Today, I’m honored to introduce Susan Inches, a name synonymous with unwavering dedication to the environment. Sue’s journey has spanned over 25 years in environmental policy, making her a true change-maker. As Deputy Director of the State Planning Office, she spearheaded groundbreaking initiatives, from establishing Maine’s Uniform Building and Energy Code to championing Current Use Taxation for the Working Waterfront. Sue’s resume is a testament to her tireless efforts, including her pivotal role in creating Efficiency Maine, a state agency pivotal to sustainability.
Beyond her impressive public service, Sue chaired the Board of Coastal Enterprises, a Community Finance Development Corp with an annual budget of $10MM, impacting low-income communities in Maine and nationally. Her role on the Maine Technology Institute Board further showcased her commitment, as the agency contributed to providing over $100 million in funds to start-up companies.
Today, Sue continues her remarkable journey as an author, consultant, teacher, and advocate with an unwavering focus on the environment and climate change. She imparts her wisdom through a course titled “Advocating for the Environment,” inspiring change-makers at several colleges, while also offering public workshops on the same topic. Sue is a beacon of hope.
As someone deeply committed to a compassionate, inclusive, and environmentally conscious world, Sue Inches embodies the essence of Conscious Conversations. It’s a privilege to have her join the conversation. I believe her insights and experiences will not only educate but empower people to recognize their voices and potential for change.
When I contemplate societal transformation, I think about the collective responsibility we all bear. Sue Inches exemplifies this belief, and I invited her to share her expertise and passion to inspire you. I hope this interview serves as a catalyst, prompting each of us to engage actively in advocating for the environment.
I’m curious if your upbringing has influenced the work you do today. Has living in the beautiful state of Maine shaped your perspective and passion for your work?
I have always loved being outdoors—growing up in Massachusetts and then living in Maine all of my adult life. The earth provides us with food, water and air to breathe. This inspires me to want to give back to the earth, and take good care of it.
What inspired you to become an environmentalist and advocacy consultant? Can you share your journey and the pivotal moments that led you to this path?
One powerful experience occurred when I took a year off between my sophomore and junior year of college. During this year I traveled to Oregon and took a job planting trees in national forests in the Cascade mountains.
The Cascades are very steep sided mountains. It rains all winter there, from November through April. Our job was to plant trees in mountain areas that had been clearcut. What I witnessed there was vast clearcuts where the slash had been burned and the entire area sprayed with herbicides. Everything as far as the eye could see was dead. It was a devastated and depressing landscape.
Because there was no vegetation and lots of rain, the soil ran freely down the mountainsides and out to sea. In many places, we were replanting where tree seedlings planted the year before had died.
I didn’t know anything about forestry then, but I could see these forestry practices were terribly damaging to the earth and to all forms of life there. This inspired me to return to college the next year and major in Human Ecology, which is the study of the relationship between humans and the earth..
It’s interesting to note that now, almost 50 years later, research has recently shown that tree seedlings need to be surrounded by rich and diverse growth in order to thrive. Without the microorganisms in the soil provided by the roots of other plants, the seedlings won’t survive. My earlier intuition about forestry practices was entirely correct. (See Suzanne Simard’s book, The Mother Tree, for details.)
Can you share who you wrote your book “Advocating for the Environment” for? What do you want people to know about your book?
Advocacy is intimidating to most people. It’s a big, scary four syllable word that sounds like you need a law degree to do it.
But the truth is, advocacy is really about communicating with decision makers about the things you care about. It is that simple.
So I wanted to write a book that made advocacy accessible to ordinary people. You could be advocating for nontoxic lawn care for your apartment or condominium complex, for example. Or you could be talking to your town select board or city council about banning single use plastics in your town or city.
Every action you take to support the earth counts. You don’t have to lobby Congress to make a difference. Although you could do that, of course.
Advocacy is for everyone. And we need everyone to take action for things they care about. If people take action, together we will create a healthy future.
What is advocacy?
Advocacy is the art of persuading decision makers to do what you want them to do. It is based on relationships. Perhaps you know someone on the city council or in your state legislature. Or maybe you know who is in charge of your homeowner’s association.
If you don’t know any decision makers, you should join a community or environmental group that does. They can help you learn how to communicate with decision makers, write a letter to the editor, or testify at a hearing.
Advocacy is different from direct action. Direct action is when people are trying to draw attention to an issue through public actions like marches, demonstrations and events.
Direct action is designed to bring attention to an issue and build support through the media.
Both advocacy and direct action are needed to support environmental causes. Some people are drawn more to advocacy, some to direct action. Some people do both.
What are some simple ways to advocate for the environment? How do you empower people to take action?
I always advise people to form or join a group. This is because when we think about big problems by ourselves, it can be overwhelming. But if you have just three friends who care about the same thing, it can be empowering.
Who in your neighborhood cares about the trash on the side of the road? Do you think they would join you in a clean up day? This is a simple example of the way that action starts—by doing something with others that you can feel really good about.
What is the role of community in environmental decisions and protection?
Most environmental action starts in communities. In many cases, communities will ban toxic chemicals, or restrict plastics, or create recycling or composting programs. If enough communities do this, larger jurisdictions may follow.
In one example, nineteen Maine towns banned single use plastic bags. This created a confusing bunch of rules for retailers to follow, since each town ordinance was different.
So the retailers begged for a state law that would provide consistent rules for them to follow. The state legislature complied, and now we have a statewide ban on single use plastic bags.
In your experience, what are the most significant barriers to environmental progress, and how do you overcome them?
A significant barrier is that people do not know how to talk about climate change or other environmental issues. They are afraid of raising conflict, so they don’t know where to begin.
But there’s an easy way around this. It is to ask someone about what they love—maybe it’s skiing, or knitting, or cooking. Once the conversation about this topic gets going you can say this: Has the environment or climate change had any impact on what you love?
Then you might find out interesting things like the ski season was so bad last year that I only went once, my favorite yarns have become super expensive because there’s not enough grazing land for the sheep, or I usually pick peaches every summer but because of a late frost, there weren’t any this year.
In your opinion, what role can technology play in advancing environmental causes, and how can it be harnessed effectively for advocacy purposes?
Technology is already playing a critical role in solving environmental problems. Affordable wind and solar power are a great example.
Incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act and the Infrastructure and Jobs Act have increased RD on carbon capture, non toxic materials, renewable energy, and nuclear fusion. The Biden Administration and Congress have made a great step forward in passing these laws.
As voters, we need to let our state and Congressional delegation know that we support technology incentives by voting for those who have supported these measures.
We also need to remember that technology can help us in many ways, but it can’t solve every environmental problem. We still need to “clean up our act” both personally and in our communities and businesses.
What are the environmental issues you think are most prominent to focus on looking ahead to the next 10-20 years?
Climate change and toxic chemicals are the most dangerous environmental issues, with serious impacts on human and environmental health. Both have the same basic cause, which is that our laws allow corporations to make and sell whatever products they want without being accountable for the environmental impacts. This must change if we are to sustain human life on the earth. We must pressure corporations to clean up their act.
What is your encouraging wisdom for citizens who are worried about climate change?
People are waking up. Great changes are taking place as people say no to mining, oil and gas exploration or toxic manufacturing in their neighborhoods.
It’s also encouraging to see the recent emphasis on environmental justice—people are making the connection between race, poverty, wealth, consumption and the environment. We are at an important pivot point where we could create a future that is more loving, more healthy and more equitable than in the past.
But people must take action to create this future. Action at the local, regional and national level all count, because each thing we do influences others to do the same thing. Transformation starts with us.
How do you personally connect with the Earth? And how does this connection influence your dedication to the work you do?
I’m an avid gardener and grow flowers and vegetables. Gardening is a completely restorative activity, and I highly recommend it to every busy person. It refreshes me to spend an entire afternoon in the garden. After doing that, it’s much easier to go back and pick up the environmental work.
Can you leave us with a positive environmental story from 2022-2023?
One of my favorite stories from this past year is the creation of Climate TRACE. This is a free, online map where you can find all the major air pollution sites around the world.
It was started as a collaborative of ten organizations who were monitoring different kinds of pollution—oil wells, shipping lanes, agriculture, etc. Using satellite data and AI, the Climate TRACE system can identify and quantify air pollution sources around the world.
Climate TRACE is a game changer because there’s no longer any place for polluters to hide. In the past, we were relying on polluters to self report on their emissions. And we had no way to measure if any climate policies were actually working.
By having real time data on air pollution, we will now be able to measure and report climate emissions, and make climate policies that really work.
What services do you provide and where can people find and connect with you?
I’m available as a public speaker. I also provide trainings, courses and workshops on what students and ordinary people can do to create a healthy future.
My book, Advocating for the Environment, How to Gather Your Power and Take Action is available in paperback, e-book and audio book. You can get it wherever books are sold.
I have a monthly newsletter that reaches thousands of followers. You can learn more about my offerings and sign up for the newsletter on my website at www.sueinches.com.