This spring I had the pleasure of speaking with Jason West, the Director of Sustainability for the City of Albany, New York, about his fascinating career trajectory and his thoughts on sustainability, particularly at the local level.
Jason served as the Mayor of New Paltz, New York for two non-consecutive terms from the years 2003-2007 and from 2011-2015. While serving as mayor he prioritized affordable housing and sustainable land use planning. Some key sustainability-related achievements included the installation of a 15 kW solar array and piloting a nature-based reed bed wastewater treatment system. He is perhaps most well-known for solemnizing 25 same-sex marriages in 2004— an act of civil disobedience at a time when same-sex marriage was not yet fully normalized or legalized.
In 2015 he co-founded the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance where he acted as president until 2020. This alliance worked to coordinate a number of individuals, organizations, and municipalities in order to restore the ecological health of the Wallkill River and its watershed.
From 2020-2021 he worked as Albany’s Energy Manager after which he subsequently took on the role of the Director of Sustainability of Albany, NY. Albany’s Office of Sustainability was founded in 2010 and is tasked with incorporating principles of sustainability into all of Albany’s planning and projects. Some efforts include transitioning 11,000+ street lights to low-energy LED bulbs, sustainable land-use planning, promoting cleaner public transportation, building up renewable energy and electric vehicle infrastructure, and retrofitting municipal buildings.
Without further ado, here are some highlights from our conversation.
The Three Pillars of Sustainability
Q: Sustainability is said to be made of three pillars: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. What’s one thing you’d say that you’ve done over your career to fortify each of these pillars?
A: A linchpin project for the City of Albany is compiling a community greenhouse gas inventory. Through this we have found that the city of Albany is responsible for 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. Somewhere between 20- 40% of our emissions are due to natural gas use, mostly for heating homes and cooking appliances. Transportation, as in tail-pipe emissions from vehicles, is also a huge source at 40%. As the two largest sources of damage in our city, the faster we can make the transition to Electric Vehicles and get everyone off of natural gas, the faster we will meet our reduction targets.
Partnering with ICLEI (The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) we were able to devise a science based target for the city so that we can work to meet the goals required to abide by the Paris Convention. That goal includes a 61% reduction in GHGs by 2030.
A: One of the central problems when I was serving as the Mayor of New Paltz was zoning and land use. Imagine a little historic village surrounded by sprawl and surrounded by farms: we had zoning laws that were thirty years old and basically codified sprawl. So, rezoning the whole Northern section of the village was a huge achievement because it encouraged more of a walkable neighborhood rather than strip mall type development.
For economic sustainability you can’t beat zoning for economic development. The better your plan is, the better your zoning laws are, the more your community will thrive. I think learning that lesson was important for me personally and I think that’s probably one of the bigger impacts I had when I was serving as mayor.
A: I would say that marriage equality fits into social sustainability. When I was mayor in 2004 I was arrested for marrying 25 same-sex couples. However, the law itself was vague and it invoked some lawsuits and was not a clear-cut case of civil disobedience. So, there is some argument to be made that what I did was legal and I stand by that. But, just having that demonstration and the press it generated in the aftermath resulted in new policies. Afterwards I did something like 500 interviews in six months. I was on all of the news shows, I was on Conan O’Brien, I was an answer on Jeopardy—it was an insane circus for me—but it stirred up a whole lot of conversations about gay rights and equality.
When I was doing these marriages in 2004 something like 60% of Americans were opposed to and 40% were in support of same-sex marriage. When I was doing interviews ten years later, right before gay marriage was legalized at the federal level, it was now 60/40 the other way. I think that the marriages in New Paltz and California and elsewhere may have helped to normalize gay rights for people who may never have come into contact with a gay person. I think that seeing their neighbors being married on tv and having those conversations made many people reconsider their positions on gay marriage because how can you fault someone for wanting to get married to someone they love?
To me this is an example of how things can sometimes change faster than people realize. I think we have a similar thing happening in this country with climate change. Twenty years ago I was an environmentalist and I was a green party representative who was mayor of my village and it (climate change) wasn’t even in my top ten issues. I knew it was a problem, it was bad, it was coming, but there are more pressing issues. And now, 20 years later, it’s the central piece of every environmental effort.
Q: What is a piece of state legislation related to sustainability or climate change that you are particularly excited about? What about local legislation or action?
A: There’s a bill in committee now that would basically outlaw fossil fuels in any new construction. That bill almost made it to the floor this year and I am hoping it gets voted on next year because I think this is absolutely necessary for our survival.
With this legislation we have the future taken care of, but now we have to deal with the past and how to retrofit old buildings. We need to figure out how to get people off natural gas without harming the poor. Natural gas is cheaper than electric heat, so how do you not spike the utility bills of those least able to pay in order to meet our climate goals? Figuring out ways to do that is a key part of the conversation now.
We still have a lot of things to figure out, but this legislation and these conversations are a start towards full electrification, and that gives me hope.
A: In terms of local efforts one thing that gave me hope was from last summer when we were putting together the (Albany) city budget. I had asked for as much as I thought that we could get from the mayor and the council for sustainability in the budget. All of that got approved which was great, but then the city council came back and actually asked for us to spend more money on sustainability projects than we had even requested.
The fact that we have a mayor and a city council who are so on board with climate change that they are asking for us to do more is great. There’s no conversation in Albany government now about whether climate change is happening; there’s no conversation about how bad it’s going to get. Everyone gets it and it is a consensus issue in the City of Albany. So, I think that’s given me more hope than almost anything else that the council has done since I’ve been here.
Government and Activism
Q: How have your experiences differed between working for the government in the different capacities that you have and working in the nonprofit sector? How does this relate to activism for you?
A: They’re actually not that different to be honest, at least not the work that you do. I think the main difference is that in the nonprofit world you are still on the outside looking in, whereas when you’re in the government you’re a part of the decision-making apparatus. Nonprofits work to pressure governments to move on an issue, but the government itself is the one that pulls the trigger. So I think being a part of that decision making apparatus is more interesting to me compared to doing the kind of lobbying that you need to do when you are a nonprofit. I do not think one is better or worse than the other, I just have a preference for government.
And as to how that relates to activism, I think they are kind of synonymous really. When people think of activists they think of a stereotype of someone at a protest with a placard yelling their heads off, but what I do in my job is also a form of activism. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a job that functions that way, but even when I was working as a house painter my activism was still in government because I was serving on volunteer boards and writing things about what the village could do.
I work at city hall in Albany right across the street from the state capitol. Every few weeks there is a protest outside the capitol building, and I will often go out and go for a walk to see what they are up to. I will stand near city hall, 200 feet from the protest and just have no idea why they are there. I can hear them chanting things like “A people united will never be defeated” or “This is what democracy looks like”. But, I don’t know why they are there, and the people that they are targeting don’t know or care why they are there: there’s no leverage.
I just think that the stereotypical action of an activist is the protest, but I think it is an ineffective form of making change, so I don’t really like the term activist. So I guess I’m not sure that I like the word activism because it means so many things I’m not sure what it really means. I don’t know what word is better, but I don’t think activist is the one.
Q: It seems you’ve been civically engaged for a long time, what inspired you to follow that track and how has your approach evolved over the years?
A: I don’t know, I’ve just weirdly always been interested in dealing with problems. I was five years old when I learned that styrofoam isn’t recyclable and doesn’t break down, so I annoyed my parents by putting my foot down and said that we couldn’t eat at McDonalds anymore because they use styrofoam.
Being effective with my civic engagement is something that I have had to learn in a trial-by-fire sort of way. When I was in high school I did protests against Timberwolf hunting in Alaska and it was the most ineffective protest ever: three of us outside of Albany airport with signs.
Afterwards, during the 90s, I was an organizer in the anti-globalization movement; I helped organize the mass demonstrations in DC and other places and got myself arrested a couple of times. In 2001 the anti-globalization movement was going really strong and was going to get stronger because we were starting to get labor on our side. Then 9/11 happened. All of a sudden, all of that energy and activism evaporated on the anti-globalization front to reform in the antiwar movement against the Iraq war.
When that happened, some friends and myself that had been a part of the anti-globalization movement were sick of saying no, sick of protesting, sick of yelling. Protests are fun, they’re great, but they’re a party and I think that we should admit that. They are a fun party to go to, but let’s not pretend that anyone is listening. If we want someone to listen we have to choose different tactics.
That is what we were thinking about between 2001 and 2003 when a handful of us realized that the (New Paltz) village elections were coming up and it was a small election. The incumbent and his challenger had always run together as a slate and they had gotten about 500 votes. We figured if we had the right slate for mayor and two trustees we could split that vote. If they each got 250 votes, all we would need are 300 votes to win. And that’s exactly what happened.
Tom Nyquist got 251 votes and Rob Feldman got 249. I got 326 votes and I became mayor at 25 years old. It really resulted from years of feeling frustrated by protesting. And, obviously there’s a place for protesting and a time for it: if your target is open to being pressured, like if it’s a local politician, maybe a protest is the appropriate tactic to choose. But, if you go to your local assemblyman’s office to hold up signs and chant, and they’re not even there because they’re in Washington or something, no one even knows what you’re doing.
So I think we were looking for different tactics and we happened to be in a place and a context where this path was open. We got lucky in that we did not have to join the Democrats or put in years of service for the party before we could run for office, we just did it from the street. From there, obviously the gay marriages were an act of civil disobedience and a form of protest, I suppose, but we also had a legal case to say that what I was doing was legal according to state law and that we should be allowed to do this and here’s the chapter and verse in state law that says why.
Local Government, Sustainability, and Climate
Q: Hypothetically, if you were to be elected as mayor now, how do you think your job would be different compared to when you were previously in office? How have the changes to the political landscape over the last couple of decades changed local government work?
A: The big difference is that climate change is moving right in front of our faces. There’s a level of support, at least here in New York state, that wasn’t there at all when I was in office years ago. NYPA, the New York Power Authority, is much more active on this front now than it was when I was in office. They have several programs to help municipalities make a transition to clean energy. I think I’m working on six projects with NYPA right now. Nearly a quarter of my work involves managing street lights. The reason I do so much work on street lights is that a few years ago the city (Albany) bought them all from the national grid and converted them to LEDS. That saved about 5,000 tons of carbon per year and about 3 million dollars per year in electricity costs—and that’s a NYPA project. We are also doing an energy audit of the 30 buildings larger than 1,000 square feet—that’s a NYPA project. We are going to be the anchor tenant to a community solar farm starting later this year—that’s a NYPA project. We’re monitoring our energy use and getting monthly reports on a building-by-building level of energy use and suggestions on how to improve it—that’s a NYPA project. The funding was just starting to be unleashed 10-15 years ago, but now that the problem is so much more obvious, there’s more funding for it. The fact that the state has reacted, even if it has reacted slowly, opens up arenas of possibility for local governments that are completely new.
Q: What role do you see cities and towns having in pushing things forward on the climate/sustainability front?
A: Well, I mean, this is where it all gets implemented: at the local level. We are the ones who have to grapple with all of the real world problems of the good ideas that people come up with. The state and federal government make legislation and fund things, but it’s always implemented at the local level. There are no federal building inspectors who are going to go out and make sure that houses are up to code and insulated.
I think a lot about the fact that more than 50% of humanity lives in cities or urban areas. The strong governments you get in urban areas, where you need to provide more robust services than you find in rural areas, are a means for cities and urban humanity to be one of the drivers of climate protection. So, I think municipalities are not the only arena of change, but I think they have the capacity to be a powerful engine of change in any direction. If we can harness that for climate remediation and mitigation we might just have a chance.
Q: Can you give me one example of local adaptation and mitigation, in Albany or in general, that you are excited about?
A: On the adaptation front, something we have to figure out is what to do about the fact that Albany is a riverfront community and the Hudson river is set to rise by up to six feet by 2100. What that means is massive flooding downtown where there is a lot of poverty as well as economic activity. We are just now starting to have conversations about what to do about this scenario. Now is when we have time to deal with it and we should probably start dealing with it before the floods come rolling in. Again, this is something that must be dealt with at the local level. I think the state DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) will have a role; I think maybe the federal Army Corps of Engineers might have a role, but there’s just not enough of them, so we are left to our own devices to a large extent. An example of adaptation measures that we may take includes protecting our water treatment facilities with higher and better earthworks— levies and such.
A: In terms of mitigation the idea behind Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) is huge, although it hasn’t quite worked out for us so far. This has to do with electricity production and procurement. In the 1990s in New York a law was passed that says you still have to get your electricity distribution from a utility: you have to pay the utility for the power plants, wires, poles, all that. But, you can buy the electrons that make up your electricity from anybody.
After this a bunch of ESCOs (Energy Service Companies) sprang up to act as electricity resellers: they buy it wholesale and sell it to the customers. What they do is they’ll offer a fixed rate for a certain contract term. That means that no matter what the market does, no matter what the utility is charging, you pay X dollars every single month. You know what you’re paying and this is appealing for budget purposes. The problem is that it is a gamble because if you buy from that ESCO when prices are high and then prices drop you’re going to be paying more than your neighbors.
What Community Choice Aggregation does is It basically sets up an ESCO for every residential account in the municipality. This would mean that all 100,000 people in Albany will be a part of an ESCO that is supposed to provide 100% renewable energy from hydropower, wind farms, solar farms, etc. Things went squirrely with the pandemic and energy prices, so we haven’t been able to go forward with it. But, if we can solve some of the problems of CCA, that’s basically a way to guarantee that all of the electricity your municipality uses is from clean sources: all with one stroke of the pen. This is a huge mitigation possibility.
Maybe less dramatic but more effective for now might be community solar. The law says that every community solar farm can only sell 60% electricity to any one client and the other 40% has to be retail. So they always look for one big customer to buy that 60% from them and that’s who we (the City of Albany) want to be. There’s a solar farm opening in Wilton that should be open by the end of the year, and so if we become that big customer, a good chunk of our energy will come from clean sources and we will save 10% on our electricity bills. We’re also trying to do a public campaign to get everyone in the city to sign up as well. This isn’t as fast as just signing up everyone with Community Choice Aggregation, but for now it may be a better solution.
Q: I feel like constantly working on sustainability and climate issues can sometimes be emotionally and mentally draining. What are some self-care things that you do to cope with this?