14 07 2019

As long-time readers of this blog know, I ran for an at-large seat on the Metro Nashville Council in 2015, mostly in an effort to publicize the long-term concerns I express. I received a couple of thousand votes and came in second to last. I said I’d be back, but when this election cycle came around, I didn’t file papers to run, for several reasons. First, somebody asked me to run last time, and nobody asked this time. Second, as I ran last time and got a better understanding of what was involved, it seemed that, if I ran again, I would have to run with the pledge that I would hire somebody as a legal consultant to help me translate my somewhat radical proposals into Legalese, the language in which our governments do business. From there, I concluded that it would be more efficient, and more credible to the voting public, if I, or the “we” that constitutes the local Green Party, simply found a lawyer who shared my/our values, and offered to help her or his campaign. And that’s as far as that got.

A few weeks ago, after attending a Mayoral candidates’ forum in which my concerns for Nashville’s long-term stability were not addressed, I wrote the following letter to all four major Mayoral candidates, and to the ten at-large council candidates I think have the best chance of winning. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Candidate:

I ran for at-large Metro Council in the last election. For a variety of reasons, I’m not in the race this time, but I still have the concerns I ran on four years ago, and I am still writing my blog and doing my radio show, and that is why I am writing you now. I would like to hear from you about “my issues,” and I would like to share your response (and comment on it) as my next radio show/blog post, which will air/be published in mid-July, so I am also asking your permission to publish your response. If I need to do any editing/condensing, I will share my proposed edit with you, to make sure that I have preserved your intentions. Here’s what I’m asking:

The way I see it, Nashville is currently enjoying an extraordinarily prosperous period, especially compared to a great many other cities in this country, and regions of the world. However, the same crises that have overtaken them loom over us—a runaway climate crisis, an increasingly fragile national economy, and the rapidly approaching exhaustion of many of the material resources our civilization depends on, from fossil fuels to rare earth metals to fish, forests, fertile soil, and clean water. To what extent do these factors inform your political agenda?

To what extent do you share my concerns? What do you think the city should, could, or is likely to do in response to them?

Thank you for your time and attention.

No mayoral candidate wrote me back, although Facebook Messenger informed me that John Ray Clemmons opened my letter–at 7:30 in the morning. I hope that some day we will find out that it served as a wake up call for him.

I did better with the council races, with six responses to ten letters sent. Three of the candidates who didn’t respond are the ones who are generally identified as Republicans, although technically Metro Council races are non-partisan. The fourth non-responder was Gicola Lane, one of the organizers behind the initiative that established a Police Review Board here in Nashville.

I can understand why a political candidate would be inclined to handle my questions very gingerly. Al Gore nailed it when he called climate change “an inconvenient truth.” It’s easy to see human history as an increasingly rapid spiral into greater wealth and technological complexity. By and large, people don’t want to imagine that things might move some other way– a spiral of decreasing resources, complexity, and expectations. As Bill Clinton is rumoured to have said, “Nobody ever got elected by promising the American people less.” When Winston Churchill told the British people, “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil, and tears,” he wasn’t running for office, he had just been elected, and the Germans were taking over Europe and saturation-bombing Britain as a prelude to invasion.

It’s difficult to get people to see that we are in a “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” situation with climate change. Instead of an invading army, we are threatened by the way our own actions are skewing the planet’s climate into a “normal” that is far less human-friendly than the climate in which we have evolved as a species. So far, for most Americans, that change is nibbling at daily life, rather than devouring it wholesale, and so, for most of us in America, and especially here in Nashville, it is possible to live as if nothing has changed or is going to change. City election issues can be restricted to budgets and taxes,  infrastructure, zoning, education, policing, and similar daily life issues. These mundane issues offer almost infinite details to keep us occupied and keep us from looking at the longer-term questions I have been asking. When our community governments do address these questions, they will tend to do so in the context of the short-term, daily-life issues they are used to dealing with. With that in mind, let’s go through the responses I received, with some commentary from me, and then I will suggest a few things the city could do that would tend to steer the city, just as it is, into an entity that is better prepared to deal with the financial and material shortages and extreme weather events that we are likely to see in the mid-term future.

While David Briley did not reply to my letter, he wrote this in a recent mayoral newsletter:

We are so fortunate to live among Nashville’s rolling hills and winding waterways and to have ample opportunities to enjoy them up close for recreation and exercise. But we can’t stop working to preserve green space as the city continues to grow and develop. That’s why we plan to acquire 789 acres in Bells Bend and add them to our excellent parks and greenways system.

This land has great potential for food production and Metro’s sustainability efforts, which will be more and more critical as we lean into the fight against climate change. I thank the Graves family and Thomas Bros. Grass for agreeing to sell these parcels so we can take them off the table for development and make them available for all Nashvillians to enjoy.

. I think this offers some further possibilities for quietly starting to prepare for the future we are likely to get, a future in which there will be community, laughter, and satisfaction as well as “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” But first, let’s look at the responses I received from the at-large council candidates.

Burkley Allen:

I chose my vocation as an engineer to help deal with the energy crisis of the 1970’s and have been interested in energy efficiency and environmental sustainability since then. As a LEED accredited professional, I have worked on increasing building energy efficiency. As a council member I co-sponsored a bill to increased the reporting of Metro’s building energy consumption to ensure that the buildings that are LEED certified are performing as intended. I sponsored a bill to continue emission testing of cars since on-road vehicles are the largest source of nitrous oxide and Ozone in our air. I also signed on to CM Freddie O’Connell’s recent three bill package to further reduce Metro building energy consumption and move the city fleet toward zero emissions and lower energy consumption. I have served on the Solid Waste Zero Waste Master Plan Task Force. As Council Member At-Large, I will continue to push the implementation of the recommendations of the plan. I would, in particular, like to revisit the reduction of single use plastic bags. I co-sponsored a bill to discourage use of plastic bags in grocery stores. I’d like to follow that with encouragement of a deposit on plastic bags or a 5 cent discount for bringing your own bag. As a city, our policies should always be informed by how they affect our air, our water, our limited natural resources, and the future world our children will inherit.

I like her approach. The way to move a long way is to take the first short step, however insufficient it seems, and then the next, until a million short steps have taken you to your once-distant goal. I also like the fact that she is an engineer rather than a lawyer. She is used to doing real things in the real world that follow real physical laws that can’t be b.s.’d, dodged, or broken.

Fabian Bedne wrote: I would love to answer your question, I’ll try this week. Thanks for reaching out.

I have not yet heard back from him, but I’ll forgive him. I’ve connected with him  at other times, on related topics, and found a very sensible human being there. My friends in his council district express great appreciation for him. Like Ms. Allen, he is not a lawyer, but works in a field related to hers–architecture. He is also a relatively recent immigrant from Argentina, and I think the perspective his Argentine experience offers would be a very valuable addition to the city’s government. Argentina is a country that, in many ways, is like the US, but that has experienced cycles of falling under fascist and military rule, a calamitously collapsing economy, and recovery from both autocratic regimes and collapse. These are experiences no native-born American has had. I want this guy on the Nashville team!

Sharon Hurt responded:

I am always concerned about our environment and advocate for environmental justice issues.  I agree with you and the Mayor that we need to address the climate crisis that is before us, for it will only get worse.  Since, talking or seeing you, I graduated from the EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy in Atlanta, GA. (I inserted the link.) I would be happy to work with you to present related legislation for the Council to take on, as we can.  Those that require state or federal involvement, limits me.

You are the expert, I am an advocate, I would look to you for guidance in this direction.


When I responded to Ms. Hurt, the first thing I had to say was that I am not by any means an expert, just a deeply concerned amateur. Hey, at everything I’ve done, all my life, I’ve been an amateur–what’s my profession? I’m a professional amateur! “Amateur,” don’t forget, means someone who pursues a vocation for the love of it, and not for the financial rewards.

What I have read about the Environmental Justice Academy is very encouraging. While I understand that part of what government agencies do is make it look like they’re doing something even if they’re not, the EJA seems pretty real-deal. It says of itself:

The “Collaborative Problem Solving” model emphasizes the need for community leaders, community members and their stakeholders to work together to establish mutually beneficial partnerships and solutions.

Participants were taught how to leverage human, social, technical, legal and financial resources to ensure successful collaboration and negotiation as well as how to increase the capacity of all community members as a means to establish long-term progress.

Ms. Hurt didn’t have to do this. She’s already a successful business operator and community organizer, but she chose not to rest on her laurels. The fact that she was motivated to learn these skills speaks very highly of her, and makes me want to see her play a prominent role in steering Nashville.

Bob Mendes wrote

I share your concerns. It is difficult in the State of Tennessee for cities to lawfully lead on these issues. I was happy to co-sponsor three “green energy” bills with  Council member Freddie O’Connell recently. The details are here:

The links he provided, which I’ve included in the blog, refer to Metro Council ordinances that mandate that the government of Nashville will switch to entirely electric vehicles by 2050, that all new construction initiated by the city will be LEED-certified platinum, and that the city will find ways to acquire the electrical and heating energy it needs from sustainable sources.

In a way, I could dismiss these ordinances as laughably inadequate window-dressing, but they’re a start. From what I’ve seen of Mr. Mendes, he is both a practical guy and somebody who understands the gravity of our situation. These council ordinances begin to change the conversation. Once the conversation starts to change, further changes become more possible. As Pema Chodron says, “start where you are.”

I think Mr. Mendes’ note about the possibility of the state legislature acting to keep Nashville from taking radical action is worth taking seriously. Our state and national governments are barking mad, so crazed that they see all real help as a threat. Any changes we make must be non-threatening,  which is not easy when you are dealing with a group of people as out of touch with reality as our current leadership–and I’m  not just talking Republicans here, but that’s a topic for another time.

Gary Moore wrote:

 I have a history of working to protect the environment and will continue to do so if elected and even if not elected. I have worked to help keep two different dumps out of Davidson County. As to specifics of what I would do if elected; I would work to see that the city has controlled growth and maintains as many mature trees as possible while developing. Advocate for more green space in the city. Continue the conversation regarding mass transit and also work to expand the recycle programs in the county.

A long-time friend, a local environmental activist with a big Moore sign in his yard, told me;

Gary Moore was one of the chief organizers of the fight to stop a natural gas pipeline compressor station in Joelton, a fight that was sadly lost after a few years of intense struggle. I had never seen such a unified community of common folk trying to stop a major international corporation from bringing air, water, and noise pollution into their midst. A dozen or so strong leaders, most of whom had never been involved with community organizing, brought in hundreds of their fellow citizens to the local Baptist Church several times for updates on the situation. There was a sea of yellow tee-shirts at city council when they successfully pushed through an ordinance that would have kept pipeline compressor stations out of residential areas had the State not stepped in to block the ordinance. Gary Moore used his political connections and political savvy to bring support and guidance throughout these proceedings. Gary is also a past president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and has backed labor unions for decades.

Gary Moore was my state representative for a number of years. I found him to be both practical and open to new ideas. He, too, is somebody I’d like to see helping run this town.

Zulfat Suara wrote

Thank you for your email. Thanks also for stepping up to serve 4 years ago. I know it takes a lot to step up but people do it because they care. As for your issues, I do share your concerns. I believe we are stewards of our world and we have a responsibility as individuals and governments to take care of it. From recycling to busing/car pooling to renewable energy, we all have a role to play.

There is already a push by current council members to start the conversation. Councilman Freddie O’Connell is leading the charge in ensuring that Metro is leading on energy policy. (The bills Council member Mendes mentioned) were passed this year. This is a good start. If elected, rather than reinvent the wheel, my plan is to join forces with current efforts. It is important that we ensure that Metro is a leader in protecting our environment.

Ms. Suara is an immigrant from Lagos, Nigeria. As with Mr. Bedne, I think this outsider’s perspective on our American heartland city would be an invaluable addition to the “mix” of Nashville government, especially since Nigeria has, for quite some time, been experiencing levels of poverty and environmental degradation that are as of yet unheard of in this country, but may well be where we are headed. A guide who knows that territory would be good to have.

Gicola Lane didn’t respond, but I’m not going to let that discourage me from appreciating her. She is part of the coalition that brought a police review board to Nashville. Her campaign bio says she got involved in community organizing after working as a banker for a number of years. I interpret that as a very positive sign. Quitting a career in helping money grow for a career in helping people grow shows she has grasped the essence of the difference between corporate capitalism and socialism, and chosen socialism, although I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t call it that–but the core difference between socialism and capitalism, according to Prof. Richard Wolff, is that capitalism sees the needs of money as the paramount social value, while socialism sees the overall needs of society as more important than the “needs” of money and property. She’s also a whole lot younger than any other candidate, and so is likely to be living with the consequences of our energy and other cultural choices for a lot longer than the rest of us. Again, I think she represents a viewpoint that we really need to have in our city government.

Sheri Weiner, Adam Dread, and Steve Glover did not respond.

So….there’s seven candidates that I think would do a good job, running for five seats. I’m only going to be able to vote for five of them, and hope that the majority of Nashvillians who I think will vote for them do not spread our votes out so evenly that the three candidates who are strongly rumoured to be Republican win. It’s enough to make a guy wish for ranked choice voting, which Metro Council narrowly failed to enact this year. It’s one of those things the state says we can’t do, by  the way.

Let’s take a music break, and then I’ll be back with my stealth plan to prepare Nashville for the great crash.

5min Music: “For Now,” by Brother Martin and the Intangibles

I have two major suggestions for actions, both well within the normal scope of operations for Metro government, that will increase Nashville’s resilience.

The first suggestion addresses the pressing question of housing security for low- and middle-income families and individuals, who are being bid out of the market by rising prices. There are a number of models which can be used. They fall under the general headings of urban community land trusts, co-operatively owned housing, and community land banks. Metro should create a fast-track committee to study these options, determine which mix of them is appropriate for which part of town where we need to–or should I say still have the ability to?–stabilize home prices and rents in order to maintain working-class neighbourhoods. The need for maintenance, renovations, and additions to the structures involved should be used as an opportunity to introduce more conservation-oriented building methods and to teach workers the  skills involved in implementing them.

It’s worth noting that there is already a co-operative housing development, Germantown Commons. The city should learn all it can from this “pilot project,” and do all it can to help Germantown Commons be the first of many such projects.

A community land trust is an entity that owns the land in a neighborhood, while the homes are individually owned. This prevents land speculation and gentrification by preventing price inflation .Co-operatively-owned housing could be instituted in Nashville’s public housing neighborhoods, and would give residents both a voice in their own governance and an ownership stake in their homes. It’s important to note here that home ownership is the main reason why Euro-Americans’ average net worth is $116,000, while the average African-American family’s net worth is $1700. One of the chief reasons for this severe imbalance is that, when the country was recovering from the 1929 depression before and after World War II, and our economy was at its best for the average American, the government made FHA mortgages available to low-income Euro-Americans, but not to low-income Afro-Americans.

This gross discrimination makes it clear that you don’t have to go all the way back to slavery to find a justification for paying reparations to African-Americans, although slavery was where it began. But I digress…. housing security, the human right to have a place to live, is one important step in creating a more resilient Nashville.  My other proposal involves re-learning the low-tech skills that were second nature to our ancestors until the industrial revolution displaced most people from their largely self-sufficient peasant homesteads and made them reliant on jobs, money, and mass-produced goods.

Two recently-initiated Nashville parks provide perfect settings for teaching these skills. One is a Native American memorial park, to be called “Aaittafama,” a Chickasaw word meaning ” a place for meeting together.” Plans include “native plant meadows, reproductions of the village’s buildings, and outdoor classrooms.” Metro can use those “outdoor classrooms,” and maybe add an indoor one, to teach Native American skills–how to start a fire, how to cook on an open fire, native gardening techniques, how to butcher animals and tan their hides with simple tools–how to turn animal skins into clothing, containers, and shoes–how to make stone tools–how to build the kind of structures the native people lived in. I should add here that I hope our culture doesn’t fall apart to the point where our only hope is relearning these neolithic skills, but I think they form an important part of the toolkit we need to face an uncertain future.

The second soon-to-be park is the nearly 800 acres in Bell’s Bend that I alluded to in the quote from Mayor Briley. As hizzoner said, “This land has great potential for food production and Metro’s sustainability efforts, which will be more and more critical as we lean into the fight against climate change.”

Bell’s Bend also has a long history of Native American inhabitation, and the nearly eight hundred acres available there would allow a far more expansive version of what will be possible at the 7-acre Aaittafama site. I see other possible uses for this land that implement Mayor Briley’s vision of it as a place to anchor food production, sustainability efforts, and curbing climate change. We can use this site to recall our past skills, combine them with some of the many valuable things we have learned in the last couple of centuries, and thus be better prepared for the future.

The last time I went to the New York City area, I visited a museum in Tarrytown called Phillipsburg Manor, which did its best to recreate the realities of the 1750s. The place featured a water-powered flour mill, a blacksmith shop, and a farmstead. At the time I visited, the farm’s flax had been harvested and was in the process of being transformed into fiber, and then into linen, entirely by hand.

We could teach processes and skills like that at the Bell’s Bend site, not just as curious antiques, but as a way for artisans to tap in to Nashville’s upscale market. While, in the future, “artisanal” handmade shoes, cloth and clothing, paper, and metal goods may be our only options once trade with China drowns under rising seas, for now such goods can command a generous price from those with the ability to pay. Meanwhile, an “early European Nashville” museum like the one in Tarrytown, or its more famous cousin in Williamsburg, Virginia,  could be a great tourist attraction.

Eight hundred acres of flat riverside bottom land provides plenty of room for moving beyond the production of local garden vegetables and into re-establishing locally grown grains and beans, as well as low-tech harvesting methods for these staple crops.

But wait, there’s more. We are not condemned to a strict, no-foolin’ return to the eighteenth century. We have learned a lot since then, and some of what we have learned, such as science-based organic gardening, including biochar and its many uses, could be combined with, or added to, those colonial skills. Biochar, for those unfamiliar with the term, is finely ground pure charcoal. The city is already in the business of collecting wood that is trimmed from, or breaks off of, trees. Currently, this wood is chipped and sold as mulch. But Metro could also start turning some of it into biochar, a product that can be made, in the words of Albert Bates, “with early 19th-century technology.” Biochar more or less permanently sequesters carbon, and is useful not just as a soil amendment, but (again in Albert’s words) “for everything from cleaning algae blooms off lakes and ponds to carbon filament for 3D printers,” and a whole lot of other things in between. People pay good money for it.

The possibility of financially profitable biochar production is a good entry into the question of financing this proposal. It would certainly require some city funding, especially at first. As a research and teaching facility, it might continue to be a city budget item, but as it matures, the farming, tourist, and craft operations should produce substantial cash flow, and possibly even outright profits.

Another project that a large site like the Bell’s Bend land could anchor is the reintroduction of draft animals and the skills involved in using them. (I hasten to add that one of the things I think we’ve learned in the last couple of centuries is to be a whole lot kinder to the animals we work with than was considered acceptable in the past.) Draft animals–horses, oxen, mules, donkeys, maybe burros–are locally produced, solar-powered, self-replicating, and their “exhaust” is a valuable soil amendment. Automobiles and small trucks can be repurposed into wagons and buggies that will need neither fossil fuels nor imported batteries to help us do what we need to do. What’s not to like?

I think the Bell’s Bend project should, in the spirit of energy conservation and sustainability, have a live-in staff, and I think one of that staff’s first tasks should be designing and building their living quarters and the other structures necessary for this project. That brings me to the final part of my proposal, which has to do with the fact that the changes we need to implement are not just changes in technology, but changes in the way we organize ourselves and make decisions. Those who work with this project should not be carrying out somebody else’s orders. They should work co-operatively to decide what to do and how. Metro is providing the funds for this project, and should have a voice in it, but, in the words of the Environmental Justice Academy, “collaborative problem solving” should be the norm in this project, which is not only about what to do, but how to do it,

So there it is, my stealth plan:  concrete, already-tested ways to increase the housing security of lower-income Nashvillians, and framing our preparations for a future of less as a tourist attraction and  trade school. These are steps we could take without alarming the state legislature. I hope the winners of the Mayoral and at-large council elections, whoever they may turn out to be, take heed. And, as a PS to those who don’t win election: there is nothing to prevent you from using your influence to make these things happen. It’s in our hands.

music: Bjork, “It’s In Our Hands”

Dr. John: Babylon



One response

12 04 2020

[…] my concerns to all the candidates, and got fairly sympathetic responses back from several of them, as I detailed at the time. I figured it was preferable to have council members in office who are at least aware of our […]

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