By Jen Walling | IEC Executive Director
After being at the Illinois Environmental Council for nearly ten years, I’ve delivered more talks and presentations, sat on more panels, and given more media interviews than I can count.
Looking back on this decade of questions, one of the most commonly asked is, “What is the single most impactful thing an individual can do to help save the planet?”
Despite being asked so many times, it’s still a tricky question. For instance, eating less meat will cut your carbon footprint but – and this is not to dismiss individual efforts – that reduction usually starts and stops at the individual level. To be most effective, I believe we must act in ways that are scalable and ripple well beyond single actions.
On Wednesday, March 4, 700 Illinoisans showed us how to answer the question that I’m asked so often when they gathered in Springfield for IEC’s annual lobby day.
In many ways, Illinois’ State Legislature is designed to be inaccessible to the public. There is no legal guarantee that public input on bills will be considered; the schedule changes often, with committee hearings canceled or rescheduled at the last minute; legislation is posted for debate with little notice; and there are no guarantees that a lawmaker will even accept a meeting, even with their own constituents who have traveled hours to the State Capitol. The process can be bewildering to the point of being impenetrable, which is an obvious problem in a representative democracy.
For a community that holds science in high regard, it is nevertheless a reality that power does not come from data, studies or facts, but from people. Fortunately, a majority of whom strongly support environmental protection. As advocates, it is our responsibility to demonstrate this support to lawmakers, regardless of how inaccessible the system can be.
IEC exists to open doors in Springfield and connect our supporters to their lawmakers. We partner with legislators to host town hall meetings, bus people to the State Capitol for Lobby Day, send out regular updates during the legislative session, provide in-depth analysis on the budget and connect our affiliate members with their lawmakers at the Capitol.
We host a Civics for Environmentalists training and make it publicly available (check out recordings from this year’s trainings: part 1 on building power for advocacy here and part 2 on navigating the legislative process here).
Our staff of 13 reached thousands of people through various outreach events during 2019 alone. And we see this education working: our lobby day has grown from 150 attendees in 2013 to over 700 this year.
So, what’s the answer I give to the question, “What can I do to help save the planet?”
Learn and participate in the civic process, particularly at the state and local levels. Those elected officials are more accessible, and more easily held accountable. It’s possible that 10 phone calls can change the mind of your state representative who will be voting on policy that will affect nearly 13 million Illinoisans.
Below, I’ll share some tips on how to begin doing that so you can plug into the environment movement in Illinois, grow your power and make a real difference.
Here are four easy things that you can do to help us save the planet:
- Get to know your lawmakers. If you don’t know or can’t remember your state lawmakers, it’s easy and quick to find them by clicking here. Use Google to learn more about them and the issues they care about most. Follow them on social media. Sign up for their email list and go to their town halls (bring a friend). Introduce yourself and ask questions about the issues you care about most.
- Get to know your neighbors. Not only is knowing your neighbors one of the most important factors in determining whether you’ll survive a catastrophic weather event, it may end up being an incredibly important factor in whether we can pass laws that will reduce carbon emissions and prevent climate catastrophe. That’s because relationships are everything in politics and organizing. If your lawmaker won’t meet with you, knowing your neighbors is a good way to find someone in your community that may know your lawmaker or may be there to help in an election if your lawmaker isn’t voting the right way on environmental issues.
- Get to know your advocates. There is a lobbyist for just about every interest. Finding yours will make your work easier and more effective. The Illinois Environmental Council is a coalition, or a sort of “trade association”, that represents over 90 different environmental organizations in Illinois with collectively more than a half million members. Reach out to us and we can help you find ways to get plugged in with these groups who will make taking action easy for you on the environmental issues you are interested in working on. You can check out our list of affiliate members here.
- Take action. We send out several opportunities to take action on important bills throughout the legislative session. They are called Action Alerts and I encourage you to always take them by filling out those forms that automatically send an email to your lawmaker. If you want to go the extra mile, consider sending a personalized email or calling your lawmaker about the bills we flag in our Action Alerts. Or even better, get to know your lawmaker and develop a relationship with them. Come to lobby day and join all of the other folks demonstrating the power of our community to our lawmakers.
Big polluting industries bring an extraordinary amount of money to bear in politics, but these expenditures also reveal their reliance on policy to prop up their businesses. To counter their material wealth, our community must unite around our shared values and demonstrate the overwhelming public support that our issues have. To put it bluntly, those industries will win if our community is distracted by fighting over plastic straws than unifying around meaningful policy change.
I recycle, compost, and turn off the lights when I leave a room and I want everyone to do the same. I also want us all to work toward a world where laws and policies make saving energy and resources the default choice, and where pollution does not endanger any communities and big polluters are held accountable for how they use public resources like water and air.
Filling out each Action Alert form matters. Making a phone call to your legislator’s office matters. Going to your legislator’s district office for a visit matters. Coming to one of our civics workshops or lobby day matters. In short, every seemingly small action you take really does matter. They add up and lawmakers often act accordingly. Thank you to those who have joined us in the past and those that will.
The only way that we will make Springfield champion environmental issues is by holding the doors open – together.