Community Glue: differentiating urban communities by their social emphasis

Since leaving college in Atlanta and “going West, young man!”, I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, the former a lot longer than the latter (15 vs. 3 years). People have asked in both places what I see as the big differences between the two urbanities, geography and topography aside. Usually I just respond that they aren’t terribly comparable; they’re just different. One isn’t “better” than the other. They each offer wonders and frustrations.

One of the key differences I do point to is social focus. I like to describe the Bay Area as a very “event-oriented” culture, where emphasis is placed on doing things together. Check out this event. We’re going to that event. Get your tickets now, they’ll sell out. I’ll see you there! Oh you went to that show? We danced our butts off! The social glue tends to bind itself around outwardly focused events, the places where people meet to talk, drink, dance, laugh, and have a good time together. “You mean you didn’t see my invite on Facebook?” I often hear. (Nevermind not getting a good old-fashioned call, that takes too much time and we’re all just, well, busy!) If you want to “keep up,” you’d better grok social media, babe.

San Francisco Skyline and iconic Golden Gate

And it comes at a price – for me anyway – physically, monetarily, and I dare say even psychically. I looked at my calendar today and was exhausted just thinking about it – every evening this month filled with the possibility and promise of something to do.  And don’t get me wrong, I love going out – well, sometimes anyway – and have a wonderful and supportive community of friends and beloveds. But even as my own single, unattached bread-winner, I’m starting to feel a pang in my pocketbook. I tallied up over a grand in event expenses in just the last few months. I balanced my checkbook and realized I don’t “go out” for under $50 any more – and usually not under a hundred if there’s a ticket to an event involved. Stuff’s gotten spendy in the nation’s most expensive city. Event halls are raking in the bucks to pay corporate landlords and performers who can either barely or completely not afford to live in the city’s confines. The home of the $5 happy hour cocktail has been evicted and now migrated as far away as Kansas City.

And as an introvert (my friends reading this will continue to turn their heads askew in disbelief) it takes a psychic toll. Going out takes a lot of energy for introverts. It’s refreshing and fun only in temporal (and short at that) and metered doses. The law of diminishing returns lives on a steep downward curve. Getting around this city has always been a bit challenging, and becoming more troublesome – parking always sucks, biking is increasingly dangerous even along the quieter bike-designated corridors, on-demand cars add up and are having mixed impacts on the social and physical fabric of the city. Surely you can walk anywhere if you have the time! But who does; the show starts in ten minutes!

Oops, it’s easy to slip into critique and kvetch about San Francisco. What about Portland? After my recent visit back to the fair City of Roses, I noticed immense changes in the six years I’ve been gone, both to the physical space and to the community dynamic. Economic pressures from heightened real estate investment are driving long-time residents away, making it challenging for new folks to establish root in a job market I never found terribly robust. The rental market is tight – places I knew rented for under a thousand a month are now double in price – and there’s no rent control measures.

The Goddess Portlandia lends a helping hand to Her denizens


But I want to focus instead on the Community Glue – the binding force that brings people together, strengthens relationships, and builds community capital. And Portland has that in spades. The emphasis is less about events – certainly Portland has plenty, albeit in much lesser magnitude and frequence than the Bay Area, it still remains culturally rich. People value relationships and connections. The “event” is usually just a means to the end of building and enjoying those connections. Jokes about having potlucks in Portland are endless. “Portlandia” did get many things right about the quirky social nature of the city’s rosy denizens (they’ll tell you it’s way off base, usually out of resentment for their own quirks being hyperbolically characterized; the show also way misses the mark in other ways, but that’s a different topic).

I remember when the markets crashed in 2008 and the mortgage debacles unraveled. I was standing in my kitchen in the cute Buckman neighborhood of Portland, discussing the implications with my economist housemate, when another housemate brought in the day’s Oregonian newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle headline might have read very scientifically and policy wonky: “Fannie Mae Lending Strategies Collapse in Market Debacle”. The Oregonian above-the-fold article was more likely, “Family Homes Lost in Mortgage Woes.” I remember such a front page article that centered primarily around a family in Gresham who had lost their home because they could no longer afford the underwater mortgage rates. It highlighted the same aspects of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess that the SF Chronicle did, but with a completely different frame: it was about people. Not events, not market mechanisms, not corporate greed. It focused on the hardships of people. And that story resonates much more deeply with Oregonians than the other.

The question I’m most often asked in San Francisco is “Do you want to go to [insert event here] this weekend?” The question I was most often asked in Portland was, “Do you want to take a walk up Mount Tabor?” People are connecting in both situations, but the emphasis and dynamic in which that connection occurs is, to me, very different.

Again, one isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different. They each have value. But I truly miss ending my week with a potluck of homegrown treats and singing together around a cozy fire. Seems like it’s high time to ignite that type of glue in my San Francisco living room.


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Changing the Frame of Fossil Fuel “Addiction”

Today’s musing: drop the frame that “We are addicted to fossil fuels.” First, we don’t free-base oil or inject it like heroin. We do so like the metaphor, to the point of overuse, as it seems so apt – we are addicted to the conveniences that fossil fuels bring. It also makes us sound to the common energy hog like environmental nut jobs. It’s like saying a meth addict is actually addicted to money, because that’s what enables him or her to procure the substance.

BP Deepwater Horizon Rig Explosion 2010

BP Deepwater Horizon Rig Explosion 2010

Instead, let’s hit close to home by messaging about our actual addictions. We like speed (not crank, although that’s a horrible epidemic; I refer here to pace of life, instant-on), convenience, and rapid mobility. And let’s face it, for anyone who’s downloaded an app on their phone or music from the Internet, we want it free. It doesn’t matter how much or little money we bring home; we just simply don’t want to pay for anything. We talk about horrific mining practices and brutal politics of digging up rare earth metals for our smartphones and laptops – and yet we’re perfectly comfortable owning and using those devices to blog about the injustice, with hardly a modicum of guilt. We’re impatient. We have some need we’re trying to fill, some perceived gaping hole in ourselves, and we need to fill that gap now – with whatever – information, food, stuff, events – all in pursuit of helping us feel connected.

We’re addicted to that pursuit. When we’re connected, in community, and have a sense of belonging, I posit that we aren’t out destroying the planet trying to one-up the juggernaut-consumer Joneses. When we reside in a strong sense of self, we don’t perceive a “gap” that needs to be “filled.” The antidote to our addictions, I believe, can be found in a strong, grounded personal practice of self-care and community connection. I haven’t solved anything here, or proposed any flash-of-lightning new concept. And to my average energy hog, I’ve switched from sounding like an environmental nut job to spiritual cuckoo.

The other side of the coin about my driving in a gas-burner to the intentional community potluck out in the country, off the grid including off a bus line, is one of alternatives and choices. In America, the car is king, and locomotion in the modern age is powered almost entirely by fractionally distilled petroleum products. I tried making homebrew biodiesel in a friend’s garage, until I got burned. I didn’t create the infrastructure, but those organizations that did set it up so easily for me to plug right in and be a consumer; all I need is some cash or, better yet, a credit card that lets me postpone the responsibility for awhile. Live in the moment! Be carefree! Live the highlife! It’s a lot of work to change the dominant paradigm, and even when I tried – going into debt to buy a decent diesel car, collecting used cooking oil from my neighborhood fryers – it wasn’t personally sustainable. Back to my seemingly tiny, individual universe, creating a system of environmentally friendly modes of transit is much, much bigger than one person. It takes a village, and in this case a whole culture, to turn the rudder of the ship.

We may be caught, I fear, in a bit of a downward spiral, because the fast-paced lifestyle driven by fossil fuel consumption and the easy access to energy that it provides is inherently unsustainable. That lifestyle drives us toward convenience, ways to manage our time that let us fit it all into our packed schedules, and those conveniences necessitate more fossil fueled energy. What if we slowed down for a few minutes, unpacked our schedules, and spent more time and energy with our families and communities? What would we be doing then? If we continue to use fossil-based energy in our activities, why? This kind of self-reflection becomes too painful and judgmental for most, so it’s one we gingerly gloss over in our pursuit to find more technological solutions.

So let’s drop the admonishment that we’re addicted to fossil fuels, because we aren’t – at least from one level of looking at the ecological problem. Fossil fuels certainly enable our addictions, compulsions, desires, and wants, because they provide us with ready access to experiences that are much bigger than we are, embodying much more energy than we can fathom in our individual realms of experience. Changing our energy sources does very little to change our underlying compulsions and motivations. Invoking a technological “solution” where the roots are psychological, social, and moral is, quite frankly, a cop-out. That’s an easy finger to point. If we really want to achieve balanced sustainability, we have to face the sustainability of lifestyle choices and fundamental modern human behavior. Did I lose you already? If not, then you’re on an exciting journey and part of what I think is a silent yet enormous movement to radically shift the basic structure of our culture. This shift takes us out of the uncomfortable feeling of constant compression from an overly busy life, filled with stuff, things, and responsibilities, and into the ecstatic field of our divine birthright, to be at peace and in communion.

A CommUnity Circle

A CommUnity Circle

Deepwater Horizon photo from U.S. Coast Guard, appeared on Treehugger. Circle photo from Awakening Connections – Circle Gatherings.

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Altruism: A Dying Value? Will you pay me for it?

I posted a version of this on a discussion board related to green careers for young adults. A green professional in city government asked: “what kind work would be of interest to young people?” The responses from students stirred up a provocative question for me: why would anyone do anything that doesn’t lead to personal gain?

That’s the kind of thinking that got us into the kinds of environmental challenges we were talking about on the discussion board in the first place. It makes me wonder what young adults are learning and having modeled for them about altruism – the idea that we take actions that benefit the “greater good,” that have implications beyond ourselves. Why do elderly people volunteer in their community? Because they’re bored and have nothing better to do? Most of the ones I speak with do so because it enhances their sense of belonging, creates better circumstances in their community, and is connected to a sense of being involved in something greater than one’s self. If what’s being modeled to young adults instead is that you have to get yours, fight hard for it, compete, and “get something,” then I opine we’re headed in the wrong direction and away from solving the challenges.


I’m not much of a fan of perpetuating the “start at the bottom cleaning toilets and work your way up” model of work, particularly for bright, A+ students, particularly a model that dictates young people have to do menial work before they can come to meaningful work. I didn’t follow that model, for the most part. I started by working in a computer store at 14, selling IBMs and Apple products, doing a little programming, learning how to repair systems, and answering the telephone. And I also sweeped, mopped, changed the toilet paper, and got my boss’ coffee. Sure, I got paid, a whopping $4.75 an hour. I wasn’t there for the money; I was there to learn, to meet people who also liked computers, to help customers solve their computer problems. In a way, I wanted to “strut my stuff,” to impress someone, to show people what I knew… in the hopes that I would connect with even better jobs later, to build a resume toward college, and see what this whole adult “work” thing was about.


Jobs and internships don’t drop out of the sky on a silver platter. Everyone has a starting point, and goes through a process of building experience. “You gotta work!!”  If money is a motivator, that’s great, but especially in environmental jobs, not all internships translate into money. I know college graduates who volunteer for internships to gain exposure, network, build resume, and learn about the technical and program issues. One student related his experience that his “grunt” work while volunteering in a social service agency didn’t lead to those insights and opportunities – it didn’t take him close to program work which was his actual interest. Good to get clear and move on from those situations and invite ones from which you can learn about a career field.

We’ve talked in our youth green jobs program about the idea of a “journey” through learning about green careers, but I’m not sure that the process really registered; everyone seemed focus on the end result – a job, money, an employer contacting them about a position. What the process will reveal is the need to actively engage employers and green career professsionals; they’re not spending their day actively looking for you. Not arrogant, just real.
The value to an internship – paid or not, grunt work or high-brow intellectual – is more about networking, learning, and yes even resume building. As a volunteer in Portland’s Master Recycler program, I had to be “arms and legs” staffing booths, schlepping displays, and spending time away from my paid consulting. I did it because I enjoyed it. It helped people in my community understand how to deal with waste, recycling, and compost. The idea that I would do this for my own learning, for the benefit of community service, for achieving some greater goal than just drawing a paycheck seems to be largely lost on a culture that values the $financial$ bottom line. Is altruism a dying value?

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In Memoriam: My memories of Ray Anderson, Industrial Ecology Pioneer, Visionary, Mentor, Hero

I posted this memoriam to Ray’s memorial blog.

I first met Ray at Emory University in early 1996, not even a full 2 years after his reading of “The Ecology of Commerce,” and his eloquence then about the sustainability challenge of climbing such a tall mountain was just as poignant and inspiring to me as his last interviews and talks. I approached this gentle and engaging man afterward and expressed my discomfort about my work in environmental communities that I always felt like I was “preaching the choir” and not making much of a difference. Ray did not miss a beat, grabbed me squarely by the shoulders, and said, in his soothing Georgia accent, “My friend, the choir is growing!!” That moment still gives me chills, brings tears to my eyes, and was quite a pivotal moment for me in my thinking and, really, in my worldview.

I met Ray the following year, 1997, as an intern in Georgia Tech’s (our mutual alma mater, something Ray would remember about me in our future meetings) Center for Sustainable Technologies conference. As keynote speaker, Ray had refined his message even more, had goals to talk about for Interface, and introduced us to the concept of Mount Sustainability. I was privileged to sit at Ray’s table for awhile during lunch and get to know a bit more about the man who would become a professional role model and a sustainability hero.

I work at eschewing regrets in my life, though one that arises from time to time is that I did not get to know Ray more personally while I had the chance when I still lived in Atlanta. Ray invited me out to their offices, though I graduated and moved before I could find a time that worked. Nevertheless, I met Ray again at UC Berkeley where I was completing my Masters, and he remembered me right away with a firm handshake, a smile, and “Good to see you, John!” in that familiar Georgia accent. How this amazing being could meet so many thousands of leaders, scholars, presidents — important people! — and still remember my name and our conversation from two years prior was beyond me.

There are very few people we meet along the road that we can say steered our lives in one significant direction or other. Many teachers and mentors inspire us, encourage us to express our fullest potential, but few can change our core values and shape our very foundations. Ray had this keen and unique influence on me, and I will remain immensely grateful to him. While his temporary form has changed, what he brought to this world is timeless and immortal, a tremendous gift.

Many blessings to Ray, Mrs. Anderson, and his living and loving family.

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When communities must rise to the occasion, by hook or by crook

The musing I had in my kitchen as I looked in my pantry for something to snack on went a little something like this:


If suddenly my community stopped receiving Federal and State monies, if it failed to meet its operating budget to the point where it shuddered the police department, the fire department, open the jail because it couldn’t keep the lights on, what would happen? Utter chaos? Would people stand around and scratch their heads like monkeys wondering how to function without its non-functional government? Not a chance. I believe ingenuity and creativity would dominate, and a culture of service would emerge where the community would essentially be forced to shift its priorities and its resources toward maintaining a certain quality of life. Physicians would provide care, neighborhoods would fight fires and see after each other, and structures would emerge in self-organization to feed people.


Is that utterly Pollyanna? Yes, probably. Would there be some chaos, violence, and discord? Absolutely – some people would freak out as the natural course of the ego being stripped of its security blanket – the structures that it knows and relies on for safety and survival. The game has changed; the wise find ways to adapt, the unwise resist what is actually happening. There will be fearful expressions of competition for scarce resources – food and water being the first.


Yet in the midst of this ego-shock, I imagine the light of the human spirit prevails and orients us toward community, sharing, and collective innovation. We come to realize that reliance on unsustainable structures, such as an economy that provides us with money and goods from a far distance, has produced a very limited sense of community – and of ourselves – and then realize what powerful beings we are. All our attention and energy that has gone into frivolous efforts, diversion, pain-numbing, and distraction is now called to participate in building community, providing for ourselves, our families, and our community in new ways.


I went back to the pantry and realized that my craving for halvah, which I found on the label had been made in Israel, didn’t quite fit my model above! 🙂 I opted for a locally grown apple instead.

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Teaching Our Children Well – Not Wasteful Behavior

A few days ago I had a ripped plastic bag in my hand that I picked up from the ground. As I walked past a dumpster, I tried to throw it away, present to the strange feeling of throwing plastic toward a landfill. It literally stuck like glue to my hand, whose fingers would not unfurl to release the plastic item in an “away” direction. I puzzled over the plastic bag for a moment, wondering if it had become possessed with some kind of intelligent mind. I tried again to assert control and toss; same result. Some kind of program had written itself into my neural pathways that knew good and well: polyethylene plastic film is recyclable. Maybe that program got written during my classes in the City of Portland’s Master Recycler program. Perhaps it started writing itself when I helped my friend Jennifer restart our high school’s environmental club. However the viral program found its way in, the difference between leaving a plastic bag blowing in the wind across a sidewalk to eventually clog a storm drain, sending it to a thousand year doom in a landfill, or returning it into the resource stream seemed pretty profound.

On the walk home, I mused on behavioral change and the adoption of environmental values. Especially as I prepare myself to work more with youth in environmental programs and build “green job” skills and training, I am interested in the process by which we make the kinds of decisions I had to face with the “intelligent” plastic bag. Indeed, the intelligence doesn’t belong to objects; it belongs to the humans who make, consume, and eventually dispose of them. Every step of product stewardship is a choice. Our ancestors certainly build their homes, cities, and whole civilizations without plastic. The notion that we “need” material goods is competely debatable, yet I still hear children telling their parents they “need” a particular toy or good that doesn’t contribute directly to the “hierarchy of needs” – food, water, shelter, clothing, nurture, support. Why, then, are children absorbing the “other” kind of viral program early on, the one that eventually, among many other actions, allows the plastic bag to be produced in the first place, and then end up in the storm drain?

I’m not a psychologist, an expert in human behavior, a sociologist, anthropologist, or any such “learned scholar” that hones his/her skills around answering these kinds of questions. I do care about how we use and waste energy and resources at an alarming rate, and demonstrate to our children that it’s perfectly fine, no harm no foul, to live out of balance. Far be it from me to project my value system onto the rest of the world, but evidence of the outcome of turning a blind eye is so striking and so commonly publicized these days that they almost don’t bear mention.

What’s our children’s place in this situation? I believe it’s to generate the solutions and demand a different way from their parents. If the problem can’t be solved in the same level that created it, then parents running about inventing tradable carbon credits seems hardly compelling. At a time when kids are dropping out of high school at ever increasing rates and falling into apathy, it hardly seems fair to project our “solutions” into arcane corners of the intellect that require a Ph.D. to unpack, understand, and meaningfully apply to the real world. I had to pause for a moment listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash on the matter:

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

What’s our job? Encourage them and show them our dreams. Kindle their interest in nature, the outdoors, animals, plants. As they grow older, teach them about stewardship, care, community, and gardening. Explain the importance of reducing consumption, reusing items and finding durable alternatives, and recycling and composting what’s left. Leave the question open why we make things that must be disposed of “permanently” for their own inquiry. I see how that song’s lyrics change around:

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Our children are the ones who are most likely to rise to the occasion and make our dreams real and manifest.

There are many resources online about plastic bags, factoids, and ways to reduce consumption. Here’s one from Worldwatch Institute.

Here’s a video my friend Geoff and I made on plastic bags (please excuse the harp).

I also kicked this thread off awhile ago in a post about the role of mentoring in sustainability.

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Recycling Depots Take Stuff That Doesn’t Belong Curbside

Miss Burrows reminds me about recycling depots. Most folks in the Portland metro area aren’t aware of “depots” – facilities where you can take recyclable refuse that has a market but isn’t suitable for curbside pickup (and, in many cases, will be rejected if placed at the curb). Metro has a “Find a Recycler” website that will help you locate the right taker for your material. You can also call Metro’s very helpful and useful Recycling Information Hotline at 503-234-3000.

recycleFar West Fibers has seven depots located throughout the metro area that accept a wide range of materials, from plastic lids (which don’t go in your curbside rollcarts or bins, only the body of the container) to plastic take-out clamshells (clean only, and apparently they’re a pain to deal with).

Eye-opening factoid: Portland metro residents throw away about 20 tons of material per day in curbside recycling that doesn’t belong there, and has to be removed and landfilled. Some of that material can be recycled at depots, though it never ends up in the right stream.

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