Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monhegan Island Update

As the "real people" in Hope and Hard Times check-in, I gain new understandings of the obvious threads running through these stories as well as subtle backfires to what may have seemed good ideas a couple of years ago. Here are several examples from Monhegan---that small island off mid-coastal Maine with more than seven generations of striving toward sustainable living. These arrived in a beautifully handwritten four page letter from Kathie Iannicelli, a long term year-round resident I've known since the 1990s. Enclosed in her letter is a two page handout describing what Kathie calls her "developed dream." That dream is about food sufficiency on Monhegan. She writes, "After all, the first recorded garden on a Maine Island was a lettuce patch planted by Captain John Smith on Monhegan (in 1614 or 1615). In the past Monhegan has fed itself. My own developed dream of a future Monhegan includes larger areas under cultivation, small fruit production, orchards, management of existing wild apple trees, large scale composters, and farm jobs for residents. Out of this would come more healthy fresh, local produce (at the very least), more food independence, the satisfaction of increasing our use of local resources, reduction in the amount of fossil fuel connected to the food we put on our tables, and employment opportunities." Details, logistical and economic, are raised as questions for Monhegan readers (Could this actually happen? Is it worth a try? Who will do the work? Who will pay for startup materials? Can the initial farm be scaled upward?) And finally, do you know what you are doing, Kathie? The plan was to begin in this growing season. I have no idea what has happened to this dream, but I'm guessing somebody reading this blog will help me update this new/old Monhegan sustainability dream, one I'll follow with great interest.

A second initiative has apparently been scuppered. Investigations and extended discussions of wind power for the island ended up in a clash of values: solitude and quiet on the island (a value that year-rounders and tourists highly treasure) versus energy self-sufficiency. The wind turbine chosen to power the island apparently was way too noisy and the ideal site was within earshot of most residents. A second option---a University of Maine offshore deep water wind generation test site about two miles off Monhegan---is on track with federal funding. Some electric power from this site may find its way to Monhegan

Finally, what seemed like a fine example of living within limits in the lobster fishery has backfired a bit. In exchange for a longer fishing season in 2007, fishers agreed to live with a 300 trap limit (the old limit was 600). This worked well in the first two seasons when lobster prices were high and yields were sufficient. In the past season, though, the bottom has dropped out of the lobster market, thanks to the great recession, and fishers in the Monhegan fleet are having an exceptionally hard time making a living. Kathie writes, "Many do not fish hard (or at all) mid-January to mid-March, so sternmen (key shipmates of the captains) are hard pressed to make a living. Some leave. Those sternmen are often our next generation of islanders." So, sustaining a year-round community on Monhegan is crucially connected to the success of the Monhegan fleet. The next chapter in this saga is yet to be written, but I reckon that discussions about trap limits will come up again soon---maybe as "we speak."

As Michigan professor Thomas Princen writes in his new book, Treading Softly, the principles of living in restrained ways are quite simple, but the practice of sustainability in this global economy sure isn't easy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Rural Edge in Northern Arizona

Once a book finds its way into the open, you never know who might stumble upon it, process what they read, then, based on their own life experience and worldview, construct something the author never dreamed of. Such happened a few weeks ago when an email showed up from Dr. Kathy Hemenway from Snowflake, Arizona, 120 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Having read about the Malpai Borderlands Group and their efforts to stave off fragmentation of their rangelands, she writes:

While I understand the negatives in fragmenting large landscapes, and I certainly understand that subdivision of large ranches is not the right thing to do in many contexts, I believe there is a place for it and that is not reflected in your book. I think a distinction needs to be made between subdivisions that are at the edge of towns, like mine, and subdivisions…carved out of large ranches…in the middle of nowhere.

To be honest, Dr. Hemenway's distinction never crossed my mind. Her neighborhood, Cedar Hills, comprises more than 1500 parcels sandwiched between Snowflake and several huge ranches. Like many of her neighbors, she settled there because of health problems that make living in urban and suburban environments impossible. For people like her who are made ill by air pollution, pesticides, building and furnishing materials, and noise, "there is no solution but to get some land around you and get away from development," she says. Her non-toxic home was featured in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. She realizes ranchers detest subdivisions of her type, which she calls the "rural edge," despite the fact they were sold to developers by the self-same ranching community.

A new kind of conflict presents itself. Ranchers at the edge of her subdivision seek permits for large wind and solar generating facilities immediately adjacent to and, in some cases, surrounding occupied subdivision parcels. Such would, in her opinion, make such places unlivable and worthless. "Try to imagine fighting for your property rights when you own 40 or 80 acres and your interests conflict with a landowner who owns hundreds of thousands of acres."

She feels compelled to defend her piece of the world which, because of her health and her intention to live simply and well on her property, is not only worthy of protection but is also critical to her ability to be a productive human being. Across the fence are ranchers, with much bigger tracts for sure, who presumably also are trying to do better than live at the margins in iffy health. Ranching, risky as it is, often must supplement the cattle business. The new energy economy may be the modern equivalent of dude ranching.

Thinking about this takes my mind into new space. Here, in the least likely of places---the sparsely settled rangelands of northern Arizona---clearly different perceptions of the environment and of the values people want from it, as well as an imbalanced power equation (literally and figuratively), is leading to a showdown. Is it possible to find common ground between urban refugees seeking solace, solitude, serenity, and salubrious lives (who, by the way, have no zoning protection) and ranchers trying to preserve open space by helping the region produce energy from wind and sun? Without more information, I struggle to visualize how this conflict might be resolved. Yet I feel certain it could happen. If the ranchers and residents of Cedar Hills (and other stakeholders) could meet face-to-face, perhaps with a third-party facilitator, keeping in mind the place they share and love as their starting point, miracles might ensue. If such a gathering could be arranged, are there ways for people who attend to simply name and define the focus and scope of further discussions (not unlike the Israeli-Palestinian talks just underway)? If so, another meeting and another can happen. While working on ways to escape apparent impasses, people gathering in good faith might then build trust in one another. Once that happens, anything is possible.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bringing your smarts to community*

Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities---that haunting story of both hopelessness and possibility in late 18th century—with these so memorable ideas, put out there in binary opposition:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity ; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.

And so it is now---this epoch in which you’ve been pursuing excellence in your lives. On the one hand, it’s arguably an epoch of foolishness and a season of darkness and despair. If you focus on the ominous signs, it would be easy to conclude the planet is going through the worst of times---its living fabric is frayed, the climate is overheating faster than the Fox News rhetoric denying it, groundwater is overtapped, rainforests overcut, seas overfished, oil gushing into the Gulf. And there’s more than a little human misery as a consequence. It’s no stretch to say the global political economic system is doing its best sow the seeds of its own destruction. If I were a 21 year-old looking at these trends, I might also be trying to find the nearest noose. For a moment I want you to keep those thoughts at bay. Pretty soon we’ll try to move the conversation to seasons of light and springs of hope.

First, I’ve got to give you a bit of my backstory. After all, we are “fellow initiates,” no longer strangers, right? When you scratch the surface of Ted, you find the son of a street-smart first generation American whose Latvian parents in the south end of Boston gave him a good education that included a love of learning about other places. I absorbed some of my dad’s street-wisdom and global awareness and got help from equally smart citizens who were my high school and college mentors. I was not a top-flight high school student. I wanted to be a baseball player. But I couldn’t hit the curve ball. I got into my share of trouble. But I was good enough to be admitted to Boston University. I never considered Harvard which my dad dropped out of in his junior year. As a Jewish immigrant’s kid, he felt uncomfortable there, to say the least. He never, never encouraged me to think Ivy.

In my senior year of high school, my dad’s business went belly-up. We were in a recession like the one we’re living through now. Pricey universities were out of the question. I lowered my sights and went to a state college on the way to Cape Cod. The nearby beaches appealed to me. Tuition was $100 per semester. Can you imagine? With the family in crisis, I worked my way through that college, far more appreciative, I’m sure, of my undergraduate degree than had my parents paid my way. That college was a small place with no Phi Beta Kappa chapter. I probably would not have qualified. I did do well enough to get admission to graduate school.

At age 25 I found myself sitting with small scale coffee farmers on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya. They told me of their lives. I was blown away by their acumen and sense of the fates as well as the possible, their overall optimism. From then onward, I have never lost my fascination with the village-level of the human story—how, on the one hand, villagers’ dreams can turn to smoke as national and global systems smudge-out their initiatives. But, on the other, how resilient is this local level of the global system. Through the hardest of times, villagers I’ve known tend to avoid the seasons of despair. So, on my gloomiest days, I think of walking down the path to this imaginary African village I have in my head. I hear the sounds of children playing. I hear other people engaged in lively banter and women singing as they winnow grain. I hear laughter. And though this daydream is hopelessly romantic and reveals none of the hardships, my heart lifts.

Now back to Dickens.

Why would you, as young folk heading into a highly uncertain future take a leap of optimism and say to me: “Hey Ted, what about the other parts of that Dickens quote? These might be the best of times. I might be part of the coming age of wisdom. What I foresee is a season of light, a spring of hope!” And I would say, “absolutely.”

What I’ve been studying recently are communities, mostly not in Africa but here in North America, who are sailing into the future on winds of can-do energy and optimism by doing projects that are tackling pollution, restoring despoiled landscapes, building affordable housing, saving endangered species, boosting local food systems, strengthening local businesses---in spite of hard times, in spite of a grid-locked democracy. By taking the future of the places they call home into their own hands and by shedding ego for community, people in these places are building the kind of resilience I saw on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

So here’s what I think you smart and highly evolved scholars can do---no matter where you are, no matter what else you have to do: you can put aside ego, you can combat passivity and apathy, you can find community, and you can engage in service to make that community better. I know that many of you have already discovered the value of such service. But in the future---say next year---you may think…yeah but, yeah but Ted! I cannot do that in the midst of prepping for MCATs, LSATs, grad apps. And then after that, I can’t do that! I’m in medical school. Ted responds. Yes you can.

Sara Thorp is a friend and heroine of mine here. She is a medical student. She just took her first set of boards last week. She goes on to the clinical years this summer. In her two years of med school, she has made absolutely impressive contributions to her community, which, in her case, is our medical school, her own medical student community, Ohio University, and beyond.

It’s the “beyond” part I want to tell you about. Sara has been participating in an exchange program with Palestinian doctors and students. While in Palestine last summer, she worked in clinics in Palestine and even trained one weekend in a clinic run by the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights. Think of that! Israeli docs and medical students working in Palestine with human rights as their primary motivation. In a place of despair, here’s authentic hope. She told me a next step might be bringing both Israeli and Palestinian medical students into the mix. As someone who’s been on the ground on both sides of the border, she is confident things can improve. With her work, whatever may come, she’s helped increased the pools of good will and peace.

But my main point here is that if Sara can do this in the midst of one of the most demanding times of her life, and maintain excellent grades, I bet you can. If you want suggestions about how to put aside your own egos for community and thus keep the doors of despair mostly closed, come find me in the year ahead. There are dozens of ways this community can benefit from your dedication and smarts. What I must do, what you must do, is to put our hands to that kind of work. For that is how we can wake up each day and find ourselves in a spring of hope.
* Address to Initiates of Phi Beta Kappa, Lambda Chapter of Ohio, Ohio University, June 11, 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Communities of Hope Fund

On June 5, 2010, Rural Action, a non-profit dedicated to revitalization of Appalachian Ohio and I announced creation of the Communities of Hope Fund. All royalty proceeds from sales of Hope and Hard Times will flow to this fund which will be looked after by Rural Action. Yes, all! The fund will spend down rather than build endowment.  If we meet marketing targets, beginning in 2011 or 2012, in collaboration with Rural Action, I will invite proposals from communities like those in this book to seed fresh and promising sustainability initiatives. My hope is our grants will be used by communities to leverage other funding for projects that are likely to have long-term outcomes. To get things going, I'll make a startup deposit later this year. Readers and friends here can help by: 1) suggesting friends follow and contribute to this blog and my Facebook site; 2) putting notice out on other blogs and sites; and 3) helping us market: the more books we sell, the sooner this fund can begin to underwrite good ideas for community-based solutions for the coming post-carbon era. In time I'll also need suggestions about to circulate our RFP. Feedback?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Last Leg


Restoration was on our minds as we left that exemplary bookshop in Bend---restoration of our bodies and spirits. So after some good food and, yes, some spirits that evening, we set out the next morning to hike across lava fields and along the Deschutes River, then to the fabulous High Desert Museum, and on to Crater Lake. The drive upward to Crater Lake through an alleyway of 12 foot snow banks reminded me of the significance of snowpack to life in the west. The Visitor Center, buried under 20 feet of snow, was open. No light penetrated the windows. Despite what seemed to us awesome amounts of snow, we're told the snowpack is only 70 percent of the norm and irrigation systems in Central Oregon are prepping for less (or no) water in the coming season. Farming in semi-arid places based on snowpack plus elaborate plumbing is probably not the most resilient way to produce food in a warming world.

En route westward toward Arcata, the underbelly of the recession is obvious: people outside rest area toilets looking dully past rushing travelers with "out of food," "out of gas," "family stranded" scratched on bits of cardboard. I place some bills in the hands of a pasty young man of 18 or so in damp scruffy clothing. He responds, "God bless you, sir." His mate (or sister) sits in a beaten Intrepid, headlights taped together, presumably out of fuel. Grapes of Wrath and Dickens mix in my imagination. We find the same along the way, something I've never before seen---at least not in roadside rest areas. And then there were desperate, hungry looking, apparently homeless people hanging out together near motels and hotels in Crescent City and Arcata---both in hard-hit California. Multi-ethnic California also yielded this: Hong Juan Restaurant: "Mexican, Chinese, Jamaican, and Vietnamese cuisine."

In Arcata, Sabra Steinberg and others turned out a crowd of 100 or so at Humboldt State University with a nice book table just outside the lecture hall. The next morning we headed in a downpour into the Mattole Valley for the only event in a case study community. The road from Ferndale to Petrolia in the best of times is dicey as it twists and turns up and over the coast range, then drops steeply to the coast at Capetown, then up hill and back to the coast en route to the lovely Mattole Valley. In The Ecology of Hope we described this road as one of the most spectacular in North America. It has not changed, either in its alignment and breathtaking switchbacks and un-railed shoulders, or its rough surfaces. Unfortunately this time, no view on the way down. The rain broke just as we arrived at the Community Center, soon filled with Mattolians to hear the stump talk and update me. Flora Brain of the Mattole Restoration Council had everything ready to go, as promised, then a warmly generous introduction by Freeman House set the table ever so gracefully. I looked out on familiar faces of restorationists who deeply love this valley---people I have been visiting for some 18 years. My heart throbs for these good folk. Questions and conversation flowed about self-sufficiency, generational handovers, the marijuana economy, whether the restoration industry might put itself out of business (not likely soon), and the sad fact that only two coho were seen spawning in the Mattole last fall.

Donna dragged me away from many interesting conversations with folk following me out the door. Seemed rude but we had to race back up the twisty road to an author event at Northtown Books---another very impressive indy bookseller. Spectacular views this time. A small but highly engaged group at Northtown got right back into the subject we'd left in the Mattole---the rapidly changing landscape of marijuana production. In November, California voters will decide whether to fully legalize the crop. If it happens, it will likely drive out smaller producers and force the price downward. State tax revenues, however, could significantly rise. Mattolians would likely suffer.

The next day we retraced our route, still in clouds and rain, up over the coast range (snow levels down to 1500 feet that day-- just below the summit) to Grants Pass. Despite the wet weather, we stopped to hike in the redwoods. Less than 10 minutes in, a raging hailstorm mixed with drenching rain, sent us packing and dripping back to the car. Later, settling into a motel north of Ashland, Oregon, I prepped for my last set of gigs on this trip. Ashland, whose main industry is an historic and highly successful Shakespeare festival, got me wondering about the role of the arts in sustainability. This idyllic small town of 25,000, looks green and prosperous.

The next day, Pat Aklin, the geography program coordinator at Southern Oregon University, accompanied me to two classes on the main campus in Ashland and one in the evening at a learning center in nearby Medford---all attentive, all aware and wondering about the reality of a coming post-carbon world and whether places like the Ecology of Hope Communities might fare better. I believe they will. Pat, meanwhile, also an optimist grounded in the realities of grim environmental trends, subjected herself to three versions of the oft-given talk and survived to tell the story. Brave woman. A shout-out also to Cynthia White for sharing her overflowing classroom of evening community studies students in a very intriguing program preparing for the coming times.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earth Week

A whirlwind Earth Week in Washington and Oregon included three talks, three class visits, and four bookstore events, with some breakfast and lunch meetings sandwiched between. I kicked off Bellevue College's week of events at 9:30 Monday to a room full of wide awake people, mostly students, with excellent questions. At Olympic College in Bremerton later that day, while I awaited the onset of a talk in the rotunda of the student center and cafeteria, two students stopped and asked "What's going on here?" I told them. They said they had to get to a class but stood a moment to respond to my queries about what comes next for each: both had high ambitions---transfers to Cal Poly, University of Washington, or Seattle Pacific after finishing their two years at Olympic. Their ambitions were much on my mind as I gave my standard rap meant to engage and pump up students. After the talk, Charm Mello at the OC bookstore welcomed us and provided a lovely venue for book signings.

The next day, after my talk at Pierce College, Misty, a mom of twins, who works as a surgical tech and seeks an environmental degree, noted that her generation seems to be interested mainly in shallow things like watching football games on television rather than admitting the huge challenges they will face, like peak oil and global warming. She asked: How can we pull her detached generation into the fray? My quick response was to invite them to join you as you yourself help your community prepare to face these challenges. To become engaged in a community tackling sustainability is to put aside lassitude and denial, feel empowerment, and take one's energies and engagement to a wider circle of friends. Misty seemed intrigued.

Wednesday and Thursday were intense and highly rewarding days at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, long at the forefront of curricular innovation toward preparing engaged citizens. Here I was convinced that the checked-out syndrome of Misty's experience does not seem to apply to most of her Evergreen counterparts (though one Evergreen student in a class in organic agriculture said this: "What are we doing spending hours each day shitting-out 140 character tweets? Surely we've got better things to do with our time.") Evergreen classes I met were without exception sharply attentive and well informed. One young woman from Pennsylvania asked how it might be possible to convince conservative religious folk, especially those who see the end of times in different terms, that environmental challenges are urgent. I had no crisp response. But I did reflect on Fran Korten's story at our lunch with folk at YES! Magazine that the local food system can be an effective nexus to bring polarized and doubting people to bear on a common problem. Donna's response was: "How about telling these folk to practice the golden rule in their interactions with the natural world?"

What has so far made this tour uncommonly enriching and hopeful so far are dozens of personal stories of people, just like those in Hope and Hard Times, working on sustainability at ground zero in education, community, and business. Among these, Rob Viens at Bellevue College, K.C. McNamara at Olympic College, and Pete Kaslic at Pierce College. At Evergreen, I thank Jean MacGregor and Rob Coles for hosting us and organizing very wonderful meetings and classes. Thanks too to Nancy Parke, Stephen Bramwell, and Martha Rosemeyer for allowing me time with their students. Finally, let me share an example of an entrepreneur walking the talk in Bend, Oregon. Hayley Wright, proprietor of Between the Covers Books, a neighborhood bookseller, is valiantly bucking e-book and big box pressures by building her business to serve her neighbors with fast ordering, books her neighbors love to read, a bit of used book trade, and a slew of author events to keep folks like me on the road and to draw in readers in her domain. Hayley and her mate Troy were most gracious hosts as well! Surely a crucial part of a deep and sustainable economy are entrepreneurs like Hayley who see their role in the community as service and, in the process, win customers and build a successful business. So when you're in Bend, find Hayley!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bellingham, Washington

A circuitous route south of the Canadian border along the Washington coast took us through Semiahmoo State Park, a lovely little spit into Semiahmoo Bay with restoration of salt grasses, protected seabird habitat (loons and egrets along the shore), and a view of Blaine WA to the north. Farther south, as we headed toward Bellingham, a huge oil refinery loomed. Partially hidden by rows of deciduous trees planted by BP to screen the reality of an industry known to be polluting air and water, there was no way to hide the stacks, including two sending orange dragon-breath bursts into the atmosphere. This is the price we pay to tool around Washington. Across the highway, BP guys and their vehicles were up to something in the wetlands, obviously mitigating the presence of this massive facility. Maybe they were helping create a wetland equal in size to the one they'd killed.

At Western Washington University, in a class visit, I was asked whether stories in the book that rank lower on the sustainability scale were so because they still had serious equity gaps. Excellent question. What I can say is that unless the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged are narrowed, the journey toward sustainability will be forestalled. This is a problem on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and in Chattanooga where significant proportions of African Americans continue to fall behind. People were also curious about how to lessen the carbon footprint of a book tour like this. The concept of carbon offsets seemed fresh to some, as was the provider of such credits---Native Energy. I had no time, or perhaps did not have the wits, to say: "Hey folks, don't do what I do. Better you not leave a big footprint than to have to mitigate it. But if you must, never leave home without those carbon credits. Our hosts at Western, Professors Grace Wang and Bill Dietrich, were ever so generous to allow their students to beta-test the Earth Week lecture. (It still needs work.) Thanks too to Duane Jager and Christine Gibb, transplanted Ohioans, who generously accommodated us in Bellingham and showed us their progressive city. Their work here on behalf of Bellingham's civic culture and poverty alleviation is heartening. Smart, dedicated, inspiring people are at work everywhere we roam. Maybe we're witnessing Paul Hawken's "blessed unrest," a movement of ordinary folk who are finding ways toward a soft landing in these post-peak times.