Environmental Activism Runs in Mam'k Family

by Allison May

(November 12, 2008) While Catherine Hiller was organizing a climate activist group for the Village of Mamaroneck, her youngest son, Jonathan Warnow, a graduate of Mamaroneck High School and Middlebury College, was organizing one for the world.

“Activism is our proudest family tradition,” said Ms. Hiller, who is also a novelist and book editor. Her father, Joseph Nahem, worked all his life for progressive issues and social justice, she said. Her son, now 24, followed the “family tradition” by becoming part of “Step It Up”, which was formed by Middlebury students and their adviser, Bill McKibben, and which inspired more than 1400 climate change actions nationwide on April 14, 2007.

Mamaroneck resident Catherine Hiller and Jonathan, her youngest son, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, are both environmental activists.

At that point, Ms. Hiller was not yet a climate activist. She recalled: “Jonathan called me one afternoon and said, ‘Mom, I can’t believe there isn’t an action in Mamaroneck,’ so I sighed and said, ‘OK. I’ll do something.’ ”

On April 14, 2007, 150 people rallied on the beach at Mamaroneck’s Harbor Island Park and were joined by kayakers, families, and local politicians, including Congresswoman Nita Lowey. “After the rally, I wanted to do something that would lead to permanent change,” said Ms. Hiller. She decided to form a Mamaroneck chapter of “Cool Cities”- the national Sierra Club initiative helping citizens encourage (or pressure) their local government to work toward sustainability. There are over 1100 Cool Cities in the USA, including NYC, White Plains, and the Town of Mamaroneck.

Cool Cities Mamaroneck recently scored its first victory when the Mamaroneck Village Board of Trustees voted unanimously on October 14 to join ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) and conduct a municipal gas emissions audit.

“An inventory of greenhouse gas emissions is an important first step toward carbon reduction,” said Ms. Hiller, “because we cannot know where to reduce until we have pinpointed areas of waste.” She noted that the audit will be conducted at no cost to the Village because Cool Cities raised the $600 to join ICLEI and will supervise a college student from the College of New Rochelle to work on the audit for college credit.

Ms. Hiller also pointed out that the Village of Mamaroneck has recently passed a law banning leaf blowers in the summer and has approved funding to convert one of its sanitation trucks to run on vegetable oil. “We are lucky that our mayor and trustees are environmentally-minded,” she said. “It’s our job at Cool Cities Mamaroneck to make sustainability a continuing priority and to suggest ways for our community to keep taking measures toward lowering its carbon footprint.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Warnow and his friends have formed the international climate change organization 350.org, which has recently gone live with a website in ten different languages. The website features a 90-second animation, “Because the World Needs to Know,” that shows the problem of global warming and the meaning of the number 350 without using a single word. That’s because there are 4000 languages in the world, and the organizers of 350.org believe that every person on earth should know about the peril of global warming.

Three hundred and fifty is the maximum number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is safe for the planet, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. The Earth is already at 385, so climate activists believe the time for strong action is now.

While Ms. Hiller is continuing to nudge her home community to pursue environmental goals, her son and the young activists at 350.org (mostly based in San Francisco) have a broader, more ambitious agenda. They are working to get politicians everywhere to address climate change. Mr. Warnow has been traveling to various conferences to conduct panels on the intersection of technology and activism. Last year, he traveled to Bali, Indonesia, for the UN Climate Change Conference. And this December, he will be going to Poznan, Poland for the UN climate conference there.

Allison May volunteers with Cool Cities Mamaroneck. For more information about Cool Cities Mamaroneck contact Catherine_Hiller@yahoo.com.