John Oppermann of Earth Day Initiative Talks About Earth Day 2020

April 14, 2020

As Earth Day 2020 fast approaches, it’s important to know how you can play a role to improve the planet we live on not just one day a year but throughout the entire year. Listen along as John Shegerian is joined by Earth Day Initiative Director John Oppermann as they talk about increasing awareness around Earth Day and sustainability across America.

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast, I’m John Shegerian. I’m so honored to have with us today, John Oppermann, who is the Executive Director of the Earth Day Initiative. Welcome to Impact, John!

John Oppermann: Thank you so much! Thanks for having me.

John S.: Before I go on and we do a little Q&A here. I just want to share with our listeners who you are, John. You are the Executive Director of the Earth Day Initiative, and you manage not only the Earth Day Initiative but also all the year round programs in classrooms and other high school student activities that are involved with that, and you have a tremendous education background at Gerogetown, and a Harvard Law Degree. So I just want to share with all our listeners all the great things that you are doing and your background a little bit. For our listeners out there, John, can you tea up a little bit what the Earth Day Initiative is.

John O.: Yeah, absolutely! Thank you for the plug. Earth Day Initiative, we are a non-profit environmental organization. We have been putting together large scale Earth Day events for many decades, and we have year round programs which you are lauded to, which include a sustainable food education program, a green buildings publication, a renewable energy campaign, all of this things that we do throughout the year to connect people to things that they can do to green their lifestyles or different environmental causes, campaigns, sustainability initiatives. We work at a lot of schools and offices to engage their communities around sustainability and being a part of this sort of this positive impact on the environment and we’re gearing up right now for Earth Day 50 which is the big anniversary.

John S.: For our listeners out there that want to learn more about the Earth Day Initiative, they can go to www.earthdayinitiative.org. Tell me something a little bit about John Opperman that nobody’s ever heard before. Just give a little bit fun factor, some little snippet about you that typically is not put out there in a regular interview process.

John O.: Let me think about that. I guess, something related to work still. I think I am very much as a person-oriented around what makes humans happy. I think that I really bring that to work,where thinking through programs like what is gonna actually make people as humans, treat people as humans, what’s gonna make them happy and that’s incorporating things like being social, exposure to nature, physical activity, stuff like that. I as a person, am very focused on what are all these things that are going to make John, as a human, happy and I think that I try to incorporate that into what we are do in the workplace and also with our campaigns. It’s like don’t make things such a struggle work, work with people being humans rather than against it. I’m a very big physical activity enthusiast so I go to the gym every single day without fail, because I know that’s gonna make me happier as a human.

John S.: That’s really important. In this world that we’re all enjoying the technical revolution, you’re saying, it’s almost like a throwback theory. Get more physical, get more human, get more social and get more outside to your inside.

John O.: Yeah, absolutely!

John S.: That’s great.

John O.: I think that in so many ways we’ve actually moved away from just treating ourselves as humans, as this animal that is a homo sapien, where we evolve for many thousand of years. Enjoying things like sunlight and physical activity and social connection. And then we place a lot of value in things like income and productivity, typing in numbers into computers but that’s not really what humans are built for, so worked with the human rather than against human nature and I think everyone’s much more productive and happier.

John S.: If you would say, you want to elevate it with somebody today and they asked you about what you do and you said, you’re the Executive Director of the Earth Day Initiative, and that person asked you, what’s your core mission there. What would you say is your core mission there John?

John O.: I think the core mission of Earth Day Initiative is to really empower people to make a positive impact for the environment. Earth Day is the one time every year that even a non-environmentalist wants to do something and environmentalists really want to do something more. Providing those answers people come to us constantly, especially on Earth Day but also throughout the rest of the year because we are Earth Day Initiative and they asked what’s one thing I can do to make a positive impact. What would you advise people to do to green their lifestyles so that they have a better impact on the environment, or lower carbon footprint, or environmental footprint, and our mission is to connect them to those things. Saying, here’s something you can do, here’s something that you can do to make a positive impact either today or on a regular basis, these are things that you can do that will really hope you get that impact of being part of the solution rather than just dealing like you’re part of a larger environmental problem.

John S.: They burned 2020 now and we’ve come a long way with regards to the environment compared to 15, 16 years ago, maybe even compare to 5 or 6 years ago. But as we see with the controversy that surrounds great young activists like Greta Thunberg and other great young people, and the message they’re putting out. We still have a long way to go, John. What are the top two or three things that you could share with our listeners that you feel can make the greatest impact today and what people do in their daily lifestyle activities?

John O.: Yeah, absolutely! I think there’s obviously a lot of things that people can do to make a positive impact that in my experience people are very overwhelmed, because you see like a buzz feed style list like here’s 50 things that you can do to green your lifestyle but how do you even begin, just sort through it. We try to make things very simple so friends at earthdayinitiative.org, we have take action items and at the top and throughout the website we’re advertising. There’s one thing that you can do and the big thing that we push people into is switching over to renewable energy. There are a lot of ways that you can actually support renewable energy and or switch over in your own life even if you rent, even if you lived in an apartment building, people often assume that if you lived in an apartment or you rent, that you don’t have capacity to switch over to renewable energy because it’s not like you can just go up and install solar panels on your roof. But friends sends through models like community solar, you can become a part of a solar facility in your community.

We used New York as an example, we worked with partners were partners building a 2 acre rooftop solar facility on a warehouse in Queens. Anyone in New York can sign up to lease a portion of those panels and then you get paid by the utility provider for the electricity generated by those panels that pumped backed into the grid. The payment that you’d get from the utility provider is actually greater than the lease payment that you’re paying so make money off of the whole project and you get to be a part of this initiative of bringing more solar energy to New York City. Switching over to renewable energy is really critical if we’re gonna tackle about climate change and there are ways that individuals can be a part of that solution. So in earthdayinitiative.org, we provide ways for you to do that no matter where you are in the country you can be a part of the solar project in New York. You can switch your utility bill over to renewable energy and other ways that partners like Arcadia, you might wind up paying a little bit more money in some cases, you might wind up paying less, but you can really easily in a matter of minutes become a part of the solution. It’s not even a habit change or behavior change, we’re not asking you to change your daily lifestyle with this. You do it one time and then every month and you don’t even have to think about it. With your regular utility bill you can be a part of that positive impact.

Another example that I am a big proponent of is, food waste and what you can do around food waste. For instance, a lot of people don’t realize that food expiration dates are largely arbitrary. In some cases food producers try to do their best to estimate the best buy or sell by date but in a lot of cases they are completely arbitrary. There are studies for instance, NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School, looking at the food labels around expiration dates and the fact that there’s no national guideline for this, there’s not a federal regulations around what they need to say for expiration dates. Some states have regulation around this, a lot of states don’t really have regulations. So it means that it just a patchwork of expiration dates that sometimes we’re too conservative, they get people to throw away food way before they need to.

What we advised is we have evolved for a thousands of years, that’s what I was talking about, treat yourself like a human, like that and then there you are, you have evolved for thousand of years to know if food has gone bad. You can trust your nose and your eye to identify, “has this food gone bad, has this yogurt, has this meat that I am about to eat gone bad?” You can generally tell, it’s gonna smell, it’s gonna look bad, it’s gonna be funky, it’s gonna be off if it had gone bad. You can really trust your instincts rather than throwing away food that a lot of times people were like, “owf dead, sell by date is passed I’m throwing this away” but you can trust your own instincts and if you’re really uncomfortable doing that, pay attention to when those labels are coming up where the expiration date is approaching, so go donate that to a local food pantry before that expiration date hits so that you are not throwing away food that is otherwise perfectly good. I think you asked for three things that you can do so, round it out.

John S.: Sure.

John O.: One thing that I have heard people call this is, be a climate communicator. One of the best things that people can do, studies show, is communicate their concern about climate change and the need for action to their communities, So to your friends, to your family, post on social media, right a letter to your local newspaper, get a little piece placed in your community newsletter, whatever it is, invite people to go on a climate strike, invite people to get engaged with climate activism.

Being a climate communicator is way more effective than people hearing about studies about climate change and doomsday scenarios, or reading an articles about it, or anything that is impersonal. It doesn’t really have the impact that has, if you’re communicating in the same way that like, product promotion, it work way better if your friend, or your sister is like “oh I just try this new product and I really love it, you should try it”. Same thing with climate, people with get more involved and really push the needle in terms of demanding climate action, if it is actually the people they know that are advocating for this. Being a climate communicator, I think it’s hugely effective.

John S.: I love it. You mentioned earlier about one of your secret superpowers being exercise. How about time or health besides, exercise which is critical but I’m just like you. If I miss one exercise, it all goes down hell from there. How about a time hack, how do you make the most out of your time? You’re a busy guy, you do a lot of things, there’s a lot on your plate as Executive Director of the Earth Day Initiative. How do you juggle at all, John? Do you have a pearl of wisdom or a hack you could share with our listeners?

John O.: Yeah. I think in terms of time management I know so many people are incredibly busy there. Friends of mine who are even busier than I am, but really going to an Earth Day events that’s just crunch time where I feel like go, go, go all of the time. I think one thing that I have found very helpful in terms of time management is segmenting off some calls and meetings so it’s saying, “okay, I’m gonna set a side these two or three or however many days a week, you need for”, I’m gonna channel as many as of my phone calls and meetings unto just those days, so those days are just back to back to back phone calls and meetings. But then you have other time that you can set aside and say “These are the long term projects, these are the emails, I really need to take time to draft, these are the presentations I need to put together”. On those other days, where you’re not disrupted by the phone calls and meetings, phone calls and meetings, which really I think throw people off where they can’t just sit down and have that productive time at their computer at their desk. Segmenting it off and being protective of that schedule, I think has made me an incredibly more productive person.

John S.: That’s really smart. I like that. Best advice for our listeners that are listening to you and say, “you know what, I just don’t want to sell wiggets anymore, I just don’t want to practice law anymore, I just don’t want to”, and you could fill in the rest of that sentence. “I want to join the movement to make the world a better place. I wanna, either be John Oppermann one day or worked with a John Oppermann one day”. How do people change journeys once they’ve started? A lot of people feel that “Ah they’ve gone down a certain role, they’ve planted themselves and the dirt’s there, they’re growing as a plant and they can never replant themselves”. Can you share a little bit of your perspective on how people can move their journey around to go follow something that really excites them as opposed to something that just pays the bills?

John O.: Yeah. I think probably the best thing that I would recommend to people who are really looking for a certain shift in career or moving into a space that maybe they care more about than their current job, it’s just talk to as many people as possible. When I was going to law school, I was determining sort of what the focus of my Law School time was going to be, and I, before going to Law School, talked to a lot of alumni at my Law School who were working in environmental policy and climate change work, and climate activism. They had gone to my Law School and used that degree to move into those areas and I just talked to them for advice. I said, “do you feel like it was helpful going into a Law School, how’d you get into this, like what is your career path getting to where you are now?” I think having all those informational interviews and conversations with people, in some cases that could be volunteering with different organizations that you’ve care about, having conversations about how can you support them, then you kinda start to figure out, “okay, where do I see myself fitting into this, where the value add that I could provide here” and I remember having those conversations, this is many many years ago at this point.

Having those conversations has a relatively young person coming to this people who are very accomplished in their careers and people were so incredibly helpful. People really took time to meet with me for coffee, have a phone call, really provide guidance and just advice and I thought myself, I want to do that someday that these people took time out of their schedules, they don’t know me, they didn’t need to have a conversation, I had no power, there was nothing I could offer them at the time. But I found people to be really overwhelmingly willing to help and just chat through whatever it is they do, and provide that guidance and I think that is really helpful because then those people can let you know. Some opportunity comes up and they can help kind of shape your idea about how do I provide value in this space like, where can I see myself moving into it.

John S.: I love it. That’s great advice for our listeners out there that want to connect to with you, John. How do they connect with you?

John O.: Yeah. I think the best thing is to look me up on LinkedIn, John Oppermann at Earth Day Initiative or go to earthdayinitiative.org, call or email any of the information there and the message can get passed along to me.

John S.: Shameless plugs before we sign off here, we have to say goodbye were bumping up against the hour and I want you to share anything that you want to promote with regards to all the great work that you’re doing John.

John O.: Yeah. I would just encourage everyone for Earth Day 50 to do something whether it is showing up, speaking up or taking action that’s kind of catch phrase we’ve got. Going into Earth Day 50, you can show up to events, you can speak up to those empowered by going to our website and contacting your public officials about moving things in a positive direction, or you can find out all about on how you can take action in your life. If you go toearthdayinitiative.org I would just encourage everyone to not let this big landmark anniversary pass by without doing something to engage around the environment in this really critical time that we have on our climate action.

John S.: You know John, I really appreciate your time today. I know our listeners do as well. I am always humbled to have someone who is wonderful and a special as you on the Impact Podcast. I just want to say thank you again for joining us and I want to share for our listeners that John Oppermann is living proof that all of us can make a positive impact in our community and in the planet. Thank you again, John.

John O.: Thank you so much! Thank you so much for having me.