Archive for Sustainability

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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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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The Story of Stuff

Yesterday I finally got around to watching “The Story of Stuff.” Even at its totally ADHD-digestible 20 minutes, I hadn’t made it a priority because some part of me kept thinking, “I already know that.” But Annie Leonard’s disarmingly simple presentation hits home the message that our linear, unsustainable relationship with Stuff is coming apart, for better and for worse, and that we have a fundamental opportunity right now to redefine that relationship, close loops, create sustainable cycles, and change the way we do business. If we don’t, the results will cause (and to some extent already are causing) cultural indigestion and crises of gargantuan proportions in the health of human society. Alarmist? It only sounds alarmist to anyone who’s addicted to the functioning of the linear model of Stuff and who, like an ostrich, pretends not to see what comes out the back end.

Click here to watch The Story of Stuff, and please leave a comment with your thoughts and impressions.

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“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”

So that this blog doesn’t fall off the end of the earth, I wanted to rekindle it with a long-time favorite quote from Marianne Williamson that came across my desk again today:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”    – Marianne Williamson

She’ll be speaking in San Francisco tonight, Tuesday, September 22nd, at EcoTuesday (, on the connection between sustainability and spirituality.

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Plastic Not-So-Fantastic

plastic_productsIf you think you consume and throw away a lot of plastic at your home, you probably do. Many people frankly don’t even get that far (i.e. thinking about it). But the business park you casually drove or biked by yesterday probably generates more in a day than you toss in a year. It’s amazing how much plastic is produced, consumed, and discarded in our “economy.” It’s petroleum, persistent, and in some cases, quite pernicious. The $1M question – can it be recycled?

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Accelerating Sustainable Communities

Lately I’ve been calling my project an “accelerator for sustainable communities.” And I’m realizing this term “accelerator” applies to so many facets of community building and what I call “writing the new story” of our culture. I liken the concept to that of a technology or business incubator, where new ideas are given enough support (financial, expertise, development assistance) to survive, develop and mature, launch, and hopefully thrive on their own. Applying this to sustainable community building means that community projects (and even whole communities) are afforded the support they need to bear fruit and thrive.
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