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Preserving the Good Life
When a pond where Jo Lamprey used to harvest ice as a child rarely freezes over anymore, she knows something needs to be done.
By Kim Billings '81

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Jo Lamprey witnesses subtle changes in climate from her patio. Through the years, she has seen the winds blow more fiercely, the rains fall more heavily. Last year's eerie October snowstorm downed trees and left communities throughout the region without power for days. The high tide mark more often than not exceeds its usual measure, causing beach erosion that threatens waterfront homes in nearby Plaice Cove. The shifts she's seeing on New Hampshire's tiny coastline are hints, she suspects, of how climate change is affecting the planet.

Lamprey has been keeping an eye on the New Hampshire weather ever since she was a child growing up on her family's farm in coastal North Hampton. Back then, before it was a pressing concern—and a popular buzzword—living a sustainable life was simply "living the good life." Her family raised chickens and dairy cattle, drove Belgian draft horses during the summer hay harvest, canned vegetables, cut firewood and harvested ice on a nearby pond. The weather was an integral part of the daily routine, a steady rhythm of sunshine and rain, planting and harvest.

It was Lamprey's grandfather and great-uncle, Austin and Warren, who started the family business during the late 19th century—a business closely tied to the changing of the seasons. Lamprey Brothers provided hard coal, coke (a kind of porous coal), wood and ice to families in the Seacoast area and southern Maine. In 1934, Lamprey's father, Morris, added heating oil to the list. Ever since, Lamprey Brothers has been delivering oil, servicing and installing heating and cooling systems, and keeping customers comfortable through the year—rain or shine, heat wave or deep freeze.

By 2000, when Lamprey joined her brothers in the family business after a successful career in health consulting, the facts she was hearing were sobering: an estimated 40 percent of the country's greenhouse gas, one of the primary culprits in the climate change crisis, was coming from the residential sector. "I didn't stop to consider that things would change so much," she says. "But they have." Lamprey saw the situation as an opportunity—and a challenge. "I've had climate scientists say to me, 'Jo, you run an oil company. How can you grow the business without feeding the problem?'" Her answer was simple: "It's about bringing in more customers to burn less oil."

Lamprey Brothers was so successful in promoting greater efficiency that, in 2008, the company was the first in New England to be named an Energy Star Retail Partner. By educating customers about efficient heating and cooling systems, Lamprey Brothers helps reduce fossil fuel consumption, lower energy bills—and soften the impact on the environment. "The environment has become one of our stakeholders in the company," says Lamprey.

Along the way, inspired in part by Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth," Lamprey Brothers sponsored an event, emceed by Lamprey herself, that was designed, she says, to "begin where Al Gore's documentary left off." Panelists included Richard Trethewey, host of "This Old House"; Tom Kelly, UNH's chief sustainability officer; and Cameron Wake '93G, a UNH associate research professor who leads programs to assess the impact of climate change in New England and to reconstruct historic climate change from glacial ice cores. The 2007 event, called "This Old Planet Needs a Friend," was the start of Lamprey's engagement with the university, and in particular, with the Sustainability Institute, the oldest endowed program of its kind in the country.

"I was deeply touched by what I learned from Tom and Cam," says Lamprey, who last summer established the Josephine A. Lamprey Fellowship in Climate and Sustainability. "The more we talked, the more I felt we had to contribute something." Lamprey's gift, which supports a five-year fellowship currently held by Wake, is designed to promote more focus on the climate and energy issues she believes are directly related to biodiversity and ecosystems, food systems and culture. Wake is most excited about helping the institute focus more on developing solutions by working with external partners who can have an impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "Jo's gift gets to the real heart of what we need to do next," Kelly says.

Lamprey's hope is that her gift will take the nationally recognized work UNH is doing beyond incubation. "We need to begin modeling solutions on a scale where people can see a difference—not to simply sustain the good life we have, but to dig deeper—to protect and preserve the good life." But she knows a single gift is not enough. "We need robust endowments," says Lamprey, who has reached out to like-minded friends and colleagues. Her efforts have resulted in additional gifts to the Sustainability Institute.

It's not just the expansive views of the salt marshes near her home that have inspired Lamprey to take a leadership role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The outlines of her environmental passion can be found in early Lamprey Brothers company records, meticulously recorded since the 1870s, and in her own childhood memories of harvesting blocks of ice—18 inches thick—on a nearby pond. Some winters, she recalls, ice could be harvested twice. Today, she notes, the pond barely freezes over.

Lamprey thinks it's not too much to hope for that one day her nieces' and nephews' children may experience an old-fashioned New Hampshire winter and be able to skate on the pond, as she once did long ago. "Supporting work that UNH does in the area of climate change and sustainability," she says, "is our best hope."

Watch a video featuring Jo and others at "This Old Planet Needs a Friend," a lively interactive event on solutions to our multiple energy problems, lead by Richard Trethewey from "This Old House."

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