Thoughts following Midwest Powershift

I spent the weekend at Midwest Powershift in Cleveland. Among the rallies, trainings, and speeches, I was able to catch some downtime with fellow Summer of Solutions program leaders and participants from around the Midwest. Especially valuable was a conversation I had with members of other Midwestern programs on Saturday night.

500 young people applaud Joshua Kahn Russell's keynote poem at Midwest Powershift in Cleveland. Photo credit Ben Hejkal.

This conversation helped me articulate two things: one, the “good environmentalists vs. the evil polluters” framing I saw a lot of other places during the conference makes me deeply uncomfortable, and two, if the green economy is going to work it needs to be the whole economy, not a side industry.

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Reclaiming prosperity

“…it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer…”

James E. McWilliams “Food that Travels Well” The New York Times August 6, 2007

Say what?  I thought better of you, NYT.  While McWilliams does raise some valid points, this mentality falls short in two major ways.  His assumptions mirror outlooks about sustainability I have often encountered which also apply to clothing, building practices, transportation and more.  Good thing there are Solutionaries on the case.

1)      This view doesn’t look far enough back.  Transportation of food over long distances is a relatively recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things.  There was a time when everyone ate food that was more or less local.  Then refrigerated transportation happened, and the industrial revolution and agri-business squeezing out small farmers and before you know it, local is a novelty.  This all happened in the course of a century or two.  Is inertia so strong we can’t get back to this way of living? Judging from past moments in history, such as WWII when many Americans started Victory gardens, I beg to differ.

2)      It doesn’t look far enough ahead.  Oil is what fuels our transportation system and alternatives like corn ethanol aren’t looking so hot.  Oil is running out, and fast.  Since 1968, the world has been using more oil than it has discovered.  Just this month after a cabinet meeting, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah answered a Zawya Dow Jones Newswires reporter’s question: “I told them [the cabinet] that I have ordered a halt to all oil explorations so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors, God willing.”[1]

One projection of peak oil from

McWilliams doesn’t think about all the subsidies that have made oranges and coffee beans in New York City cheaper than swiss chard from a Hudson Valley farmer. The subsidies and the artificially suppressed cost of gas for transportation all create a false sense of economy in far-flung production.  When the U.S. starts paying an arm and a leg for the last dregs of oil fields, local won’t look so much like a “choice”.

A big part of being solutionary to me is a type of long-term thinking that McWilliams sorely lacks.  I’m not just in this for my generation.  If I were I might focus on R & D of energy resource extraction.  And I’m not just in it for my kid’s generation.  I’m in it to figure out a way that humans can co-exist on this earth alongside all the other species we haven’t wiped out yet, indefinitely.  This takes looking way back in the past before looking too far into the future.  Humans have lived without fossil fuels for all of our history except the tiny blip of the last two centuries.  I’m not saying we have to go back to the Stone Age, just that the Earth can support a human population that doesn’t suck it dry.

One of my neighbors kept apples and potatoes all through last winter in her basement, no fossil fuels required.  Local apples in a Minnesota February; it can be done, no science degree required.  I’ve spun and knitted wool from Maryland sheep into hats and mittens that never left their state of origin in production or use.  I joined St Paul high school youth, the Lily Springs Farm crew and other Solutionaries working on a natural fence in Wisconsin this past weekend.  Just pine trees, brush and some hard labor will keep rabbits out of the crops.   Summer of Solutions is helping Sibley Bike Depot get bikes to people so they can get around without fossil fuels.

Natural building at Lily Springs Farm

And what’s so beautiful to me is these changes feel like anything but sacrifices.  It’s taking our future out of the hands of corporations, institutions and bureaucrats and into our own hands.  To me, being Solutionary means transforming the world so my life is more prosperous than it ever could be in our current, broken and unjust system.


Creating the Space for Solutions

-from Summer of Solutions Omaha organizer and Midwesterner extraordinaire: Lance Brisbois-

Creating the Space…

This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the Omaha Summer of Solutions program. The Summer of Solutions began in the summer of 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota by an ambitious group of student environmental activists. Being from the greater Omaha area, I decided that I would love to get involved with something like that in Omaha for summer 2009. Planning began many months in advance and became a very inclusive process with anyone who wanted to help out…either from a distance or on the ground. Dozens of people expressed interest in the program. The possibilities seemed endless—we could work on energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation, local food, building community, and myriad other sustainability-based initiatives.

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…the Only Thing That Could Have Happened

Almost 3 months to the day since I arrived back home in Omaha, NE from school out East and started working on the Summer of Solutions Omaha with my great friends Lance, Tyler and Matt. I was a wide eyed visionary, believing I would change the face of my fair city with my bold and organized climate activism. I believed I would engage hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens and neighbors, empower them to create real climate solutions and establish a kick ass organization that would have me leaving the summer wiping my hands on my jeans, brushing my shoulders off and whistling dixie at having solved climate issues in Omaha. I expected to hop on a plane to head back east at the end of the summer and see solar panels on every roof, smile at the wind turbine production factory in low income North Omaha and notice waves of native prairie grass being grown for sustainable bio-fuel production. In short, I expected to make the sort of drastic changes that usually take years if not decades.

Needless to say this didn’t happen. But a lot of things did happen. Continue reading