Monday, May 14, 2012

Susan Stillman–May Treehouse Chat

Actors have The Actor’s Studio, the Redskins have the Redskins Report, and politicians have Meet the Press.  Now the greenmomster’s got Treehouse Chats, a once-a-month introduction to someone working or volunteering in the environmental field.Susan Billy Goat Trail (2)
This month, we’re chatting with Susan Stillman, local activist on environmental issues, particularly energy and climate issues.

How did you get interested in working on environmental issues?   Four or five years ago, climate change became very evident to me, so I started to inform myself on the facts. An old colleague from my Department of Transportation days came to me and asked if I would bring my sales skills to the advocacy of the Sierra Club.

When I was in college I wrote a paper about the politics of the tobacco industry in Virginia. It was amazing to me that a product that was obviously causing horrible health harms to those who used it and the innocents around them was still allowed and that there was big corporate money that was fighting to the death to keep tobacco as a mainstream part of our society. There are a lot of similarities between the denial of the harms of tobacco and the denial that climate changing is occurring and that it is human caused. It is disconcerting to me when the profits of a company are considered to be more important than the health of living beings. We will have other ways of generating energy besides fossil fuels. I want to make this transition happen more quickly than not.

What is your current job (volunteer or paid) and what do you like best about it?    My work is totally volunteer. I feel so privileged that I can do volunteer work, because it is so rewarding. The people that I work with are the best part of the effort. The staff people at the Sierra Club aren’t paid very much. They could have much better paying jobs as they are very bright and hard working. They are, however, dedicated to making the world a better place and for this they are willing to be paid less. The volunteers that I work with are incredibly well versed in various areas. Some are lawyers that are experts on environmental law and energy. Electricity, in particular, is very complicated. We have volunteers that understand the ends and outs of the generation, transmission and dispatching of electricity. The details just make your eyes glaze over. These folks could be relaxing on the beach or earning salaries, but they have decided that making things better for future generations is more important.

The issues that I work on at the state and national level are very long term, as the political impasse that we have reached as a country is obstructing our movement toward energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Community Enhancement Commission (CEC) in Vienna, VA, has the responsibility of making the town more sustainable. Sustainability is a very broad term, but it generally means that we leave a place in a better state than we found it, so that those that come after us can enjoy the same natural resources. The CEC co-hosts the Green Expo each April. We have made available, for free, devices to help homeowners figure out where electricity is being wasted in their homes (Watt Watcher Program). Recently the CEC announced a program to recognize home builders and homeowners that build or retrofit homes to nationally recognized energy efficiency standards like Energy Star (My Green Vienna Home). The CEC has already recognized 3 builders with this program. In the fall (September 15 and 16, 2012) we hold a native plant sale at the Community Center and a Sustainable Home and Garden Tour. We are currently looking for home owners that would like to show off their energy efficient homes, geothermal systems, rain gardens, native gardens, gardens that are protected from deer, and other interesting sustainable practices. We had 18 homes on the tour last year and it was very well attended.

What is your educational and professional background? I have a BS Degree in Political Science and Psychology from James Madison University and a Masters in Urban Affairs from Virginia Tech. Right out of graduate school I worked at the Department of Transportation and became involved in computer technology. We designed the first integrated office automation system. Moving from the government to private industry, eventually to Sun Microsystems, I sold systems to the Defense Department for command and control. About 14 years ago I became a professional volunteer, spending 8 years teaching English as a Second Language in a variety of venues.

What is your favorite activity outside of work (green or not green)? I’m an avid bicyclist and spend as much time as possible on my bike.  I’m also a member of the Ayr Hill Garden Club. I garden at my home, and I love to do creative floral design.

What’s your favorite environmental book? Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home”. As my sister says “that book will change your life.” It encourages you to plant native plants to create food for the creepy crawly things that birds feed their babies. Using so many non-native plants in our landscape, as we have done over the last 30 years, has endangered the bird population. It is so easy to integrate natives into your landscape and will save you work and money as they are meant to grow here.

What’s your favorite non-meat meal?  Cheesy Chard from “Recipe from a Small Planet”  (It’ll be posted on Meat-Free Friday)

What’s the place that most inspires you to keep working for the environment?  The White House grounds!  More and more people are coming to realize that climate change is really happening and they are speaking up for their future, the future of their children and their children’s children. I participated in the anti-XL pipeline demonstration at the White House. There were people there from all over the country and we surrounded the White House grounds many times over. It was amazing.

As we say thank you for this great interview, do you have one green tip for blog readers?  I love to watch my gas and electric bills go lower just from paying attention. Additional insulation really made a difference in home comfort and the gas bill. This is an investment that just keeps on giving.


  1. "It is disconcerting to me when the profits of a company are considered to be more important than the health of living beings."

    Exactly, like a few years ago some ducks or something landed in a settling pond at the tar sands project in Alberta, killing hundreds of them. The media and environmentalists went totally berzerk, they were outraged! It cost the company millions of dollars to repair the damage (if it ever did). Yet, every year millions of birds are chopped up by wind turbines, millions of them year in and year out. And there is complete silence from the media and environmentalists. Silence. Yes, that would be you.

    It is equally disconcerting to me when the profits of green companies are considered to be more important than the health of living beings.

  2. Hydroelectric dams? Interferes with fish migration. Fatal flaw. Wind turbines? Strikes birds occasionally. Fatal flaw. Nuclear? Nobody will bury the waste in their state. Fatal flaw. Now the tar sands, which I had not heard of. So, I guess all green energy is out. Back to coal and oil burning. Cough Cough.