The Times of Trenton

Environmental movement finds advocates in Lawrence

Monday, May 12, 2008

By Wendy Plump

LAWRENCE -- Ralph Copleman, environmental activist, has a simple first step for anyone interested in greening the Earth, and it is something we all know how to do already:

Chill. Relax. Breathe for a moment.

As Copleman sees it, the message addressed to the human planet these days is simply overwhelming.

Listening to news about global warming, rising sea levels, deforestation, melting glaciers, thinning ozone, homeless polar bears, overfished oceans, empty salmon runs and dying coral will cause panic, making people less likely to move toward a solution.

Instead, Copleman and his "Sustainable Lawrence" environmental movement want a considered response to the emergency of global warming. And you can only do that once you have thought about it, he says during an interview with neighbors at his (somewhat chilly) home.

"When people hear I'm an environmental activist the first thing they do is start telling me all the things they're not doing, like they're feeling guilty," says Copleman, who is executive director of the group. "The psychology of this whole thing is that when you're emotional you can't think clearly. That 'oh my God!' reaction produces an anxiety that freezes us. But you don't have to stay frozen.

"The mantra we use here at Sustainable Lawrence," he adds, "is really very simple: Re-think, re-use, recycle."

Phil Unetic, who lives down the street from Copleman in this tight-knit enclave off of Route 206, adds, "Small is the answer. The message we want to get out is that small changes are very much worthwhile, that any one thing we can do leads to another, and another. And that's how you get started."

The movement is firmly under way in Lawrence through the Sustainable Lawrence effort, which Copleman and a group of committed neighbors have spearheaded with the help of municipal leaders, and which has caught fire with local businesses, schools and residents.

Simply put, the movement aims to have residents and businesses reduce their energy consumption by 3 percent a year every year until the township becomes a "climate neutral" municipality.

How do you do that? Consult your electric bills, your oil and gas bills and estimate how many miles you drove and flew in 2007. And resolve to cut back on that amount -- energy used as opposed to prices paid -- by 3 percent in 2008.

Copleman, a retired management consultant, accomplished this handily the first year by not driving his automobile once a week. Keeping the thermostat turned down in the home he shares with his wife. Using compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Not serving or eating meat, which is a notoriously energy-intensive product, nearly as often as he once did.

Neighbor Sally Poor, a professor of German literature at Princeton University, starts with the grocery store. "You can eat potatoes and tomatoes that are grown right around the corner," she says. "Terhune Orchards right here has a greenhouse that's year-round. When you try to eat mostly locally grown food you're cutting down right there."

What else do they do? They ride bikes to local errands. They refuse additional bags or packaging when shopping. They take bags they already have at home with them to the grocery store or the mall. They don't put pesticides on their lawns. They borrow things from each other -- chainsaws, snow-blowers, hedge trimmers -- rather than buy them. They ponder their new purchases seriously -- do I really need it, or can I just re-paint it?

"One of my tricks is following my daughter around the house and turning the thermostat back down after she's turned it up," says Unetic.

They also meet in small groups once a month to talk about the challenge of sustainable living, and use each other's ideas to get a little farther down the road.

Their commitment has had a growing success. Voters recently approved a bond issue to install solar energy panels at all seven of the Lawrence School district's school buildings. In March, Sustainable Lawrence had its Green Expo at The Lawrenceville School. Attended by more than 500 people from all walks of life in the township, the expo was a huge success.

"We have been pleased to be a part of Sustainable Lawrence since its founding," says Elizabeth Duffy, headmaster of The Lawrenceville School. "What began as a series of conversations about how to promote better stewardship of the environment has become a dynamic coalition of people, schools, nonprofit organizations, business owners and corporate leaders committed to ensuring that we preserve the planet for future generations."

Copleman, Unetic and Poor are quick to point out that their movement is not about sanctimony. They simply want to cut back, and there are ways of doing that that are accessible to everyone.

"The world is infatuated with its current way of being," says Copleman. "We're addicted to consumption to the extent that it may be difficult for people to overcome their own habits. But it's a process of slowly figuring out together how to make a movement, how to make progress, and that happens incrementally."

Sustainable Lawrence got its real start a few years ago with a conference held at The Lawrenceville School. With residents, activists, municipal leaders, businesspeople and educators in attendance, says Copleman, that group pondered the question of what kind of municipality they would like to live and work in.

Their answers created a number of tight-focus committees each headed up by an individual inspired by its aim: a land-use group, a safer lawn group, a group that is looking at solar panels in public buildings, a group that wants everyone to bike around town and is pushing for more sidewalks to accommodate that goal.

The 3 percent pledge came out of that initial meeting.

Today, Sustainable Lawrence has an operating budget of about $70,000 a year that comes from state and local grants as well as fundraising efforts by the group's members.

"What we've seen is that people had a 15-20 percent reduction in their energy use the first year alone, just by changing some of their habits," says Copleman. "After that, though, it gets tougher because you're already leaner than you used to be."

The Sustainable Lawrence website lists a number of easy changes individuals can make right away.

And a simple email to the website will get you a 20-point checklist to decrease your carbon footprint. Eventually the group plans to have a mathematical formula on its website in which individuals can plug in their energy-use numbers and calculate to a more quantitative degree how much energy they consume.

"We want everyone in town to take the 3 percent pledge," says Copleman. "Sustainability isn't rocket science. It's social science. It's information we all need to have but mostly we need to share it as we work through a shift in the way we relate to the Earth."

Copleman appears regularly before groups "large and small" to lecture about Sustainable Lawrence. He appeared most recently at Bristol-Myers Squibb with a presentation on how businesses can become more sustainable, and last month he met with employees at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Copleman can be reached through the group's website at or through the organization phone number at (609) 895-1629.

© 2008 The Times of Trenton
© 2008