SUSTAINABILITY? GROWTH? OR GROWING SUSTAINABIILITY?

12 09 2010

I recently read the “Sustainable Tennessee Agenda,” issued by the Tennessee Environmental Council and Tennessee Conservation Voters.  You can find it online yourself at www.SustainableTN.org.  I had to double-check the date to make sure it wasn’t really written in 1980, at the close of the Carter administration, when the steps recommended in this report would have had a better chance of succeeding.

I know people who are involved with these groups, and I know their hearts are in the right place, but I would like to ask them a few questions, like:

“Are you candy coating the depth of what we face for mass consumption?”

“Are you soft pedaling what we need to do about it because you’re aware of how little political traction this will get in a legislature that’s barely willing to grudgingly admit that the world is not flat and wasn’t created in 4004 BC?”

“Do you really think our knuckle-dragging legislature would go for even these half-, or more realistically, quarter- and eighth measures, anyway?”

Sorry if I seem kinda unfriendly, guys.  It’s just that it’s time to stop fretting about replacing the Titanic’s incandescent bulbs with compact florescents and get our butts into some lifeboats.  Let me count the ways:

They start out on the right foot, giving us a good definition of “sustainability”:

The concept of sustainability can be defined simply as, “no waste”. Waste is a measure of economic efficiency, and a simple metric Tennesseans can utilize to measure how sustainable our lifestyles and communities have become. We can monitor waste generated, or lack
thereof, to track our progress toward sustainability as individuals, organizations and societies.  Sustainability can also be defined in more complex terms that include economic criteria, natural resources and equity of access.

Unfortunately, the very next paragraph steps off into liberal la-la land, with its invocation of the magic g-word:  “growth.”

A sustainable strategy for Tennessee will position our state to stimulate a growing Green Economy and Green Jobs sector. The Green Economy potentially represents an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before. It is a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life. This strategy insures that labor-intensive Green Collar Jobs are created locally and training programs are initiated so segments of the population currently unemployed or underemployed can benefit from stable well-paying opportunities.

Initially, you might think a lot depends on interpretation: are they daydreaming about the never-never land of a “growing,” but somehow “sustainable” economy?  Or are they simply recognizing that our “green economy” is currently miniscule, and will need to grow to replace the functions of the “growth economy” as it rots like a dead cow in a hot field?  The report’s repeated invocation of “growth” gives me the distinct and disappointed impression that the writers of this report are clinging to the idea that “growth,” the cancerous destruction of the natural world, will still be happening in our future, somehow made “smart” and “green” by higher standards and new laws.

I doubt it.  The report talks of training “at-risk youth and young adults” to do energy conserving retrofits on existing buildings.  I got news, folks–there’s already plenty of well-trained construction workers with families and mortgages (or just the rented roof over their heads) who are “at risk” of becoming homeless if they don’t find work soon.  And the money for this project is coming from…..?  Sorry, we’ve got a war to fight, no money for domestic make-work programs.

But, if the housing and commercial real-estate boom, which has been the main driver of our economy ever since manufacturing jobs started going overseas, if that boom has busted, the only boom left is the coal and natural gas extraction industry, which aims to pulverize Tennessee’s countryside so we can keep the lights on in the cities.  Hey, nobody can afford to live in the middle of nowhere anymore, who cares what it looks like or if you can drink the water?  The report takes a strong stand against mountaintop removal and gas fracting–the idea of injecting fracting chemicals into Tennessee’s cave-riddled topography sounds like a recipe for nightmare to me, but since we’ve got a nightmare legislature (that’s probably only gong to get scarier), there’s no telling what they will approve for the sake of those generous campaign contributions.  I will stand with you on this issue, folks, even if I think you’re more than a little out of touch when you talk about “growth.”

Likewise, the section on solid waste recycling is…solid, calling for increased recycling and composting and an end to Tennessee’s bizarre practice of labeling landfilled construction materials as “recycled.”  Talk of composting leads to the subject of local agriculture, which the Sustainable Agenda, of course, strongly supports.

Calling for better public transportation, on the other hand, is one of those too-little-too-late platform planks.  Our entire infrastructure is built around the private automobile, and the result is that there are not a lot of “masses” needing transportation–points of origin, destinations, and times of travel are so fractured that it would be difficult to locate a mass-transit system that would actually be serviceable for most people.  And then there’s two other factors:  construction money, and the continued existence of jobs to which people need to commute.

The “education” section talks about the importance of creating a “no child left inside” program, and generally instituting conservation/pollution awareness/environmental programs in our schools.  They don’t mention the movement towards hands-on gardening as a school project, but I’m sure they would approve of it being in the mix.  Maybe they thought it was a little too radical to mention out front.  I don’t know.

So, I’ve been a real Mr. Smarty Pants about this report–what would I do different?

Let’s start with education and “green jobs.”  Through most of history, most people have spent most of their time producing food, or providing the technology needed to produce it.  We’ve had a couple of hundred year break from that, but the break is drawing to a close.  Farmers, herders, hunters, gatherers, blacksmiths, basket weavers, barn and granary builders, harness and buggy makers are the wave of the future…oops, no jet backpacks….sorry ’bout that!  We also need clothes, at least part of the year, and shoes come in handy.  Weavers and spinners and tailors and seamstresses and shoe makers will once again be important as well.  It won’t all be a throwback to the past.  There will be plenty of work recycling and repurposing the detritus of our current consumer culture.   And, let’s not forget millers and bakers, and the facilities they need to ply their trades.

But we do not live by bread alone.  We need to educate people not only in these practical skills, but in the expressive arts as well.  We are not “going back” to lives that are “brutish, nasty, and short.”  We are going forward with the cultural heritage of the entire history of the planet.  Gilgamesh and James Joyce, Beowulf and the Beatles.  Local manufacture of paper and ink, and local printers, will be important.  The internet will not be with us forever, I suspect.

I  believe it is not too late to create a future in which nobody needs to, as Thoreau said, “lead a life of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them.”  We need musical instrument makers, and millions of people to play, really play, those instruments, millions of people who are not afraid to sing while they work and when their workday is done, in millions of neighborhoods, not for fame and profit, but just for fun.

We also need to educate people to celebrate our heritage and history, to understand our triumphs and mistakes and our place in the cosmos, not to mention fostering an understanding of how our own minds work, and we will need truly creative teachers to foster this kind of education.

I haven’t even mentioned “the healing arts”…but I’m running out of time.

The “green jobs” future I foresee may not be “well-paying opportunities” as we think of them today, for the simple reason that there will not be that much “money” around in the future, but it will, in the report’s words, be  “an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before….a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life.”

We won’t be rich, but we might just be a whole lot happier than we are on the current treadmill.  Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll see you there!

Burning Times, “The Only Green World”





GREEN JOBS–THE HOPE, THE HYPE, AND THE HIP

12 12 2009

Last Saturday, I attended the Tennessee Alliance for Progress’s annual winter conference, whose theme this year was “Green Jobs.”  Now, I could use a job myself, or at least some income, and I have high standards about what I’ll do in exchange for money, and besides, I’ve also got strong  opinions about what kind of work is going to be important in our mid- to long-term future, so I definitely felt like I had something personal at stake.

Don’t get me wrong about being “out of work,” as they say.  I’m not “out of work”–I’ve got more to do at home than I can ever get done, and some of it involves real-world skills, not just running off at the mouth like I do here, but none of what I do ever seems to involve people giving me money for my time and effort.   They tell me that’s the wave of the future.  Tell it to the people I owe money to–but, I digress…already.

The first thing that was happening on Saturday morning was a little African drumming, dancing, and singing, led by Masankho Banda, “to help get us into our bodies,” as TAP organizer Nell Levin explained.  It was an enjoyable few minutes, once I got over the incongruity of boogieing in a former high school auditorium, but as I looked around, it seemed to me that the conference needed, not just for us attendees to get more into our bodies, but for more bodies to be present.  There were barely fifty (mostly silverhaired) people present, a fraction of the crowd that had been there the last time I attended, drawn by the bait of a talk by Jim Hightower, which, much as I love the man, sounded like a canned, one-size fits-all speech that he had polished a little too well…it didn’t relate to Nashville at all.  Ah, celebrity…

That was not a problem with this year’s opening talk, given by Ron Ruggiero of the Apollo Alliance, a West-coast based group advocating for–well, yes, “green jobs.”  They take their name from the original “Apollo project,” which was JFK’s push to put a man on the moon.  That’s the kind of intensity of focus, Ruggiero argues, that we need to maintain if we are going to transition into a sustainable economy and slow global warming.

Much of Ron’s speech was about, as he put it, “reframing the debate,” of getting out of the right-wing curmudgeon trap of equating environmentalism with job loss and curtailment of economic activity.  Green jobs, he argued, are a way to reunify the country, to regain our former global leadership in technology, and to reinvigorate the American middle class–he reminded us that , except for one year in the nineties, the median wage in this country has fallen every year since 1974.  He recalled the great transformation at the beginning of World War II, when the US snapped out of the last great depression and completely retooled many of our factories for armament production in just six months.  “Wouldn’t it be great to have a common purpose again in this country?” he asked.

The way to jump start this, he proposed, was through a bill now in the Senate, titled “The IMPACT Act,” an acronym for “Investments for Manufacturing Progress And Clean Technology,” which proposes to take $30B and loan it to small and mid-size manufacturing firms in this country to help them retool so that the US can once again manufacture things like electrical transformers, and stay competitive in the solar panel and wind turbine field, for example–guess who’s taking us to the cleaners on all three of these devices at the moment?  Well, he didn’t talk about that.  I’m going to try and just report the conference and then give you my opinion, but it ain’t easy.

“Do we have the political will to get this country back on the right track?”  He concluded.

Next up was Reuben Lazardo of PolicyLink, an outfit dedicated, as their website says, to

the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper. Such communities offer access to quality jobs, affordable housing, good schools, transportation, and the benefits of healthy food and physical activity.

He was advocating a national policy, implemented locally, that would make it easier for low and moderate income families to weatherize and otherwise update their homes to make them more energy-efficient.  “We can’t solve climate change if the only people who retrofit their homes are the ones who can afford it upfront,” he observed, pumping for a revolving loan fund for homeowners like the manufacturing fund Ron Ruggiero had advocated.

This, he said, is where we can do the most to “green” our workforce and teach marketable skills to those who lack them–by hiring and training local people to work on each others’ homes.

Then it was workshop time.  I chose to attend the “Sustainability Innovations” session, since I knew all three presenters and feel that innovation is definitely needed.  Susan Shann of Earth Revolution was the first to speak.  She emphasized the importance of relocalizing our lives–obtaining our material needs from nearby sources and doing what we can to turn our neighborhoods into interdependent communities.  She talked about the Transition Town movement and the importance of “energy descent plans,” a change in tone from the featured speakers, who seemed to radiate the optimistic idea that all we have to do is get our fix from renewable sources, and we can go on shooting up energy like we always have….but I’m getting into my opinion again.  Back to narrative, dammit.

Shavaun Evans of Food Security Partners talked about her organization’s work.  They are endeavoring to bring more wholesome food into school cafeterias and “re-store” some of Nashville’s several “food deserts”–neighborhoods that do not have a large-scale grocery store within walking distance.  On a more immediate and basic level, they are also encouraging community gardens and creating farmers’ markets in these areas, where it is much easier to buy a beer, a bag of chips, a soda, a pack of cigarettes, or a candy bar than it is to find leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, or even a piece of meat that isn’t soaked in salt, grease,  and nitrites. She observed that “faith-based communities” (i.e., churches) are already-formed communities that can be mobilized to organize around these issues.

Her mention of community gardening was a great lead-in for Sizwe Herring, of Earth Matters.  Sizwe has been creating urban gardens for years, and he was happy to talk about his work as creating both topsoil and community, as neighbors gather and work together in the way that we have organized ourselves ever since we became apes.  “Our goal is to get rid of lawns and create gardens,” he said.  He opined that many young people seem to panic at the thought of turning off their cell phones, ipods and gameboys, and stressed the the importance of teaching “unplugged” skills to childen, whch Earth Matters does both through its urban gardening programs and through “Kids to the Country,”  which gives a one-week immersion in simple country pleasures to inner-city kids.

There was time for a few questions, and I did my best to broaden the subject.  First, I asked Shavaun if there had been any discussion of using churches in Nashville’s food deserts as the basis for creating food co-ops, which would provide local control and help keep money in the neighborhoods, since chain grocery stores are, after all, designed to pump money out of the communities they “serve.” She told me the idea hadn’t come up, that they asked people what they wanted, and big chain grocery stores was the answer.  I was left wondering if ghetto folks even have the concept of a food-co-op, or worker-owned business…finding out what people want and doing your best to help them achieve it is the right idea, but maybe some education is called for, as well, so people can make intelligent choices.

In my stumbling, off-the cuff way, I brought up the change in culture that is called for when people quit buying package foods and start cooking with basic ingredients; the fact that we need starches and proteins, as well as fruit and vegetables, to survive, and the possibility that this, as well as providing the inputs and tools for large-scale gardening and cooking, was an excellent basis for job creation, but my effort to remind people of just how serious it’s going to get was mild compared to what another member of the audience, who introduced himself as “Earthman,” had to say.

“I live in Miami, and in Miami we get our drinking water from the Everglades, which, with only a one-foot rise in sea level, will change from being a freshwater swamp to being a tidal marsh.  When that happens, you are going to have five million people in south Florida whose homes and businesses will be completely worthless, and we are all going to need to move somewhere else.  A lot of us will be coming here.  I hope you’ll be ready for us when we come.”

That cheerfully delivered announcement may have been more reality than some people want to think about, but I really appreciated him putting the word on folks. It is going to get more serious than we can imagine, in ways we can’t imagine.

Next we broke for lunch, and after lunch we were treated to a recital of the poetry that had been created in the “youth workshop” while us older folks were getting the economic/political word laid on us.  I am grieved, but not surprised, to report that the kids are not alright.  Their natural childhood enthusiasm and excitement about assuming the duties, responsibilities, and pleasures of adulthood has been chilled by the realization that the world they are inheriting is depleted, unstable, and unfair.  Thanks, mom and dad, for this pile of crap that you are handing off to me….

Let’s take a little music break here, ourselves…

Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over

After lunch came another “plenary” session, again featuring speakers a generation younger than most of the people they were addressing. It’s good to see the torch being passed.

Julian McQueen, from Green For All,  was the first of them.  He spoke of growing up in California in the 80’s, splitting his time between the Oakland ghetto where his father lived and the deep woods and clear running streams of Humboldt County, where his mother made her home.  He didn’t talk about the main agricultural product of Humboldt County, (so I won’t, either), but he talked about how blessed he felt to have made the deep connection with nature that Humboldt County offered, and how he was brought up short when several of his city cousins, all teenagers, without prior arrest records, attempted to rob a jewelry store and all received long sentences in adult prisons.  They are still in jail, he informed us.  (We all know what happens to young boys in jail–isn’t a D.A.  putting a teenager behind bars with older men tantamount to child abuse?)  Julian’s social conscience was outraged.  After first putting his efforts into better treatment for young offenders, he decided that the thing to do was go upstream and work on preventing young people from getting in trouble with the law by teaching them real things to do and setting them to work doing them.

“We can’t afford to throw anybody away.” he said, and then continued, “Last year was about ‘Hope’  “This year is about ‘change’. Change is harder than hope.  Change is about nitty-gritty details.  Change pisses people off, because it requires them to–change.  But change is what is called for at this time in our history.”  (I may not have gotten it completely verbatim, but that’s the gist.)  He talked about how sure, they have had great success in Portland. Oregon with their program of establishing a revolving loan fund for home weatherization and training “disadvantaged” youth to do the work, but Portland, he reminded us, is a fairly unique city, and “there are a lot more Nashvilles in the US than there are Portlands.”  Something about its proximity to Humboldt County, I think….but I digress…McQueen closed with a quote from Albert Einstein:

“The world we have is a product of our thinking.  We can’t change the world without changing our thinking.”

Next up was somebody from the East Coast, for a change…Dan Leroy, of Green Opportunities, an Asheville, North Carolina-based organization that trains at-risk youth, as they say, in…weatherization and ecological construction….and yes, I know, Asheville is more like Portland, Oregon than about any place this side of New Mexico…but ya gotta start somewhere. Dan described how he had begun by getting just $7,000 in grant money and used it for some demonstration projects, which had been so successful that he had been able to raise $80,000 to keep going, and the project is now rolling along.  He brought several of his young trainees with him, and they looked every inch the “disadvantaged youth” part; except for their air of calm self-confidence, they could have been a police lineup.  Each of them introduced himself briefly (yes, they were all young men), and one of them put it in a nutshell when he said, “This is my way to change the world.”

There was another round of workshops on the schedule, but I felt talked out for the day, and took my leave, sporting a “Green Party” button from our table at the conference which the GP of Tennessee had, in a very small way, helped sponsor.

OK, that was the conference.  What’s my perspective on it?

Well, some of it was a little too based on hope, and a little of it was way out into hype, and some of it was genuinely hip.

As I couldn’t keep from mentioning earlier, I think that anybody who is looking to the federal government for a real solution to this is strung out on hope and a sucker for hype.  The Obama administration’s record, from climate change to health care to the economic meltdown to the maintenance of the American Empire abroad, has been simply appalling.  Sure, there have been a few nice crumbs here and there,  and a few great gestures, but Congress has shown little inclination to do anything but bail out them that already has, and Obama has consistently either lacked the balls to challenge them, or simply been complicit in the continued corporatization of America.  War criminal Henry Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Prize, too, let’s not forget.

And it’s not just that the feds are unlikely to do anything to provide genuine relief, it’s that the US government is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, which is likely to seriously devalue the dollar, as well as dry up all kinds of domestic spending.  The government has committed itself to pouring our taxpayer dollars into the pockets of the wealthy, whether through bank bailouts, military spending, or forcing everyone to buy private insurance, and there ain’t no slack left for us po’ folks. 700 billion to line the pockets of Wall Street gamblers?   No problem.  30 bil to line the homes of the lower classes?   Sorry, can’t afford it….we got a war to fight…whattaya want to bet that’s how it comes down?

What was “hip” about this conference was, first, the introduction of “transition” and  “energy descent” into the dialogue.  What was hipper still was the notion of putting energy into teaching youth at loose ends real skills, and yes, conventional green home construction and gardening are very basic to that, but they are just the beginning.  Well, of course there’s all that cool solar stuff, but, in my curmudgeonly opinion, we are going to need to revive a lot of skills that have been nearly lost in the last two hundred years.  Metalworking–I think that blacksmithing is going to see a revival, especially the reworking of already manufactured metal into basic things like pins, nails, hoes, buckets, pots and pans, gears, bicycles, cookstoves–you get the idea.  Woodworking, likewise, needs to see a revival, and I think we need to learn to recreate the many uses water power enjoyed before steam engines and then electricity  displaced it.  Water power didn’t just grind grain into flour–it ran machine shops, cloth weaving factories, and all the other nascent industries of the eighteenth century.  On a more modern note, the skill of excavating dumps and reusing the various materials wehave entombed in them will come in handy on this depleted planet–and, as feeding ourselves locally becomes more of a necessity and less of a quirk, many of us will need to learn how to butcher animals and preserve meat–although we would do well to remember the hunter-gatherer adage, “The best place to store my surplus food is in my brother’s belly.”

I don’t think we’re going back to a hunter-gatherer culture.  It would be very traumatic to lose the percentage of our human population that would have to die for those who remain to succeed at it–but we are falling off a cliff and I don’t know how far it is to the bottom or how we will land or what we will find when we get there.  I’m old enough that I probably won’t still be around when things get stable again, but I do think that what we do now will make that landing either easier or harder, and thinking in terms of transition, energy descent, and teaching our youth how to cope and adapt will make it a whole lot easier.

Eliza Gilkyson–The Great Correction








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