weather Channel, NowThis, Gotham Magazine, and Edible Magazine.

April 19, 2020 marks the kick-off of the 50th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. This event, initially planned to dominate Manhattan streets from Central Park to Union Square, has now gone virtual — a tactic for the “new normal” created by the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt have now confirmed their participation for this event and will join a line up of scientists, activists, and performers to celebrate this historic occasion, highlighting the need for immediate action from the global community.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in the Midwest, in a pretty typical American suburb. At the time, I don’t think I appreciated the nature that I was surrounded by, and I was really drawn to big cities. I can clearly identify where my interest in the environment was sparked though. My dad is a land planner and has always been very much in tune with ecology and preserving natural ecosystems in the work that he does. I know that, growing up, I slowly absorbed his love of nature and his dedication to minimizing humans’ environmental footprint.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to work in environmental activism? Can you share that story with us?

Before going to law school, I explored going into some media or journalism-related path or down an environmental path. I wound up focusing on the environment because I felt that there were more options here for me to make an impact through environmental policy work, sustainability start-ups, or whatever situation I found myself in.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

I don’t think there’s much of a lack of inspiration lately. Everyone has that “thing” or a variety of things that they are really passionate about. I’d encourage anyone to explore the opportunities to make a difference on the issues about which they’re passionate and get integrated into that work. People very much want their values to be reflected in the work that they do, and I think there’s more demand for that now than perhaps in previous decades. People don’t want to leave their values at the door when they go into work, and want to do something that they care about. Personally, I have a low tolerance for doing things that I don’t want to do, so I was particularly adamant that I would work in an area that I was truly invested in and that my day-to-day was one that I didn’t feel like I was dragging myself to do.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

One of our primary aims is to empower people to make an impact in their own lives. People don’t feel like their own individual actions amount to much. The enormity of the environmental challenges is overwhelming and people feel like their own actions are just a drop in the bucket. But the same could be said of something like voting. Your one vote might not seem like it adds up to much. However, the collective power of an electorate is monumental — so we try to emphasize a message of “together we can.” Together we can stop climate change. Together we can switch to renewables. Together we can demand climate justice. One of the chief things we do to make that message actionable is show people how they can switch over to renewable energy — even if they live in an apartment, or rent their homes. We provide options for switching over at dojust1thing.org. It’s easy to do, it can even save you money, and if everyone did it we’d be in a much better position moving toward a transition to 100 percent renewables and no more fossil fuels.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

  1. Switch to renewable energy at dojust1thing.org.
  2. Ignore food expiration dates, as they are often arbitrary and are not regulated by the government, and trust your own senses when assessing if food has gone bad to avoid food waste.
  3. Put a brick in the tank of your toilet where the water refills after flushing so that the total volume is reduced and it uses less water with every flush.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Be a climate communicator. People are much more likely to be motivated to act if someone they know invites them to attend a climate action event or get involved in some other way.
  2. Write a letter to your local newspaper, your community newsletter, or other community publication. Demonstrate how to be an engaged citizen and how to be involved in the civic discourse.
  3. Make conscious choices in your daily life in the food you buy, the way you travel, and the way you avoid waste.
  4. Encourage your kids to pursue what they love. Pursue volunteer or career opportunities in areas that they’re passionate about. They’re more likely to succeed and feel that they have a sense of purpose in their lives, which is a key ingredient for human happiness.
  5. Be kind to others, even those you disagree with. People are much more likely to be convinced of something if you have a conversation with them. Demonstrate kindness and cooperation and that’s setting your kids up with real negotiation skills for the future.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

The effects of climate change are only going to become more apparent in the coming years. Being prepared for that is just smart planning. Implementing energy-efficiency practices will save you money on potentially rising energy prices, while supporting renewable energy programs and resiliency plans will help get us through potential disruptions to business as usual. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us, globally and locally, the ways that we could be better prepared for unforeseen disruptions. Setting ourselves up with contingency plans would be an intelligent strategy going forward.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Before I went to law school, I talked to a lot of alumni of my future law school to pick their brains about the work they were doing in the environmental field. I wanted to make sure that going to law school was the right decision for me and learn more about how they wound up in the roles they were doing in what I considered to be really interesting work in the environmental field. All of these alumni were incredibly helpful. They were so willing to take time out of their day to have a quick meeting or phone call to give advice to someone they didn’t know. I was incredibly grateful for that at the time and told myself then that I wanted to be that helpful and considerate, whenever and wherever I could.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think a recognition that we need to work together to solve our greatest challenges is a shift in mindset that would do the whole world a lot of good. The COVID-19 pandemic is an acute illustration of how truly connected we all are. In a matter of months, this one thing has affected humans around the globe. And in the age of the internet, we’re all dealing with it in real time. Nothing really compares to what we’re dealing with in the current crisis. At no point in human history have we been so connected as a species in a time of crisis. Even the 1918 pandemic flu doesn’t compare to this. The internet didn’t exist, news was delayed and each region dealt with the flu on its own as it arrived. It wasn’t playing out in real time with instant communication and connection. Let’s use this moment to realize that we are truly connected as a species. This planet is our only home. We have nowhere to go to escape a pandemic like COVID-19. We have nowhere to go to escape climate change. And in the 21st century, we have the tools to work together in real time to do good. Let’s use them.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

I’m not sure if it’s a quote but I like the idea of doing what makes you happy. Life is not that long and you should make it a happy one.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

On Instagram: @johnnyoppermann and @earthdayinitiative.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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