A Carbon Neutral Isla Vista by 2025, Part 1: Where did this idea come from?

Isla Vista beachgoers.

Shaelyn McHugh

As magnificently captured by this meme, no one could have imagined 2020 going the way it has so far. 

This is the world we live in. So just for a moment, let’s take ourselves away from the present and imagine its potential in five years from now.

That sounds wonderful. But hard to imagine compared to how the 2020 meme displays our current conditions. How could our community make such a massive shift?

The founder of the Cool Block program, David Gershon, came to the UCSB campus in February to present the idea of a Carbon Neutral Isla Vista by 2025. His nonprofit  Empowerment Institute has formed a partnership with UCSB, Eco Vista, the County of Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, to enact the program in our community.

You can view the entirety of his talk here.

I work as a student intern with the Cool Eco Vista initiative, which is a partnership between Cool Block and Eco Vista that’s goal is to reach carbon neutrality in Isla Vista by 2025. I interviewed David about why he believes this audacious idea might just work. 

Shaelyn: That’s a very big claim saying that Isla Vista could be carbon neutral by 2025. Where did this idea come from and how do you think we can make it happen?

David Gershon: You are absolutely right. It is a big idea and I don't propose that we have it all figured out, but I think the ingredients are in place. It starts with what we've been developing over the last 30 years and what Isla Vista represents as an incubator for such a vision. Let's start with what we have. We built a program called Cool Block that has successfully empowered households working in small groups on their block to reduce their carbon footprint on average by 25%. We have built a scaling strategy to create a Cool City of 25% or more Cool Blocks which is now being implemented in a number of California cities including IV.

The plan is to use Cool Cities as a staging platform where we have built enough carbon literacy and political will to make the leap to a carbon-neutral city in this decade. On top of that, we're building on the amazing vision of the UC system to be carbon neutral by 2025. That's what gave us the incentive to shoot for that date because the University is already on that path and we can leverage that commitment. Further, Isla Vista provides a unique opportunity because its carbon footprint is already low since students live in housing together and choose to bike or skateboard rather than drive.

Then we have the brainpower, creativity, and passion of the students who are looking for opportunities to change the world. They are primed to actually be a part of the climate solution where they live. Additionally, the ethos of Santa Barbara, as the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, and UCSB as one of the top green universities in the country provides for a very juicy stewpot for climate innovation.. 

Lastly, the need. We've been told by our scientists we have to make an unprecedented level of change in the next 10 years to avoid irreversible environmental tipping points. So we don't have a choice. We have to act now. And if Isla Vista can do this by 2025 then it can become a leader for other communities and universities around the world. 

This effort is part of our larger initiative called Cool California. Using these behavior change and community engagement tools its goal is empowering 50 California cities to become carbon neutral by 2030 as a pathway to helping the state become carbon neutral by 2040. 

S: How did you come up with the idea of Cool Block? How did it start and where is it now?

DG: 30 years ago I began a journey to translate the knowledge of my Empowerment Institute into empowering people to live environmentally sustainable lifestyles. The impetus for this was the UN telling the world that the greatest cause of the deterioration of the global ecosystem was the unsustainable consumption and production of the developed world. 80% of the world’s consumption comes from 20% of the developed countries with America consuming a third of the planet's resources as only 5% of the population. 

We were the problem, but if we could learn to live more sustainably, we could become the solution. I focused my efforts in figuring out how to help Americans who want to do the right thing begin to reduce their impact on the earth. We built a program called the Green Living Program, which was quite successful in helping people reduce their impact. Through greater efficiency, they reduced wasteful use of natural resources by 25% and saving, on average, $400. They also reduced the pollutants they put into the atmosphere, water and earth. Over time this social innovation spread to 22 countries with millions of people participating.

Through that program, we developed a behavior change methodology of peer support systems recipe actions and self-directed meeting guides that were quite effective.  

That kept evolving into other programs around other issues, like disaster resiliency in New York City. After the September 11 attacks, NYC invited us in to help them develop a program called All Together Now which created disaster-resilient households, buildings, and blocks. In Philadelphia, the city invited us to use this behavior change methodology and our evolving block-based community engagement tools to increase the livability of their inner-city residents. It focused on safety, health, greening, beautification, and sharing of resources on the block. Over a hundred inner-city block-based teams on average took five livability actions per team. This also integrated over 40 city and local non-profit resources to help people take action. We connected a lot of top-down and bottom-up dots which is why it proved so successful.

Another city, Portland, Oregon invited us to build a program focused exclusively on low carbon lifestyles which we did. It was called the Low Carbon Diet, which also became quite successful with 43% of the people invited on a block participating and averaging a 25% reduction in their carbon footprints. This then spread to over 300 communities in 8 countries.

All of these programs, while effective, were not scaling to the level we wished for because they served too narrow of a niche. So we integrated them all into the Cool Block program four years ago and honed in on California. We chose California because it's an early adopter state and going deep in one place provides the best chance to scale the program and strategy. 

We piloted this program in Palo Alto, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It proved quite successful with a 25% average carbon footprint and 56% of people on a block choosing to participate. And then UCSB showed up on our radar screen and it’s been very encouraging working with students in John Foran’s class. Last year we worked with 30 Cool Block teams in his class and they achieved a 25% carbon footprint reduction which is quite remarkable given their already low footprint. This year we are working with another 23 teams albeit virtually and spread out around the country. So that’s how we got here.  

S: What’s on the horizon for Cool Eco Vista?

DG: We are creating with UCSB students the Carbon Neutral Isla Vista by 2025 plan. I love that this is being created by the generation that has the passion and the need to get this done. There’s no generation more on fire to address climate change then your generation. They also get to make this a major part of their college experience because it will take place while they are living in Isla Vista and provides them an opportunity to create a lasting legacy for them and UCSB. 

If this proceeds as we intend, Isla Vista and UCSB will be the epicenter and ground zero for the carbon-neutral city movement which is estimated to be a 24 trillion dollar market. With UCSB and its students at the forefront, it would become a major center of innovation for humanity’s climate future with students and faculty stepping into major positions of global influence. 

With the exception of Copenhagen, no community is moving at this speed of change. Most cities and universities are targeting carbon neutrality or less by 2050. This has no reality with what is needed. While our plan may seem unrealistic because of the limited time we have to do so much, in fact, based on the need of the earth it is the most realistic. An interesting paradox.

The main challenge and the main opportunity is we have to speed up time. We have to do in five years in IV and ten years in larger communities, what the world is wishing to do in thirty years. Isla Vista has the unique opportunity to do this in five years because it is so primed. It also has the opportunity to be a world mover by creating the needed social, economic and environmental innovations that every other community will need. So that's what's coming down the road. It’s audacious. In my talk, I described everything I’m saying as unreasonable because normally you can't change things this fast. But we have seen from the coronavirus that the world can do things much faster than seemed possible if it wants to.

This is going to require us to think out of the box - MAJOR. But as a long time practitioner of social change and the science of tipping points, it is all possible. If one designs this strategy well we can build on the diffusion of innovation phenomena, where momentum starts to build on itself because you've attracted the early adopters who activate the early majority and so on. 

We can also use the science of cyclogenesis, where many small groups combine to form a larger force of great power. And then we have punctuated equilibrium from evolutionary biology which describes how when a species faces an extinction-level threat a sudden rapid state change or evolutionary jump becomes possible.

We're in such a moment where we're forced to change because of an extinction-level threat. This was already the case, but now we have COVID-19 as a once in a lifetime catalyst. Because it has disrupted every social and lifestyle system across the entire planet, it provides humanity the opportunity to ask the deepest questions about what's important. We can and need to build on this disruption of our business as usual patterns to create a better world. I think a lot of people have landed here as a result of this experience. 

We have a major “how to” and the time is right. UCSB students, faculty and administration can actually change the world starting in Isla Vista. How many people get a chance to actually do that in their lifetime. So let’s go for it and see what’s possible!