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Cherry Hill’s green pioneer opts to change with the climate

"Sustainability is a household word now," Caren Kaufman told me above the festive din of Sustainable Cherry Hill's rebranding party. "In the beginning, it wasn't."

Board president Ed Cohen speaks during a party to launch the new Sustainable South Jersey at the Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Somerdale, N.J., Dec. 4.
Board president Ed Cohen speaks during a party to launch the new Sustainable South Jersey at the Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Somerdale, N.J., Dec. 4.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

After a decade of educating and encouraging folks to think globally and act locally, Sustainable Cherry Hill is rebranding, rebooting, and refocusing its mission. A launch party set the tone.

“Sustainability is a household word now,” Caren Kaufman told me over the festive din of Sustainable Cherry Hill’s rebranding party. “In the beginning, it wasn’t.”

Kaufman is right: I used to give little thought to stuff like plastic bags and water bottles, and I credit my ongoing attempts to curtail habitual overuse of these handy but environmentally problematic items to groups like hers.

But a decade after the influential Cherry Hill nonprofit began to educate and connect suburbanites concerned about the environment, attendance at events had fallen off and stalwart volunteers were burning out. So longtime members like Kaufman and newcomers like Jonny Sorber gathered at the green-minded Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Somerdale recently to celebrate the organization’s new name: Sustainable South Jersey.

Since 2008, the political climate certainly has changed, the planetary climate continues to change, and a rebranding — as well as fresh volunteers, a new grant program and a more focused mission — should help ensure the organization's vitality, said board president Ed Cohen, of Mount Laurel.

“The urgency is increasing,” Cohen said. "I was mentored as I learned about sustainability, and I want to make sure others have the opportunity to learn and be motivated to take action.”

Officials in some of the 82 towns in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties where local governments have established sustainability programs were mentored by Sustainable Cherry Hill or its members. So the time is right to make the independent group’s long-standing regional approach official, said Cohen.

He also told the nearly 100 people attending the brewery bash that Sustainable South Jersey will continue the popular Earth Festival at Cherry Hill's Croft Farm in 2019. With good reason: The popular annual event, which I enjoyed on a beautiful Saturday afternoon last spring, helped raise money to establish a $20,000 fund for the new grant program.

Qualified organizations or individuals can apply for up to $5,000.

“We’re looking to fund action-oriented projects,” said Kaufman, who lives in Collingswood. “We’re looking for projects that people or organizations just need some seed funding to get started, such as building a rain garden, or an initiative to get single-use plastics out of a school. We want people to take action, not just talk about it, or listen to more talks about it.”

Randall Solomon, executive director of Sustainable Jersey — the statewide organization that certifies municipal “green teams” and sustainability programs — called Cherry Hill’s move a “plus” for the cause.

Since Sustainable Jersey was established in 2009, 448 of the state’s 565 municipalities have chosen to participate. Nearly half of the state’s 691 school districts, and 818 individual schools, also have signed up, and in return have access to training programs and other incentives to implement environmentally friendly projects, practices, and community education programs and events.

“Our program is structured in a way that we’re not competing with anyone,” Solomon, a Middlesex County resident, said. “We need all the help we can get at the local level."

Some of those attending the launch party said they’re discouraged (“demoralized,” said Kaufman) about President Trump’s crude attacks on the scientific consensus that human activity is changing the global climate for the worse.

There’s also his administration’s enthusiastic attention to the wish lists of the fossil fuel industry to contend with. Even a super-progressive friend of mine told me we have little choice but to accept that global corporations will do whatever it takes to extract and sell every last drop.

"Things do look really bleak, and the more you know the bleaker it looks,” said Lori Braunstein, who founded Sustainable Cherry Hill and was its public face and prime mover for many years. She now lives in Philadelphia and is the outreach coordinator of a national advocacy network called the Environmental Leadership Program.

“It’s really easy to go from not being aware, to crossing right over into empowerment, to throwing our hands up and saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do. I’m just one person,' ” Braunstein said.

“People feel completely overwhelmed when it comes to climate change,” said Mary Connor, a Sustainable South Jersey board member who lives in Cherry Hill.

No wonder: There’s fierce pushback against moves to restrict or impose fees on single-use plastic bags in New Jersey.

Nationally, exposés about the limited usefulness of recycling, once touted as something everyone can do to help, have made separating one’s discarded containers seem less meaningful, if not less virtuous. And progressive writers are questioning the notion that even the collective millions of individual acts — aside from voting — can ever make enough of a difference.

But like Cohen, Kaufman, and Connor, Braunstein said the collaborative and regional approach being taken by Sustainable South Jersey makes sense and is in keeping with the spirit that has long animated the sustainability movement.

“The idea was to connect sustainability to something people already care about,” she said. "I was a suburban mom from Cherry Hill, and that’s what motivated me."

Jonny Sorber, the newcomer at the launch party who said he is eager to get involved with Sustainable South Jersey, is also a newly minted registered nurse and the proud father of a two-month-old.

So he’s rather clear about his motivation.

His son Odin, Sorber said, “needs to live in this country.”