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How a rural British village became a model for fighting climate change

Ashton Hayes developed a simple system to reduce emissions: build community, share success, and don’t involve the government

A long-time resident of the English village of Ashton Hayes, Garry Charnock would be the first to tell you that he didn’t look like an eco-warrior when he began promoting carbon reduction and sustainability initiatives with his neighbors. A businessman who drove a BMW Z4 sports car, he never gave impassioned speeches imploring his neighbors to change their ways; simply put, he wasn’t a "sheep-herding, sandal-wearing environmentalist."

But, inspired by a speech he heard at the Hay literary festival in 2005, Charnock decided to explore how he could make a difference, and whether his neighbors would join the cause. Turns out, he underestimated their enthusiasm. After friends at a local pub quiz night reassured him that his idea wasn't crazy, he made plans to speak about the issue at a council meeting, and found hundreds of his neighbors ready to join in. Charnock became one of the biggest promoters of a grassroots plan adopted by his fellow villagers aiming to make their small town west of Manchester carbon neutral, one that has now been cited by The New York Times as an internationally recognized "case study for the next phase of battling climate change: getting people to change their habits."

But the main thing that’s come from the effort, says Charnock, is social.

"We’re sharing a lot more, and meeting a lot more, and getting to know a lot more people," he says of the town’s shared push to be more sustainable.

A decade into its DIY plan, Ashton Hayes has become a cause celebre in environmental circles, an example of grassroots action that has mayors from around the globe asking for help and media flocking to the English countryside (CNN was camped out in town for the last week). The village of roughly 1,000 has cut emissions by 24 percent in 10 years with simple, common sense changes like installing insulation and using clotheslines, and used the camaraderie of reaching toward a common goal to help strengthen the community, all without tapping into government funding.

Curbed spoke with Charnock to learn how him and his neighbors devised a successful, DIY plan to combat climate change.

Tap into the right motivations

When neighbors began gathering to discuss the climate change plans, many expressed a desire to make a difference for the next generation. They didn’t want to leave a problem to their grandchildren and ignore a real issue.

But, more importantly to making the plan work, they also wanted to save money.

Charnock says that high-minded ideals are a key motivator, but anybody looking to encourage big changes in behavior shouldn’t forget the practical benefits. Concern can get people interested, but saving money—a lot of money, in some cases—can get them invested in change.

One of the best examples was the owner of the local pub, a longtime skeptic of anything to do with climate change or reducing emissions, at least until he started receiving $300 energy bills. After complaining to some of the regulars, Charnock and others offered to show him how to make some simple changes, such as draft proofing, and save some cash. The fixes worked, and now one of the fixtures of the community not only supports the cause, but is a huge advocate.

"He was a real influencer to everyone coming into the pub," says Charnock. "He even got the local football club to start car sharing."

You can’t fix what you don’t measure

Right from the beginning, Ashton Hayes made a point to track their progress. Early on, Professor Roy Alexander at the University of Cheshire volunteered his and his student’s time to take a baseline emissions audit, and follow up every year with an annual study to track carbon emissions.

Word of mouth is much better than expert opinion

People trust their neighbors and friends. Charnock says one of the key steps to making the campaign take off and succeed was relying on word of mouth. If someone did something unique that saved energy and money, the group shared it around the village, highlighting successes and whom to turn to for advice. Locals became experts in different subjects, such as insulation, and their neighbors would come to them for help.

"Suddenly, we had a village full of experts," says Charnock.

Lead by example, not by instruction

"One rule we follow is, aim toward harmony," says Charnock. "If I meet you in the street, and you thought this climate change campaign was a ridiculous idea, I’d say fine, whatever you want to do, if you want to help, we’ll chat."

Environmental activists often make the mistake of telling people that they can’t do, and delivering a negative message. Campaigners in Ashton Hayes focused on the positive, offering to help if people were interested, and keeping the common-sense message of energy and cost savings at the forefront. Building a welcoming, community-based approach pays off in the long run.

"When we started the campaign, people would come and say, ‘If I go talk about climate change myself, I feel like a weird environmentalist,’" says Charnock. "‘But you’ve given us the ability to try things out as a community, so we’re all in this together. You took away the barriers."

Have fun and don't take yourself so seriously

While there’s a core group of supporters behind the Ashton Hayes effort, the organization doesn’t have a typical leadership structure. It’s about neighbors gathering together, and often having a lot of fun. Residents make home videos about energy-savings tips and post them to YouTube. Others meet over tea to share tips for cutting down on emissions. Charnock says some villagers once took out an infrared camera to show people where their homes are leaking air (and energy). Everyone got a kick out of shining the light at the home of a local architect, who thought he had everything figured out, and was proven wrong.

"The key is having low key meetings and making it non-threatening," Charnock says. "It’s about sharing information, giving them a little publicity on the website, and bringing people together. It really helps you get to know your neighbors."

Don’t involve the government

The residents of Ashton Hayes didn’t keep politicians out of the loop out of spite. Instead, they took a more practical view. Politicians take short-term views, Charnock says, which run counter to the long-term focus of local climate initiatives.

"We’ve never allowed politicians to address us," he says. "We only ask them to listen and learn. It wasn’t because we didn’t like politicians. It was because they were only looking at the next few year and not long-term."

Party affiliations also meant that inviting a spokesperson of one party would potentially alienate those that identified with the opposite party. The focus, he says, is on the entire community.

Define a boundary of commonality

Rallying on rural village to go green seems easy. Clearly, however, this won’t work for a city, right? Wrong, says Charnock. It can work anywhere. But you just need to find the right size group, and tap into a common bond that’ll help them work together.

"Break things down into islands that have common causes," he says. "It could be based around a school, or a football team. Whatever bond gets people together."

Ashton Hayes may be seen as an outlier, but that won’t be the case for long. According to Charnock, they’ve gotten hundreds of requests from cities, mayors, and activists around the world for help setting up their own programs.