"In some ways, Indiana is the crucible of the environmental problem in the country." So says Jesse Kharbanda, the 33-year-old executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, a job he has held since December 2007. Kharbanda isn't prone to hyperbole. A guarded enthusiasm, a youthful vigor, an intelligent optimism, sure.
He calls himself an ""astute fighter," picking strategically where to strike blows upon an establishment that has allowed Indiana to become, by almost any environmental measurement, one of the worst states in the country.
So if he's careful not to "aggrandize the role" of the Hoosier Environmental Council by placing the battle for the planet directly on our doorstep, he can make a pretty compelling argument for the claim. (Full disclosure: NUVO editor and publisher Kevin McKinney is on the board of the Hoosier Environmental Council and vice president of its executive committee. Scott Shoger, though, isn't on the board for anything, at least that he can remember.)
Here's the math, delivered by Kharbanda with the ease of an engrossed policy analyst: "The U.S. is responsible for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and the Midwest is responsible for about 25 percent of U.S. gas emissions. And Indiana is, in some ways, the hub of the Midwest, in the sense that we're the most coal-dependent state in the Midwest, the most industrial-dependent state in the Midwest."
Those are sobering statistics, and a pox upon our over-consumption.
Thus, "Indiana is considered the most important state in the country in terms of winning the debate on climate change."
And that's why Kharbanda moved here, without family in the state, without friends in the area. To put his talents to the most effective use in ameliorating the world's ills. To help an established environmental advocacy organization more effectively address the basic needs of Indiana citizens: clean water, clean air, open space. It's a remedial project to be sure.
At the Statehouse
It's hard to love nature on a blustery day such as this early January one, the frigid wind biting through buttonholes.
Nonetheless, it's a time to celebrate our natural resources - Conservation Day, when the state's myriad environmental advocacy groups come together as one to informally lobby state legislators.
And it all starts in an Indiana Government Center conference room, where those with a weekday morning to spare have come for a debriefing on the key issues for this legislative session. Nametags arrayed on a registration table are waiting for the usual suspects, representatives of the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Citizen's Action Coalition.
Kharbanda speaks last, an unassuming and easygoing figure, with still a whiff of the grad student to his approach. He goes over the basics of net metering, which refers to the technique of monitoring how much energy someone contributes to or withdraws from the electricity grid. (For more on net metering, see: www.nuvo.net/news)
Net metering is one of those winnable battles in the fight for diversifying our energy sources, at least according to the Indiana Conservation Alliance, the ad hoc coalition of environmental groups behind Conservation Day.
Right now, Indiana has one of the most restrictive net metering laws, making it nearly impossible for factories, farms, schools, etc. to produce their own electricity from renewable resources and get credit for it on their electricity bill.
Bills in the Senate and House would make those laws a little less restrictive. Not that everyone might put a wind farm on their property, but the goal is to make it economically viable for a factory to run its own power plant - and get a little credit for the excess power contributed back to the grid. The bill marks a baby step in the direction of a more rational renewable energy policy.
Most in the conference room - an assemblage of citizen activists, seasoned lobbyists and green businesspeople - are already familiar with the basics of net metering. They ask Kharbanda to run back a Powerpoint slide or two - can you bring back those photos of the senators we're supposed to lobby today?
An underground tunnel takes the INCAs from the Government Center to the Statehouse, where it's also Arts Day, but that's on the north wing from the Capitol rotunda. The south belongs to the environmentalists, who have brought along desserts and milk (from Traders Point, no less) to lure in our state's representatives, hungry after a busy morning of representing the people.
But there's a distinct difference between the artists and the conservationists. On the arts side, one confronts the traditional mess of tables and displays - all the regular players, competing for attention, handing out brochures.
On the conservation side, just one display. Kind of a dull one at that, for the Indiana Conservation Alliance.
There are also eagles. Real live ones, but tame enough.
In previous years, all qualified groups were invited to share their wares, hawk their pitches before the powerful.
But this one-table approach is an attempt to cut through the noise, to avoid inundating the state's representatives with too much information, to speak with a single voice about core issues.
A new brand
Rebranding is a tricky process, especially in the non-profit sector, where even the notion of creating a coherent brand might seem to be a waste of time, resources, money, maybe even an example of an organization hopelessly infected by capitalism.
Before his arrival, Kharbanda thinks that HEC was a heterogenous organization, one in which focused academics worked alongside pitchfork activists on a patchwork of efforts that included petitioning and lobbying, canvassing and education.
So he and the board that hired him looked to create a more unified vision, one that's, according to Kharbanda, "visionary, optimistic, knowledgeable, prepared, collaborative, passionate, determined."
So HEC looked towards something that was essential to the Council but that wouldn't be controversial on its face, that could draw in those who don't fit the liberal environmentalist mode without losing that core of already committed activists. And what do we all have in common, regardless of what side of the political spectrum on which we situate ourselves? A love of nature.
It's a kinder, gentler vision of nature that adorns HEC materials - a simple, green tree, evoking springtime in the forest. "The beauty about the work that we do is that everyone cares about nature - they care about different facets of it, in different ways, with different approaches to how to deal with those problems," Kharbanda summarizes.
Thus, one might put the emphasis on the Hoosier in the Hoosier Environmental Council when advocating for sound environmental management. "We're advocating for issues that any Hoosier ought to stand for, because what we stand for are ultimately the fundamentals that any Hoosier cares about - health, economic well-being, stewarding resources for future generations."
Since 2005, HEC has focused on making the organization more Hoosier in another sense: by engaging with activists, volunteers and other allies throughout the entirety of the state, rather than just in the Council's home city of Indianapolis. The Council first attempted to expand its reach by establishing a network of regional councils, outposts of HEC throughout the state that would offer educational programs and technical advice on the ground.
The councils haven't been successful for several reasons, not limited to lack of staff support, lack of funding and Kharbanda's rebranding effort.
One former HEC board member, Judy Berkshire, resigned last fall after two of her core interests - regional councils and a grassroots educational initiative - fell by the wayside. She feels that HEC remains an Indianapolis-based organization, and that current leadership is no longer concerned about incorporating voices from throughout the state.
HEC also eliminated door-to-door canvassing in an attempt to better allocate resources, with outreach now being conducted via phone, email and other more tech-savvy tools.
Kharbanda doesn't think he's abandoned the people, though. He notes that HEC spends more than 80 percent of its funds on education programs, with less than 20 percent going to lobbying, as defined by state statute.
"That's because we have so many people that we can engage and gradually pivot towards becoming green citizens," Kharbanda says. "They may be slowly on the march towards becoming green consumers - being more thoughtful in their choice of automobiles or their choice of appliances - and eventually through engagement, in which we accept where people are on their journey to becoming green and provide them credible information in a way that really engages them, then we can move them to being green citizens, where they can make a much bigger impact."
Kharbanda says one success as a result of the new direction of HEC came in convincing conservative Republican state senator Dennis Kruse to become the sponsor of a renewable electricity standard bill. Kruse has land with good wind resource potential and has an interest in installing household- or barn-scale wind turbines. That got him thinking about renewable energy -- and the Hoosier Environmental Council was there to talk to him about it. The no-pressure, no-blame, newly-reconstituted HEC, with a personable, smart, young new director at the helm.
As Kharbanda puts it, when lobbying and, by extension, when educating the public at large, "It's about really getting to know these people. Focus not on an outcome but a relationship."
From Oxford to Punjab
Kharbanda, who speaks in outlines and carefully-shaped paragraphs but disarms his wonkiness with a conspiratorial lean and a half-smile, can isolate three reasons for why he became interested in environmental advocacy.
1) A love of nature instilled by his parents: "I was really lucky in that my parents really instilled a philosophy that education is not just about reading books; it's also about traveling. By the time I was a teen, I think I had traveled to about 40 states, and we had traveled to many parts of the world, and we were able to see a lot of nature."
2) A strong reaction to the destruction of nature: "feeling sad, appalled, distressed about the speed with which we were destroying things that had taken tens of thousands of years to evolve, like forests."
3) A realization that poverty and environmental damage are intertwined: "What comes to mind are the slums in parts of South Asia where my parents are from. It turns out that a lot of the slums are the fruit of rural people moving to urban areas and not finding work. And those rural people are moving to urban areas because the economics of farming got extraordinarily bad in a short period of time. And they got bad because public policy in places like India became really thoughtless with respect to how they were treating the environment."
Those factors brought him to study environmental studies and economics on the undergraduate level at the University of Chicago, and pursue a graduate degree in economics at Oxford University in Great Britain.
"At Oxford, I wanted to develop a more holistic understanding of ... of misery," Kharbanda explains, pleased to happen upon such a direct, emotionally-charged word to describe his journey.
"It was a proving ground for figuring out my calling. I knew, from high school, that I wanted to do something to address the great challenges of humanity. And I knew I wanted to do that as an advocate, and sort of as a research-based advocate. But there are so many challenges that one can devote one's life towards."
Those two years of soul-searching led him to the environment, particularly after Bush withdrew from the Kyoto process without, to Kharbanda's mind, enough pushback from the U.S. environmental community. "I thought, if there was one issue that would really make the biggest impact on the world's poor, it's really global warming. The poor already have it bad - I think over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Now just imagine what will happen with sea level rises, given that forty percent of the world's poor live on coasts. Just imagine what will happen when you've got changing rainfall patterns leading to massive droughts, in terms of famine."
So the Midwestern student, born in suburban St. Louis to an engineer and artist, started dealing with both poverty and environmental damage head-on after leaving the academy, by working for a start-up non-profit doing work on sustainability in Punjab.
"Punjab is, in some ways, the Indiana of India because it's the most agriculturally intensive state in India and it's one of the most industrially intensive," Kharbanda observes. But all didn't go smoothly, despite his family background and familiarity with the language. He became pessimistic about the possibility of making a significant impact there.
Kharbanda reassessed, and concluded that he could do better working closer to home. He took a job in the private sector to shore up his management skills, then moved on to the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. He deliberately decided to work with an organization focusing on state-level issues, partly because nothing was happening on the federal level during the Bush administration.
Back home again
It was a dark and snowy night when Kharbanda made his first foray as a professional into Indiana, filling in for senior colleagues who couldn't make a meeting with the townspeople of Fowler, Indiana. He was a bit nervous about being sent to talk with people 30 and 40 years his elder about wind power.
But our romance begins here. "I fell in love with Indiana at that point. People find it a bit silly when I say I fell in love with it because people our age can be very jaded about Indiana as being slow to change. But I was really intrigued by the rural culture. Even though I grew up in suburban St. Louis, I could identify with it because my Dad's side of the family are farmers, my grandfather was a wheat and rice farmer in Punjab, and he and my forefathers were farmers, too."
And not only was he enamored by Indiana, but he thought that Indiana might be fond of him too. "I'm sort of inherently a person who enjoys collaboration and I could see the potential to build a lot of different partnerships in Indiana. And I have this economics background, which I think has a lot more attraction here than in other states, where simply being a good steward can persuade legislators to do the right thing. Here business arguments have a lot more currency."
And of course, for someone who wants the change the world and save our environment, Indiana offers quite the challenge. As wonderful as our state may be, we're in the basement when it comes to environmental quality.
Forty-ninth out of 50 states for overall environmental ranking (Forbes, 2007). Highest amount of toxic discharges to bodies of water among all states, accounting for more than 11 percent of the nation's total discharge (EPA, 2007). Third in the nation in toxic emissions (also EPA, 2007). Sixth in the nation in road density.
An action plan
HEC's action plan breaks down into addressing our needs for clean air, clean water and undeveloped land.
Highest toxic discharges into our water supply? HEC's focus in the realm of water quality is on reducing the impact of agriculture, in particular non-point source pollution. One bill introduced this session would have required new confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to be no less than two miles away from water bodies and parks.
Sixth in the nation in terms of road density? HEC is focusing on a Complete Streets policy, an attempt to get the Indiana Department of Transportation to construct new modes that afford people multiple options for transportation (cycling, walking, light rail).
Third in the nation in terms of toxic emissions? It's all about advocating for energy diversification, via education, legislation, such as this year's bill on net metering, and litigation.
And it all takes - hard work? money? cleverness? a spaceship to the offworld colonies? Well, all those (except hopefully the last), but also, patience, patience, patience.
A five, ten, twenty year plan.
"We're taking on big challenges, and big challenges require big solutions, and big solutions can take years to carry out. Particularly in the kind of structure of the General Assembly that we have in which sessions are only three or four months a year, and where legislators work part time and have half a staff member working for them."
Another challenge is fundraising. Kharbanda notes that "with the tough economy and the elimination of our field canvass, HEC has seen its membership revenue fall quite substantially over the last three years."
Of course, some environmental activists aren't quite as patient: tree-sitters, Earth Firsters, those taking direct action to voice their frustration to the status quo.
"I don't have a condescending attitude about people who tree sit or people who hold up signs along the highway. The question I would pose to them is if they really feel they're advancing the cause. 'Treehugger' is said with condescension by the average Hoosier as someone who's not grounded in reality, someone not committed to classic Hoosier values of hard work and decency. If we're playing into a stereotype that reinforces the view that environmentalists are of these qualities, then I don't know if we're helping our overall cause."
Kharbanda is slowly working up excitement as he walks through the Statehouse basement, tapping on the study carrel-like offices allotted to the press, eager to tell them the good news about the House utilities committee's 12-0 vote on the net metering bill.
The Star's not in. And it doesn't look like his contact at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette is either, though he'll talk with whoever is in the office.
By the time he makes it upstairs for a hearing by the Senate utilities commission, he's glowing, excited, the hyper-articulate policy expert in his element, tracking down senators to brief them on the latest, chatting with allies about their next move. This is when he comes up with that phrase "astute fighter" that he thinks best describes the job of HEC. And he can see the future: first centrist Democratis, then the Blue Dogs, then Republicans.
Tim Maloney, a former HEC executive director and current senior policy director, plays Eeyore to Kharbanda's Tigger this morning. Is this a substantial event, this unanimous vote by the Utilities committee? "It's progress." Does this bode well for future legislation. "It's progress."
And progress comes slow. And the power remains in the hands of, well, the power companies.
This year's photographic directory of the Indiana General Assembly, a grid of all 150 state legislators that resembles the roster for the local high school football team hanging on a barber shop wall, bears a banner ad, above the heads of all the senators -- for Duke Energy.
This year's Indiana General Assembly, brought to you by Duke.
And Duke's logo has also been seen beside that of HEC's, on materials for global warming education programs that the two have sponsored together.
Kharbanda notes that collaborating with Duke on a forum to elevate Hoosier consciousness does not preclude HEC from taking bold action - including litigation - to curtail inappropriate behavior by Duke and other companies. (And HEC derives funding entirely from individual sources and private foundations, without any corporate or government sources on the books.)
If HEC were pulling punches, according to Kharbanda, they wouldn't have followed through on successful Clean Air Act petitions against Duke's Wabash Valley and Gallagher power plants.
One more contrast: HEC is currently considering lawsuits against major agri-business interests, but they're also collaborating with the Farm Bureau on education programs, including a roundtable discussion with large-scale pork CAFOs.
Still there remains the danger of the organization becoming co-opted in the greenwashing process, helping utilities appear sensitive to the needs of the environment without their actually making any substantial change in behavior.
Sustainable farmer and one-time gubernatorial candidate Steve Bonney notes that thereâ ™s a perception among some environmental advocates that HEC has become too cozy with corporations during Kharbanda's tenure. He qualifies that an open-armed approach is worthwhile trying, as long as HEC doesn't lose autonomy in the process. "I'm a supporter of HEC, but a little troubled by their new approach," Bonney summarizes.
For HEC, it's all about choosing the appropriate approach for engaging with different groups, different businesses. No one will be rejected reflexively, even if they're the ones most culpable for getting us in this mess.
And if people, companies and organizations can't be shamed into being green, there's always the economic argument; as Kharbanda puts it, "there are a lot more stakeholders who have begun to understand the financial benefits of environmental improvement."