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Megan Quinn Bachman

Without a hammer, the house designs of the world’s greatest architect are worthless. Without a kitchen, a five-star chef’s recipes are of no use. And environmentalists who dream of a sustainable world but are without the tools to build it can’t do much.

A small energy company wants to build a wind farm. A young person hopes to be an organic farmer. A homeowner looks to erect solar panels on her roof. A school aspires to super-insulate its building. An entrepreneur plans to start a local organic food business. Another wants to start a local construction business to build the highly energy-efficient and furnace-free Passiv Haus.

What do these steps toward sustainability have in common? They all require an upfront capital investment, namely money. Initially, it takes some green to be green. Without financing the best intentions to cut carbon fall short.

Ohioans can try to conserve energy at home, but if 86 percent of their electricity is coming from coal-fired power plants, how much progress can be made? And in a poorly-insulated, drafty house, or driving a gas-guzzler how much energy can one save? At some point personal behavior changes aren’t enough. To become sustainable, we need large-scale investments, which require capital.

Unfortunately money and lines of credit to do so are not easy to come by these days. Many of us are barely able to keep up with our current expenses and increasingly governments are cutting back. Let’s face it: The financing for sustainable infrastructure projects and start-up businesses comes from private banks, lending at compound interest. If they won’t lend, we can’t go green.

For example, the village of Yellow Springs, where I live, recently cancelled a contract with Columbus-based SolarVision to build a $10 million 2.5-megawatt solar farm on municipal land that was expected to provide 10 percent of the town’s electricity. In 10 years, the community could have purchased the array to have a secure, renewable, locally-produced power source for decades to come.

But the deal was called off because SolarVision struggled to raise money from so-called institutional investors, such as banks, insurance companies and mutual funds, which are now seen as reluctant to support renewable energy projects in the wake of the Obama administration’s Solyndra fiasco last year, as well as concerns that Ohio may revoke its renewable energy portfolio standard, according to Mike Dickman, SolarVision’s vice president. “With all of that, it makes investors run hot and cold,”  he said.

If SolarVision could successfully raise the $60 million to $80 million it needs for its planned 10 Ohio solar projects totaling 20.5 megawatts, it could nearly double the current solar capacity of the state. What stands between Ohio and green electricity—and other sustainability projects—are the banks and other reluctant investors.

There has to be another way. In other words, how can we get access to the financial tools necessary to build a sustainable world? The answer may be through public banking, and one state, North Dakota, points the way.

That’s because North Dakota is home to the nation’s only state-owned bank, created in 1919 following a tide of farm foreclosures. The bank, with state revenues as its primary deposit base, leverages capital to lend directly or through partnering with community banks to promote development of commerce, agriculture and industry in the state, whose population of slightly less than 700,000 is about one third the size of metropolitan Cleveland’s.

The North Dakota bank makes loans to local businesses, farmers, college students and others. By partnering with the state bank, local banks can expand their loan portfolios, make bigger loans, retain customers and better compete with the big Wall Street banks. And the interest payments which go to the state bank could be used for additional lending as well as to reduce state taxes.

How exactly would public banks accelerate sustainability efforts though? According to a fact sheet  prepared by green-conscious organizers for a proposed public bank in the District of Columbia in the nation’s capital, public banks can help re-localize goods and services within a local economy thus reducing a community’s dependence upon global trade and its high energy costs. And these public banks can invest in infrastructure for electric vehicles, building efficiency improvements, small organic farms and local food distribution systems and community composting and recycling programs.

North Dakota, incidentally, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and is the only state to have a significant budget surplus every year since the financial crash of 2008, while most states currently have budget shortfalls, according to the California-based Public Banking Institute, which also says that legislation to create a state-owned bank or study the idea has been introduced in about a third of the states since 2010. Ohio is not one of them.

However, at the request of Ohio Rep. Nan Baker the Ohio Legislative Services Commission studied the North Dakota model last year, comparing it with current lending programs in Ohio. The commission's cursory report suggests that a state bank in Ohio, with all state money deposited in it, would adversely affect financial institutions which now act as public depositories for state funds. But the report does note that the Bank of North Dakota has transferred $555 million in profits to North Dakota’s general fund since 1945. (Over the last decade the amount transferred into the general fund has increase to about $30 million a year).

The recently formed Public Banking Institute is promoting creation of public banks in states, counties and cities across America and kicked off this effort with its first national conference in Philadelphia in April.  The institute sees public banks as a way to increase government revenues and reduce the pressure for tax increases as the nation confronts the economic crises in the U.S. states. 

With the public banking movement gaining momentum, many Americans have been moving their deposits from large commercial banks into community banks. According to the Move Your Money Project, an estimated 10 million accounts have left the largest banks since 2010 while credit union assets rose above $1 trillion this year for the first time ever. And as part of re-localizing our economies, Americans could also divert their investments from Wall Street, which total an estimated $30 trillion, into such ventures as investing in local enterprises and start-ups, upgrading their homes and otherwise financially supporting community sustainability efforts.

Investing in our own communities, combined with promoting public banking in our states, counties and cities, are important steps to take in seeking to channel our savings, investments and tax dollars into building the physical and financial infrastructures that will allow us to live more resiliently on far less energy as we face the consequences of dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and economic decline in the 21st Century.   

Visit Public Banking Institute for more information.

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Megan Quinn Bachman

“I don’t think there will ever again be sustained economic growth.”  —U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R–MD)

 “We need to recognize that the U.S. economy is no longer capable of growing at three percent per year.”  —Jeff Rubin, former chief economist, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC)

If there is one unshakable belief in America today it’s that the U.S. economy can and must continue to grow.

That’s why the messages delivered in November in Washington D.C. at a gathering of oil geologists, scientists, economists and others challenging that core belief went largely unheeded in the nation's capital.

The approximately 300 people who attended the 7th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil–USA (ASPO-USA) in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol were told that economic growth is no longer possible as oil production flattens and declines, that U.S. energy independence is impossible and that domestic shale gas will fall far short of fueling American prosperity even while polluting the nation’s vital aquifers.

“This is a place where facts don’t have the weight I would like them to have,” one congressional staffer said of Washington while meeting on Capitol Hill with a delegation from the ASPO-USA conference, held over three days at the nearby Hyatt Regency with its opening session at the Congressional Auditorium in the U.S. Capitol.

The facts presented at the conference, titled Truth in Energy, were grim. Global conventional oil production has reached a plateau after 150 years of fueling the fastest and greatest growth in history, according to various speakers, and as production heads into irreversible decline, Americans should prepare for a future of fewer jobs, less money, reduced mobility and dramatically diminished energy use.

Despite repeated conference invitations to the U.S. Department of Energy, no department representative attended, nor did a major media outlet provide coverage. Inside the Beltway, awareness of concepts like “peak oil” and “net energy” lags behind, leading to misguided and ultimately, futile, policy attempts to prolong oil-fueled prosperity.

“Oil prices affect the speed the economy can grow,” Rubin, the former CIBC chief economist, told conference goers, adding that printing money through monetizing debt or quantitative easing would not fuel economic growth like cheap energy.

"With oil over $100 per barrel, the U.S. economy stops growing," echoed another speaker, Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. "There is no liquid fuel substitute for oil," he said.

ASPO--USA conference attendees walk to a session in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Oil reservoirs are exhausted at a predictable rate. Likewise, we can track how fast the planet’s finite pool of petroleum is being depleted. And over the last few years, global oil production stagnated while the thirst for oil grew in developing (and populous) nations like China and India. This imbalance between supply and demand has given us recession-inducing high oil prices, conference goers were told. Those facts are not frequently disputed.

While not in attendance at the conference, influential energy industry consultant Daniel Yergin had his views challenged. Yergin argues that unconventional fossil fuels, new extraction techniques and biofuels will bridge the energy gap. But peak oil analysts at the conference insisted that those options are taking an increasing amount of energy inputs to yield the same amount of useful energy, a phenomenon known as declining net energy. As a result, there will be far less available energy.

In the U.S. in 1930 it took one barrel of oil equivalent to extract 100 barrels of oil from the ground. Today, the U.S. imports oil that yields just 19 barrels for each barrel of oil equivalent invested, despite advances in oil drilling technology and vast capital investments. Extracting the oil from unconventional formations like tar sand and oil shale takes even more energy and by some estimates, ethanol takes more energy to produce than it provides in fueling vehicles.

If Yergin, as well as Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Senate and House members, understood the simple concept of net energy, they might see that the growth fueled by cheap and easy-to-extract oil is coming to an end because alternatives to oil fall far short of meeting current energy demand. Such an understanding is also lacking among policy wonks who debate over small changes in efficiency as well as among environmentalists and Wall Street occupiers—all of whom live in communities lacking the resiliency and self-sufficiency to survive the end of the global growth economy.

The day before the conference began, a group of attendees, including myself as an ASPO-USA board member, met with congressional staffers to try to convince them, and their bosses, to at least be a little concerned about peak oil’s growth-busting potential. Congress was not by itself to blame for this lack of concern, we said, because the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) annually publishes misleading production forecasts.

The week prior, ASPO-USA held a press conference on the steps to the Department of Energy calling out the agency for its false data, demanding Secretary Chu respond to facts that fly in the face of his DOE analysis, and urging the DOE to create a plan to deal with oil supply disruptions

and long-term oil shortages.

“Pushing producers to be more transparent in their oil data sets is like slamming your head against a wall,” another congressional staffer told us during the briefings. But it’s one thing for OPEC and oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia to lie to us, and another to be deceived by our own government.

During our congressional briefings, it felt like we were the ones slamming our heads against the wall. We were told that:

• Ethanol could free America from its dependence upon foreign oil (while at the conference chemical engineer and energy analyst Robert Rapier noted that turning all arable land in the world into biofuels would replace only 40 percent of global oil).

• Oil companies (while not acknowledging the growth killing potential of declining conventional oil production) are using the peak oil argument to speed development of unconventional fuels.

• We will always need to build more roads for more vehicles, that shale gas and “clean” coal will power America (and pollute the climate) for centuries, and that the strategic petroleum reserve is more than adequate to handle oil shortages, including if the strategically vital Straight of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf was blocked.

• In sum, there is no short-term oil supply problem, and there will be no long-term one.

It is not surprising that those in the seat of power won’t touch peak oil. After all, as the energy available to our society diminishes year after year, collapse is inevitable. And collapse runs contrary to the story of American ingenuity and triumph. As retired CIA analyst and now journalist Tom Whipple pointed out at the conference, America’s most dominant religion is not Christianity but the belief in economic growth, and those who contradict that core belief are heretics.

ASPO–USA Executive Director Jan Mueller, left, and Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, prepare to visit congressional offices on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Preparing for a post-growth society might not be popular, but conference attendees nonetheless got a dose of suggestions. Agricultural researcher Wes Jackson maintained that soil is more important than oil and suggested a sustainable agricultural system based upon perennial polycultures

which use many crops within the same space to feed people, rather than rely on such annual monocultures as corn, now increasingly turned into ethanol to feed cars.

“The number one killer of our continent has been the corn plant,” Jackson said, adding that this commodity crop has eroded our once nutrient-rich soils, which prospered in diverse ecosystems. “The only true economies are natural ecosystems,” he said.

People have to take care of essential needs in their communities, according to several conference speakers, and should learn how to live off of contemporary energy (sun, wind, water) rather than finite, depleting ancient underground energy stores (fossil fuels).

“Our fetish in the modern world is having energy available on demand—we’ve built our life around that,” said author and conference speaker John Michael Greer. “But the rest of the world has dealt with a world where you use energy only when it’s there.”

Contrary to some claims at the conference that clean, renewable energy can provide as much energy to power industrial society as fossil fuels, Greer and others argued that one way or another we will have to live with far less energy and that hoping for a green utopia, rather than building household and local resiliency in the face of peak oil, is more likely to end in misery and despair.

Greer said the “alternative to industrial society is not living in caves.” As he sees it, the alternative is returning to a normal, far less energy-intense human existence.

Sociologist William Catton referred to our abnormal, energy appetite as Homo Colossus. “We were becoming a different kind of creature,” he said of the dawn of the fossil-fuel era, adding that the average American today is equivalent to a 41-ton dinosaur in daily energy use.

As global oil extraction declines, economic growth halts and ecological deficits mount, Americans face a moral choice, Catton said. “We have to forgo luxuries, or others will forgo necessities,” he said.

 

Vagengeym_Elena / iStock / Getty Images

With a growing market for vegan makeup and cruelty-free cosmetics, more and more beauty brands are ditching animal ingredients and animal testing. While many luxe animal-friendly companies have high prices, there are a number of cruelty-free makeup brands producing affordable personal care products as well.

In this article, we'll recommend 11 essential beauty products that have drugstore price tags and cruelty-free certifications. An easy switch to make in your day-to-day makeup and skincare routine is to invest in cruelty-free cosmetics that work to protect the most vulnerable among us — animals.

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EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

Was I surprised that last issue’s column, Can Renewables Outshine Fossil Fuels?, elicited a strong reaction, with written responses of support and derision? Not at all. It’s an issue that continues to divide the environmental community, and one which keeps us from moving forward as quickly as possible to conserve resources and relocalize as an era of cheap, concentrated, easy-to-get energy comes to an end.

My essential argument is that we need to use fast-depleting fossil fuels to create a renewable energy infrastructure even while understanding that renewable energy sources, as some energy researchers are realizing, cannot come close to replacing fossil fuels to meet current energy demand. Moreover, renewables, coupled with massive energy curtailment, will not any time soon become our primary energy source, largely because of various limiting factors, including resource constraints and possible prolonged world economic depression as the debt-based money system unravels.

My critics fail to understand the concept of “net energy,” a full accounting of the energy inputs required to  produce a given unit of energy. Renewable energy requires far more imputs of energy, materials and money than do fossil fuels per equivalent unit of energy produced, recent research shows. Especially challenging will be finding a liquid fuel and feedstock alternative to oil, which powers close to 100 percent of global transportation and is ubiquitous in consumer products. No other fuel is as energy-dense, versatile, easily-transportable and abundant as oil. It is the main fuel powering a globalized industrialized civilization and will do so just once.

Here’s my response to some critics’ specific arguments:

Case Western Reserve University physics professor Philip Taylor suggests we “need gather only one part in 2,000” of the sunlight falling upon the earth’s land area to meet our energy needs. While these back-of-the-envelope calculations are presented as veritable proof of solar energy’s availability, a difficult reality emerges. For constructing, installing and maintaining the devices to capture this abundant but diffuse energy is a massive, expensive, fossil-fuel consuming undertaking requiring the mining of finite and ever-scarcer rare-earth minerals and other materials and accruing tremendous human, energy and environmental costs. Yes, we might need to gather only 1 part in 2,000 at current demand. The challenge is doing so in a world with increasing population and declining net energy—with more energy increasingly expended to produce the same amount of useful energy—while fossil fuel production peaks and heads toward collapse, and resource wars intensify.

Taylor also contends that solar cells can be as much as 40 percent efficient, much higher than plants. He misses the forest for the trees when he only looks at end-use efficiency rather than lifecycle efficiency. Is a solar panel really more efficient at capturing sunlight than a tree, considering all of the water and finite fossil fuels used and toxic waste created during its production? A self-replicating tree only requires inputs provided by its immediate environment and is 100 percent recyclable.

Cleveland-area environmentalist Glenn Campbell offered “almost certain technological breakthroughs,” including ones “we can’t foresee today” as evidence that renewables will take care of our energy needs, as if technology itself was the energy source. In fact, technological development has accelerated our energy extraction and use. Even when it’s designed to increase efficiency, it still grows overall energy use (known as Jevons’ paradox). Thus, the more efficient we become, the more we consume. And increasing consumption is our biggest enemy, although it is required for the economic growth needed to try to keep the compounding debt-money system from collapsing.

While rushing to meet current demands with renewables, we should first ask ourselves why we need so much energy in the first place and figure out what can we do better with far less energy. My suggestion is that we reduce our wasteful consumption of energy while we invest our remaining fossil fuels largely in installing decentralized, small-scale renewable technologies that communities can replicate and control. This should be part of a larger integrated initiative to, among other things, relocalize food production, retrofit existing housing stock and establish decentralized systems of zero-interest credit to help businesses, create jobs and stimulate local exchange of goods and services.

These types of measures are critical to addressing our dangerous dependence on those who control the supply and distribution of energy, food, credit and other vital systems—even as we are disempowered through neoliberal globalization to take care of ourselves and our communities. So solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy technologies should be viewed as part of a larger vision to create energy-conserving and sustainable local communities. But renewable energy’s limits, compared to fossil fuels, must be understood and its potential contributions not exaggerated.

My problem therefore is not with renewables, but with renewable energy zealots who make pie-in-the-sky calculations that placate policymakers and the public and promote apathy. It’s easier to let some scientists and engineers try to figure out our energy problem for us while we turn up the air conditioning in our 3,000-square-foot homes or drive gas-guzzling SUVs, when it is this very unsustainable lifestyle that is the root of our environmental problems, not fossil fuels.

Renewables won’t save us. We have to save ourselves.

Suggested reading—“Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society,” Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization, September 2009.  www.postcarbon.org/report/44377-searching-for-a-miracle

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Megan Quinn Bachman is a board member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA and a Yellow Springs News reporter. She also teaches classes in global ecology and sustainable agriculture at Antioch University Midwest. She can be reached at [email protected]

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Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

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EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

In 2004 I was an idealistic young college graduate who hoped to change the world. I was convinced that the prospect of declining worldwide oil production loomed, and that people must heed my calls for energy conservation and radically-relocalized living.

To tell the world, I joined forces after graduation with a tiny non-profit in Yellow Springs and set my sights on tackling the coming global energy crisis through PowerPoint presentations, websites, filmmaking and conferences. The world didn’t seem to change, but to my surprise, something else did—my hometown.

Today, Yellow Springs is well on its way to becoming one of the most energy-conscious small towns in the country, and I’m now content to help it become such a model low-energy village, and to document its transition for the larger world. I also learned a lesson along the way—that to change the world we have to first change our communities.

Yellow Springs’ greening was partly intentional and partly a matter of circumstance. The southwestern Ohio town of 3,400 eschewed the path of continued fossil fuel burning in 2007 when it considered, concurrently, an offer to build a coal plant and a recommendation to upgrade its electric infrastructure to handle an electricity consumption increase.

The village first decided to commit to energy conservation and efficiency gains rather than invest in a $2- to $3-million upgrade because of residents’ concern over climate change and the high future cost of energy. The village council then voted 3–2 to reject an offer from American Municipal Power, a wholesale power supplier for municipal electric systems, to buy into a 960-megawatt, conventional coal-fired power plant to be built in Southeast Ohio. Yellow Springs was the first town, followed by Oberlin and Westerville, to say no to the plant, which was cancelled in 2009. The environmental organization Ohio Citizen Action now credits Yellow Springs with beginning a successful statewide movement among communities to stop the proposed plant from being built.

In the meantime, the environmentally- and socially-conscious population began making personal commitments to energy reduction by buying hybrid cars, building green homes and retrofitting buildings. An energy reduction support group, called the 10 Percent Club, meets monthly to help residents curtail their personal energy use by 10 percent per year.

Yellow Springs now has one of the highest rates of hybrid vehicle-ownership in the country, at more than two percent. There are six passive houses and passive retrofits—which don’t require furnaces—complete or under construction, perhaps the highest per capita in the country. And soon the village will have seven straw bale buildings.

At the village level, council has committed to green energy. At least two-thirds of Yellow Springs’ electricity consumption will come from renewable energy sources—mostly hydroelectric, landfill gas and solar— by 2015. A new village commission, the Energy Board, invests $50,000 per year in municipal energy efficiency and advises on household conservation measures, last year promoting clotheslines and compact fluorescents. This year the group is offering $60 energy audits to all residents with hopes of reducing the town’s electricity consumption by three percent per year over five years.

And villagers are becoming localvores. This season yet another community-supported agriculture farm has sprung up just outside of town to feed the community with weekly shares of vegetables—the third subscription farm in five years. These farms find fertility in the waste scraps of Yellow Springs’ local restaurants and coffee shops, which, in turn, source their produce from the local farms.

A new proposal to build a 2-megawatt solar farm in Yellow Springs would add more than just another source of clean electricity to the village’s already-green portfolio. Filling a 12-acre field in, or just outside, the village with 30,000 solar panels would be a shining reminder to the world of the community’s sustainable aspirations.

Communities in Ohio and elsewhere will face the same challenges arising from global fossil fuel depletion. In being more prepared to take them on, Yellow Springs may lead the way among municipalities to a lower-energy future.

It seems I may help to change the world after all.

Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

It may seem strange that Ohio’s most successful food incubators are in the Buckeye State’s economically-depressed Appalachian southeast and in the heart of industrial agriculture in its northwest flatlands.

But the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks’ Food Ventures Program (ACEnet) in Athens and the Center for Innovative Food Technology’s Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen (NOCK) outside of Bowling Green have spawned hundreds of small food businesses, created millions of dollars in food sales, and vastly increased local food options in restaurants and grocery stores in the two regions.

Now, representatives from the incubators are sharing their model with communities in Southwest Ohio concerned about food security and desperate for economic development. In September they met jointly with city officials from Wilmington, Yellow Springs and Xenia.

“We need to re-think where our food comes from, how it gets produced and become more involved with it,” said NOCK’s Rebecca Singer at the two-hour meeting at the Wilmington city building.

“All of us have been hit by a perfect storm of the economy, and we have a perfect storm of recovery with the mind shift in local foods and importance of taking care of your local economy,” said Larry Fisher of ACEnet’s Food Ventures.

Incubators may also provide a financial incentive for Ohio farmers to switch from the dominant corn and soybean rotation to the diverse variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, milks and meats coveted by the state’s consumers. In short, it means fresher, healthier food and more sustainable agriculture jobs.

Critical to the incubators’ success are shared community kitchens, with equipment like stoves, kettles, bakery ovens, mixers, dehydrators, can and jar fillers, refrigerators and freezers. It may seem obvious that those growing local fruits and veggies and raising animals for milk and meat have access to these facilities. But while once abundant, community kitchens all but disappeared in Ohio and across the country in an era of mono-cropping and feedlots, mammoth centralized processing and supermarket shopping.

The food incubator movement is about bringing those shared kitchens back.

Consider the stunning facts: 90 percent of food in supermarkets contains wheat, corn or soybeans; Walmart is the top grossing food retailer in the world, and more than 80 percent of beef packing and soybean processing are controlled by just four firms.

When Ohio families depend upon industrial food operations, from the fossil-fueled farms to the high-energy processing centers to the diesel-burning semi-trucks, to feed themselves, they are not secure.

Small-scale community kitchens open to the public are rare indeed. In Ohio, Athens chicken farmers have to drive to Dayton to process their chickens, while one Cleveland salad dressing company drives to Athens. Last year, lacking a mill within driving distance to grind his wheat to sell flour locally, one Athens area farmer built his own.

With access to a community kitchen, the farmer, or an enterprising entrepreneur, can process seasonal fruits and vegetables when they’re fresh and ready into a variety of finished products: jams, sauces, syrups, ice cream toppings, pies and more and sell them to area restaurants and stores, getting more money for their products than if they sold fresh--hence the term “value-added.”

Making the step from raw farm products to cans in a consumer’s pantry is not trivial. It takes more than access to equipment, it also takes business and marketing sense, relationships with area stores and restaurateurs and compliance with state regulations, to name a few.

Enter the business services component of food incubators.

At NOCK, aspiring entrepreneurs need at least $500 in start-up funds, liability and product insurance, a business plan, and to have completed on-site food safety training. Then for just $10 to $20 per hour, they can rent the facility to cook, process,package and store their food product. Evening classes and technical assistance on marketing, connecting with retail establishments, nutritional analysis and checking shelf-life are available for nominal fees.

“Most farmers are not entrepreneurs,” said Fisher on the importance of business guidance. “Usually they’re good with plants and animals and not people.”

ACEnet’s kitchen facility has seen 100 businesses come through over its 17-year history. In its 130,000-square-foot facility, 200 to 300 cases of a product can be produced in a mere eight hours. In total, ACEnet’s 35 tenant businesses yield $9 million to $10 million in food sales per year and employ 250 to 300 people.

From salsas and barbecue sauces to breads and cheeses, the two incubators are producing food for the community and income for its residents.

“Athens is in the top three local food economies in the country,” Fisher said.

“This is what it takes to reinvent the local economy.” Southwest Ohio is taking notice.

Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

Using less, cutting back, saving resources, conserving energy, reducing impact—such actions, though vital responses to our planetary peril, conjure up images of a strictly proscribed and rather austere future.

When our only goal is minimizing consumption, it’s easy to imagine the imposition of draconian government measures—ones where every energy-consuming action is monitored, controlled and limited. For some, this approach is tolerable as long as it forestalls dangerous climate changes. For others, a centralized, authoritarian “dictatorship of sustainability” is a worse fate yet.

If a singular focus on cutting carbon dioxide is mistaken, what then, is the environmental movement to do? Thankfully we can save the planet while strengthening autonomy of our communities by re-localizing vital goods and services.

By meeting our most essential needs closer to home our communities will be more resilient in the face of global economic and ecological shocks. Being more self-sufficient means we will be less dependent upon centralized, energy-intensive industrial infrastructure and energy-devouring long-distance transport.

In this way, individuals and communities will also be more sustainable and more in control of their destiny, and less at the mercy of manipulated global commodity prices, corrupt CEOs, inept politicians and marauding Wall Street bankers.

But how exactly do we re-localize our economies after several decades of fast-growing economic globalization fueled by cheap energy, easy credit and mushrooming debt? According to economist and author Michael Shuman, it is by creating more locally owned, import-substituting businesses in our towns.

At a workshop in my community of Yellow Springs, Ohio last year, we designed a host of new business opportunities, including a local delivery company, small business loan fund, venture capital fund, energy services company, local farm and garden cooperative, business incubator and wellness center. These local businesses would help to keep money circulating within the community, instead of flowing from it.

While all import-substituting businesses reduce the transportation energy used to deliver goods and services, some more specifically cut energy consumption, like a renewable energy cooperative. In the Austrian town of Gussing, a council decision ordering all public buildings to stop using fossil fuels led to the development of 50 new renewable energy businesses, now employing more than 1,000 people while dramatically cutting its carbon dioxide generation by 90 percent.

In the midst of a global financial crisis, calls to re-localize finance are gaining ground. One recent example is the “Move Your Money” campaign, which is aimed at encouraging those banking at those too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks to move their accounts to community banks and credit unions.

According to its website (www.moveyourmoney.info), “Community banks are typically more conservative about how they manage their money, they’re more closely connected to the people and businesses who live near them, and they’re more inclined to make loans they know will get paid back.”

So instead of investing in the global economic growth system which is undermining its own ability to continue by devastating the natural environment on which we depend, we could be investing locally in the people, businesses and technologies that directly sustain us and will sustain generations to come through import-substituting businesses.

Re-localization has another benefit as well. Instead of a restricted and hapless low-consumption future, we can have a happier healthier existence as we fill our lives with valued relationships instead of valued possessions.

In fact, the last few decades focus on wealth accumulation has come at the expense of close, fulfilling relationships. Today we have less intimacy with our friends in addition to having fewer friends. A study done in the U.S. and published in the American Sociological Review showed that from 1980 to 2004 the number of “close confidants” people had had dropped from three to two and the number of people without any close confidants has more than doubled.

Re-localization is about finding a more sustainable way to provide for our needs as a global industrial system based upon diminishing finite fossil fuels crumbles in the 21st Century. It’s about building community so that “when things get hard,” as deep ecologist Joanna Macy has said, “we won’t, in fear, turn on each other.”

Apocalyptic scenarios of either a devastated planet or an authoritarian world government both disintegrate in the face of neighbors growing food for one another.

Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

The failure of the Copenhagen climate talks taught us one thing—that hoping for intelligent responses to climate change from the world's governments is an exercise in futility. It's just not going to happen in time.

But my disappointment in government leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere is matched by my admiration for a new influential group of Americans, whom I call lifestyle leaders—for they are taking matters into their own hands, such as through building gardens, weatherizing their homes, getting rid of their cars, moving off-grid, bartering with neighbors and joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

Believing this group may hold the key to the rapid dissemination of low-energy lifestyles among the general public, I conducted an online survey on two sustainability-oriented listservs in late 2009 of 2,005 of those who have made changes to their lifestyles in response to climate change, peak oil and other environmental threats.

What have these early adopters done in response to these threats? More than two-thirds of survey takers said they cut purchases, bought more local goods and services, conserved energy in their homes and put in a garden. One-sixth have started new careers, such as a truck driver who became a permaculture teacher.

And these early adopters are reaching out to others. Nine out of ten are helping others to make similar changes, mostly by talking to people and modeling sustainable behaviors. Take the case of a 40-year-old man from Pennsylvania, who helps his neighbors grow their own food. “Our goal is to produce an example of what suburbanites must do to survive the collapse of our current system," he wrote.

What were the hardest changes to make? Driving less and changing their diet, both a product of bad habits. “Not jumping into a car every time I turned around," was how one respondent, a 52-year old man from rural Wisconsin, explained it.

Other barriers to effective action were cost, especially financing expensive home retrofits and renewable energy systems, lack of support from one's family, especially when it comes to diet change, and lack of community and societal support, particularly when local food products and mass transit services were not available.

Understanding these barriers is critical—for if these exceptionally motivated individuals are held back, we can assume other people will have similar difficulties. These findings may help us all to learn what to expect.

The good news is that it hasn't been all hard times for these lifestyle leaders. Many changes have made their lives better, like adopting a low-energy and local diet, gardening (which was frequently described as “fun") and walking and bicycling more. More than three-quarters of respondents reported greater happiness satisfaction or personal growth since embracing new ways of living.

Those lifestyle change leaders making the more significant reductions in fossil fuel use are pioneering a new way to live on this planet that everyone will eventually have to adopt to preserve climate stability and survive the end of the fossil fuel age. Some survey findings that may help those working to accelerate awareness and action among the general public are:

  • People are driven to act in the face of global threats largely by a sense of right and wrong – their conscience – with some encouragement and inspiration from books, movies, media programs and articles.
  • Emphasizing the positive consequences of particular lifestyle changes, and focusing on health and wellness benefits and a simpler, more satisfying life may be more effective ways to encourage change than promoting financial savings.
  • The lack of support from one's community and family and lack of assistance with overcoming unhelpful personal habits and attitudes are more significant roadblocks to effective response than not having enough information on what actions to take.
  • Growing one's own food is a popular and transformative way to begin living a more sustainable lifestyle, and may lead to a new career opportunity and the development of more community support.
  • Most people do not feel they need to measure the impact of their lifestyle changes, but some think such feedback would motivate and assist them with doing more. Setting goals, even without measurement, is extremely helpful.
  • Nine out of ten people plan to make additional changes, including starting or expanding a garden, installing a renewable energy system, or working with others in their local community to make broader, more systemic changes.

Instead of waiting for the results of the next climate change summit in Mexico, why not get to work as individuals and communities? Ultimately whether we meet carbon dioxide reduction targets or not comes down to what we do, or not do, as energy consumers.

As a 59-year-old rural Kentucky man said in the survey, “Though I don't have much faith that we as a nation, or world, are willing to make the needed changes, I believe we must work toward those changes...The only true way to fail is to not try."

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EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

Is switching to nuclear energy our best chance to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, or a more dangerous prospect than climate change? Is nuclear power the only option to replace finite fossil fuels or can decentralized energy sources such as wind and solar, along with conservation and efficiency, fill the gap?

A nuclear advocate and a critic tackled these questions in a heated debate in November at a Michigan environmental conference. At odds were 1970s-era activists Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace co-founder and now a nuclear supporter, and Harvey Wasserman, an anti-nuke crusader from Columbus, who coined the expression, “No Nukes."

The use of nuclear energy has become a hot button issue for environmentalists with some of its biggest names switching to endorse nuclear. Among them: James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis and Stewart Brand, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue.

Moore embraces nuclear power as a way to battle climate change. “If we want to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and 85 percent of the U.S. does, it's not possible without nuclear energy on a large scale," he said in the debate at the Conference on Michigan's Future: Energy, Economy and Environment.

So renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, when combined with radical conservation measures-local food production, other local production, sharing and exchange systems, such as ride-sharing and local currencies and credit-may be our best options because they are decentralized and under the control of communities, businesses and homeowners.

Moore claimed that wind and solar energy, now accounting for less than one percent of total production, will never replace fossil fuels because they are too intermittent and expensive. “You can't run factories, schools and hospitals on sources that will disappear for days at a time," he said.

Actually, he has a point. Even with double-digit growth rates, wind and solar along with geothermal remain a miniscule portion of total energy use. While green techno-enthusiasts may claim that a growing industrial world could be run on scaled-up renewable sources, the numbers suggest otherwise.

Wasserman, author of SOLARTOPIA! Our-Green Powered Earth, A.D. 2030, argued that a combination of renewable energy sources, increased efficiency and a new transportation infrastructure would better solve the climate crisis and energy problems than nuclear power, which he described as a “failed 20th century technology." Wasserman detailed a long list of nuclear power's woes—its high cost (about $10 billion or more per plant and rising), the potentially catastrophic health and safety effects from everyday radiation emissions and possible meltdowns and other accidents, the inability of the industry to get private funding and insurance and the unresolved issue of the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

With these concerns, it's no wonder that a new nuclear plant hasn't been commissioned in the U.S. in some three decades. But the pressure for new nuclear plants will continue until what is truly the most cost-effective, clean, renewable, safe energy source is embraced—namely conservation—in the form of massive energy curtailment which embraces lifestyle changes in food, housing, transportation and other sectors.

But neither debater spoke of the promise of a rapid and deep reduction in per capita energy use from personal behavioral changes. Energy efficiency, promoted by Wasserman, relies much on unknown technological advances and has been shown to increase rather than decrease the rate of consumption of a resource (known as Jevons' Paradox). We have more efficient cars, but tend to drive them more and our homes are more energy-efficient than 40 years ago, but twice as large.

Whether nuclear power is the safest, cleanest, cheapest energy source available, or the most deadly, polluting and expensive, the real issue might be the fundamental nature of power generation in the 21st century, a point which Wasserman hammered home. “The entire structure of centralized control [of energy] by large corporations is the problem," he said.

So renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, when combined with radical conservation measures—local food production, other local production, sharing and exchange systems, such as ride-sharing and local currencies and credit—may be our best options because they are decentralized and under the control of communities, businesses and homeowners.

  1. As Wasserman concluded in deriding nuclear power, “We are not only getting away from a failed technology, we are moving from a failed paradigm and that is centralized control."

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