Why weighing out costs and benefits in the environmental movement isn’t a matter of simple mathematics.
Sitting in a creaky house in Paonia, Colorado, on the most pleasantly shady lane, amidst a bustling kitchen full of conscious young folks cooking sweet corn and kale chips, I heard a voice from the dining room table ask one of my fellow Pick Up Artists, “Where is the most hopeful place that you have visited in America so far?” A good question surely, and not one commonly voiced, but I was somewhat surprised to find that by the end of the evening no one was able to come up with an answer.
Collectively we’ve all seen some terrible stuff in this country, whether on board that blue-green bus or in our lives beforehand, but we’ve witnessed and experienced some pretty thoroughly amazing efforts and individuals as well. The one point that my peer made before turning down the subject, was that there are a sensational amount of communities that are still predominantly reliant on one resource or company or product for their local economy to function. It’s hard to have much hope for the self-sufficiency of a people when the paradigm on which their lives are built is inherently dysfunctional.
Those of us deeply engaged in the environmental movement today understand this to be a major issue with recent greening campaigns. How much good will your community garden initiative do in a town surrounded by industrial agriculture? Does the cost of materials, shipping, and manufacturing of that hybrid you’ve got counter-weigh the amount of fuel it saves? Do your personal sustainability habits make a difference if your job publicizes and perpetuates the idealism of an expanding growth economy? Those of us on Pick Up America are sometimes grouped into this category of misguided well-wishers wasting time and energy. While we have walked over 3,000 miles cleaning up over 170,000 lbs of litter, we have also been forced to drive a great deal in order to drop off, pick up, and generally transport our team and it’s supplies around different communities. And since it’s nearly impossible to quantitatively measure the impact we make in the lives of the people we meet, can we even compare or weigh out the good and the not-so-good results of our work?
So here we are, operating on a variety of broken systems: requiring imported toxic petroleum and waste veggie/fry grease from fast food joints for transportation, receiving food “waste” donations from pantries to feed ourselves, and still generating our own trash all the time. In this lifestyle we can’t very well escape those things, but by talking with settled folks, who have a bit more control over their consumption habits, we often spur others to reconsider their choices.
We also seem to have power in our age and passion. We’re an organization mostly composed of recent college graduates that have rejected the standard employment expectations pressed upon us by society, government, corporations, and sometimes family. We’ve chosen not to be part of the machine anymore, and are thereby solid proof that a healthy alternative exists. What we’re doing is making a statement and living by it as best we can, among various limitations. When I look back at the communities I’ve passed through, I see a lot of people doing the exact same thing.
Denver is a metropolitan community that is home to a variety of industries, but they have better bike paths than most towns I’ve been to and an initiative to plant a million trees in the city by 2025. Since the start, they have already registered 200,000, and we at PUA got to see a few go in at The Breakground Community Garden, where we built our second Peace on Earth bench from local litter and natural building materials. Boulder is a Colorado tourism mecca, pulling in fuel guzzling travelers from all over the globe, but the town has one of the best recycling systems in the nation. Paonia and the surrounding mountain towns are the historic home of coal miners in the American West (and they continue to produce it, though not in the strip mining fashion of Appalachia), but there are so many organic orchards and farms around that many residents can and do eat locally for the entire growing season.
Hope is subjective and we experience it in a million different ways, so the answer to that original question, “Where is the most hopeful place you’ve seen?” might be impossible to assess. This isn’t something we can do a cost-benefit analysis on. If you’re trying to find a community that is totally prepared for the coming transition to a hotter world with minimal fossil fuels, your search will likely come up empty.
If instead you look past that and into the vibrancy and adaptability of the human race, the ingenuity and the kindness, you will see hope on varying levels most anywhere you look. I see hope on the side of the road when the medicinal yarrow and horsetail and sage wave at me amid the sun bleached bottles. I see it in the plump amber peaches, sweetly offered from the yard of a friendly front porch gazer. I see it in the host that bought a reusable travel utensil just days after meeting us. I see it in every farmer’s market and solar panel and any person willing to listen to my tale.
Those in my hometown of Columbus, Indiana are certainly residents of one of these feared “dominant company economies”, with Cummins Engines as the employer of people ranging from Fortune 500 executives to factory workers to college interns. But does anyone living there see this as a major impediment to creating a sustainable and beautiful community? In my experiences, I’d venture to say no. Cummins itself is making a concerted effort toward environmental excellence, both in the facility operations and the functionality of the engines they produce, in Columbus and around the globe. They’re even challenging their energy providers, partners, and competitors to make eco-conscious changes. Through a number of community partnerships and events, the company is also helping to lead the town toward making its own improvements. Is it contradictory that a corporation bound to the consumption of petroleum is a key player in the greening of an entire city? Some might say yes, but today progress isn’t a one size fits all formula; it’s riddled with complexities and reliant on innovation. For Columbus, Indiana, the mono-business economy isn’t looking too shabby, and I have a whole lot of faith that there are many other towns, cities, and villages working with what they have available to become equally inventive.