It’s been 16 years since I wrote a series of diary entries for Grist magazine (funny how time slips away). I thought it would be interesting—and maybe also a little instructive—on Climate Solutions' 20th anniversary to reflect on my journey so far.
Rereading those entries, I’m reminded of something that I apparently understood at the time, but only on an intuitive level. First, I understood that while technology and markets are critical pieces of the puzzle, addressing the climate crisis is fundamentally a cultural problem (in fact, even markets themselves are a cultural phenomenon). I also understood that making a difference on this was going to require bringing lots and lots of different people together across their differences to think, learn, and try things together.
Sixteen more years of professional experience and academic study have reinforced these notions and have helped me to understand that people and culture are neither stable nor predictable. Instead, they’re in many important ways dynamic, unpredictable, even fickle. All of this confirms for me that if we ever hope to turn the corner on emissions in our region, let alone globally, we will need a constantly adaptive approach, requiring ongoing learning and innovation. We will also need to work harder than ever to create what Dave Snowden calls “coherent groups of people:” groups that are capable of learning and innovating together. In short, we will need to collaborate better.
Today, as a principal consultant for the purpose-driven consulting firm The Athena Group, my work is all about designing and hosting strategic conversations focusing on complex adaptive challenges like climate change, homelessness, poverty, and others. A big part of this work is creating opportunities where people can slow down a bit and let go of their personal agendas long enough to listen to and learn from others, and explore new possibilities together. This is often messy and difficult work, but it may well be the key to our success going forward.
Look for my next progress report in another 16 years!
The below was originally published in Grist, September 2002.
Monday, 16 Sep 2002
It’s Monday morning and I’m still a little bit disoriented from being back in one of my old home towns — Missoula, Mont. This small city was my first stop after completing high school in a rather nondescript Midwestern suburb, and the first of a series of relatively small western college towns that ultimately led me to my current home in Olympia, Wash. I’m back here because I’ve been invited to give a talk for the new Sustainable Communities Lecture Series sponsored by the University of Montana Environmental Studies Program and the National Center for Appropriate Technology.
After several years of absence, I’m surprised by the variety of emotions that preceded my trip here — emotions which peaked as I flew into Missoula valley on a beautiful late summer evening. A spontaneous smile actually broke out on my face, replacing my otherwise stony expression of airplane anonymity. For me, this Western city of 50,000 inhabitants is an insanely potent and beautiful place, thanks to the mountains and rivers, the intoxicating scent of cottonwoods, and the scads of healthy people riding bikes, hiking, and dancing at night in 100 year-old bars to hot local bluegrass.
This is where it all started for me. This is where I really learned to connect with and respect the planet. It’s the home of my first volunteer internship, the place where my curiosity about global issues was born, and the place that lead me to my current interest in renewable energy. So for all of you who frown upon choosing a college for its proximity to a good ski area rather than for its academic reputation (no offense, U. of M.), think again.
Since I won’t give my talk, “Addressing Climate Change: Opportunities for Northwest Communities” until Tuesday night, I’m spending the day at meetings in Helena and Butte with folks from Montana Power, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Alternative Energy Resource Organization, and NCAT. My goal is simply to learn more about what each group is planning in the coming year so I can look for opportunities to collaborate on advancing a vision of rural economic opportunity in renewable energy development.
As I looked over the city yesterday afternoon from the top of Mt. Sentinel, a prominent landmass that overlooks the University of Montana campus, I couldn’t help but think that this little town, limited to some degree by a natural mountainous bowl and bisected by two wide rivers, could be a perfect test-bed for an economy powered by clean, renewable resources. Western Montana has abundant wind resources and enough rooftop space on schools and warehouses to generate scads of solar power, not to mention the land base to produce large quantities of biodiesel fuel and other biomass energy crops. The potential for energy efficiency is also undoubtedly large.
It’s a cool vision, though some of my old friends have been reminding me that the pace of progressive change here is much slower than what I’m accustomed to. Nonetheless, the idea is now fairly firmly stuck in my head and is nagging at me to flesh it out. Perhaps by tomorrow’s diary entry I’ll have a better handle on it.
Tuesday, 17 Sep 2002
Earlier on this bright Tuesday morning, I found myself whizzing through the western Montana countryside in my little Geo Metro rental, alternating between thinking about my four meetings in Helena and Butte, admiring the countryside, and mentally going over the talk I’m giving later in the evening.
All three of my meetings (I guess it was too much to hope that I could pack four meetings and roughly six hours of driving into one day) turned out to be very worthwhile. In addition to finally putting faces to names and voices heard over the phone, I was able to paint a pretty good picture of the politics of rural renewable energy development.
Both within state government and without, there is growing interest and support for renewables. However, Montana’s cooperative utilities and certain key elected leaders, among others, still need to be brought around.
Old habits are hard to break. Much of Montana’s past wealth and prosperity was built on exploitation of its abundant natural resources, from copper and timber in the west to coal and grazing lands in the east to oil and gas on the Rocky Mountain Front. Climate Solutions’ Harvesting Clean Energy for Rural Development message, however, puts renewable energy development squarely in terms many Montanans will relate to. And its unifying vision of rural economic development through clean energy resonates with farmers, ranchers, agricultural agencies, coop utilities, and elected officials alike. With any luck, Montanans will come to see wind, solar, and biomass energy as the bumper crops of the future. I’ll look forward to future meetings and collaborations with our new Montana partners.
Then, of course, there’s this evening’s lecture. Obviously, I want to make it not only informative, but also interesting, and perhaps even a little bit entertaining. At the lecture, I’ll be test driving our new, cutting-edge Power Point presentation, with all of the hottest new messaging on global warming and solution-focused opportunity. I could have titled my talk, “Global Warming is Huge: and There’s Nothing You Can Do About it,” but I didn’t want my audience to succumb to the urge to nap. Instead, my goal is to leave them with the sense that this problem, while enormous in scope, is fixable. Hopefully, I can even motivate them to do something about it.
Finally, you might ask how a person who’s trying to address climate change can justify all of this air and car travel. Valid question. First, while we at Climate Solutions are conscientious about avoiding unnecessary travel whenever possible, there’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting to facilitate creative discussion and build trust. We’re trying to build coalitions here, after all.
Also, Climate Solutions has invested in new renewable energy through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to offset the CO2 produced through our office and travel activities. And because my Missoula hosts are so on the ball, they’ve also purchased enough new renewable energy to offset all of the travel-related CO2 of the various speakers in their Sustainable Communities Lecture Series!
Wednesday, 18 Sep 2002
Wednesday is largely a travel day for me, as I wend my way back to Olympia, Wash., my hometown (and the seat of the Climate Solutions Empire). So rather than talk about how great my flight was, or about my board meeting later this evening, I thought I’d write a bit about the talk I gave last night for the Sustainable Communities Lecture Series in Missoula.
Attendance was great, and my speech went well, as far as I could determine. But who the hell were all of those students asking the ridiculously difficult questions? I had to draw on all of my resources to answer some of them during the nearly one-hour Q&A period following my lecture. And some of them I simply couldn’t answer.
At one point, I attempted to introduce a new idea that, in actuality, I know too little about, but one that is fascinating in its implications for global warming and the transition to clean energy. In his book, The Tipping Point, author and New Yorkercolumnist Malcom Gladwell says, “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.”
To me, this is an incredibly powerful notion, and, when it comes right down to it, it’s the underlying intent of any public talk I give. The global warming issue is so big and so seemingly out of our control that the response of many people is to go into hibernation.
So one of our first challenges as educators and activists is to bring the global warming issue to people in terms that they’ll understand. We need to make them aware that it’s about the water we drink and the air we breathe. It’s about our food and our forests. It’s about our communities. And it’s about the quality of our daily lives.
Next, we need to provide people with a clear vision of how they can make a difference. Global warming is a problem that people cause, and as such, a problem that people can fix. In the end, it’s about our creativity, and our ability to advance solutions that, in addition to solving the climate crisis, will ultimately make all of our lives more satisfying.
At one point in my lecture, I laid out my largely unformed vision of Missoula as a national test-bed for weaning a community off of fossil fuels and producing most, if not all, of its power from local renewable resources. The audience broke out into applause. For me it was just an interesting idea, but the response demonstrated the degree to which people are hungry for inspiration and change.
Paul Hawken once wrote that it’s hard for people to imagine a truly restorative economy or Fortune 500 company. I agree. It is. However, if we are ever to rise above our growing economic and environmental conundrum, we must, as Gladwell says, engender in people the belief that change is indeed possible, and that they can play a critical role in bringing it about.
After my lecture, I went out with a few colleagues to a local pub for a late night brainstorming session with Dale Horton (no relation, as far as I know), the energy guru at the National Center for Appropriate Technology. We talked more about the Missoula vision. In the end, we agreed that, while such a transition might be easier in a sunnier or windier location like Libby, Mont., or Boise, Idaho, with the right combination of aggressive energy efficiency, solar, biomass energy, and some wind, there’s every reason to believe that it could work in Missoula. Sure, there are lots of institutional barriers to overcome, but — no guts, no glory. Now that the seed is planted, it will be fun to see how it grows.
Thursday, 19 Sep 2002
“Bleary eyed” pretty much sums up how I feel this morning — but somehow, at the same time, I’m also energized. Although I’ve clearly packed way too much into one week, it’s all adding up to be pretty, well, energizing.
Now that I’m back from my trip to Montana and have scanned all of the email from the last four days for the really important ones, I’m nearly ready to begin preparing for another trip and another talk. This time, I’m heading to Walla Walla, Wash., for the Northwest Renewable Energy Festival. If you’re not familiar with Walla Walla, it’s a beautiful little city near the mighty Columbia River, nestled in the heart of apple and wine country — and, now, wind-power country. So it’s an appropriate location for the festival, which combines hands-on renewable energy technology workshops, panels on commercial, industrial, and institutional energy use, and, my favorite, visionary speeches by the likes of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and, the big man himself, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
My talk, titled “Poised for Profits: Business Opportunities in Clean Energy,” will focus on the extraordinary economic opportunities available to businesses, states, and regions that capitalize on the growing global demand for cutting-edge renewable energy technologies.
The term “poised for profits” comes from a report by the same name released last spring by Climate Solutions, which projected that the global market for clean energy technologies will be worth $3.5 trillion over the next 20 years — twice the size of the market for passenger and cargo aircraft. And this was a highly conservative analysis that assumes no Kyoto protocol on climate change or other new policies to promote clean energy. As President Bush, backed by big industry, continues to harp away at the misguided notion that addressing global warming will lead to unemployment and loss of economic competitiveness, this message of financial potential is one more people need to hear.
Some elected leaders and economic development gurus have already taken notice. For instance, Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), who helped us unveil the report at a press conference at the Washington Technology Center, was so excited about the report’s findings that he directed his state economic development director to make it a major priority as the state charts its economic future. Since then, he’s convened a roundtable to review the Poised for Profitrecommendations and help fashion a state action plan. The “clean energy as economic opportunity” message is also catching on in places like Austin, Detroit, and Chicago, lending further credibility to the idea that huge employment and economic revitalization possibilities are emerging through clean energy development and export.
I’ve managed to convince Amory Lovins to spare me an hour or so of his time after my talk so I can ask him a whole slew of questions and possibly even ignite the spark for some kind of future collaboration. No wonder I feel energized.
Aside from crafting this little piece for Grist, the remainder of my workday will include a meeting to begin to flesh out the program for our upcoming Harvesting Clean Energy conference (to be held Feb. 10 and 11 in Boise, Idaho), and making all of the various preparations for my trip to Washington. After that, I’m off to pick up my daughter from the bus, pack some clothes, and go to bed so that I can get up at 3:30 in the morning and cram into a car with three Evergreen State College students for the five hour drive to Walla Walla. No problem.
Friday, 20 Sep 2002
WALLA WALLA, Wash.
It’s 7:00 in the morning and I’m about three hours southeast of Olympia, Wash., on my way to Walla Walla, and I’m really tired. My talk at the Northwest Renewable Energy Festival doesn’t take place until after noon, so I should be catching a little shuteye. Instead, I’m straining away to see what I’m writing on this laptop as the low morning sun blazes directly in my eyes. I think we’re coming up on Yakima and I’m starting to daydream about coffee, though I’m trying to resist.
Anyone who’s been reading my entries for the last four days would think I travel continually. The truth is that the vast majority of my time is spent in our office in Olympia doing the glamorous work of attending meetings and sending and reading email. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but it can certainly feel that way at times. So, while it’s hard to be away from friends and family, it’s great to be out on the road.
We’re officially out of the mountains now and cruising east through open, rolling fruit country; in just a little while we’ll be cutting southeast towards Walla Walla. I’m already feeling a sense of anticipation as we near the new Stateline Wind Project. If I recall correctly, it’s still the world’s largest. As you approach Walla Walla from the west, you can’t miss the imposing sight of over 200 large turbines churning steadily from the high winds that gust across the southeastern Washington ridgelines. Even though I’ve seen it twice before, it still gives me a little thrill.
To some folks, these types of large windpower installations may seem disconcerting and out of place in the vast western landscape. To me, and to a growing number of Walla Walla County residents, however, they spell jobs, new local tax revenue, increased tourism (visitors can now take wine and wind tours), and an antidote to still more imposing and environmentally destructive fossil fuel power plants. In short, they spell the future.
In some cases, wind can be one of the most lucrative crops for those farmers and ranchers lucky enough to lease their land to wind developers for big projects like this one. For every turbine erected, landowners receive between $2,000 and $4,000 per year — and for each one, just a half-acre or so of land is taken out of production.
Fairly soon I’ll need to do a mental shift, because, whereas my talk will briefly address rural opportunities in clean energy, the majority of the focus will be on the larger idea that clean energy is the next high-tech revolution and a major new source of jobs and economic activity for our region. I need to be prepared, too, in the event I can still carve out an hour or so of time to spend with keynote speaker and energy visionary Amory Lovins. A colleague from the Department of Energy has asked me to fill in for him on his short talk on “Energy Basics” and moderate a panel discussion. So who knows what the late afternoon will bring. One way or another, I’m going to enjoy this festival and be glad for the weekend.