Building the Green Economy – Intro

Posted: August 30, 2010

LaDonna Redmond didn’t think of herself as an activist, and she didn’t set out to become a heroine. In 1999, when her son Wade was diagnosed with acute food allergies, Redmond was first and foremost a new mother, trying to figure out how best to spur a campaign for community food security and spark a renaissance in her neglected Chicago neighborhood.

The doctors weren’t much help in figuring out how to cope with Wade’s food-based allergies, so Redmond had to give herself a crash course in nutrition. In the process of deciphering the ingredients in our food, Redmond got and eye-opening education in good politics. The more she learned about how hazardous our industrial agriculture is for us and the environment. That knowledge cultivated in Redmond an appreciation for locally grown, sustainable foods. But the price of supermarket organics proved to be a huge budget-buster.  So Redmond came up with a better solution:  She would grow the family’s food herself.

First LaDonna and her husband, Tracey, converted their backyard into a “micro-farm.” Then Tracey quit his job and, with some help from the city of Chicago, the couple took over a few nearby vacant lots and converted them into vegetable gardens. Neighbors became curious, then offered to pitch in. Soon the Redmond’s were selling organic produce in the community and helping others take over abandoned lots and turn them into organic gardens.Today, the Redmonds’ organization, the Institute for Community Resource Development, manages an African-American farmers’ market, helps neighborhood residents develop the skills to grow their own food, and is working to a co-operative grocery story. Its network of gardens has become a model for how low-income communities can improve their quality of life.

“I really believe in the idea that people can change their community’s circumstances,” Redmond told us. “The community has the capacity to change; in fact, it has the right to change.”

LaDonna Redmond’s story is a powerful example of how a personal concern

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can grow into a political cause. Initially, Redmond was focused on the most basic of needs keeping her child healthy. Because he stakes were so high, Redmond didn’t have the luxury of complaining; she was forced to change to protect her family.When she saw that her personal issue was connected to a web of problems, she realized that the remedy her son needed was exactly what the neighborhood needed: healthy food. Redmond’s individual difficulty took on a political dimension the minute she realized she was not alone.

At first glance, LaDonna Redmond’s story may seem inspiring because it’s exceptional. But if you look closely, you’ll find that there are thousands of LaDonna Redmond’s, people who are working diligently to safeguard their communities. In the process, they are laying the foundation for a new kind of economy: one that is ecologically sustainable, socially just, and locally controlled.

The days of globalized, industrial economy based on ceaseless resource extraction are numbered. More people every day are realizing that the ecosystems on which we depends are collapsing. If we want to avoid ecological disaster and the social catastrophes that will come with it we must create a way of living that is more deeply connected to nature.

The pioneers of this local, green economy movement aren’t pie-in-the-sky prophets. They are hard at work, on the ground,figuring out ways to reduce toxic emissions, grow organic food, build a clean energy system, enliven blighted city streets, and create companies whose business models are based on the cyclical logic of nature rather than the linear thinking of the market.

Each of those effects is, in its own unique way, about knitting together community. Whether the story is about something as huge as climate change or as prosaic as selling worm poop in reused plastic bottles, the protagonist in our success stories recognize the importance of bringing people together. They know that the answers to out global challenges rest on collective solutions. They know that there is no such thing as an individual solution just individual coping mechanism.

This ethos of collective responsibility is a sharp rebuke to the cultural mindset that says life is all about you, the individual. Fortunately, millions of people like LaDonna Redmond are waking up from their American Dream.

The State of the American Dream

Somewhere between the sunny images on the television and the suffocating grind of the daily commute, the American ideal of success appears to have gone off track. To be sure, we enjoy luxuries that only a few societies in history have possessed. Yet our material wealth has failed to translate into equally abundant

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personal satisfaction. in the last 50 years, average income, adjusted for inflation, has doubled. But during the same period, the percentage of Americans described themselves as “very happy”declined. A recent survey by the Gallup organization and the Pew Center found that the percentage Americans believing they will live a “higher quality of life”n the future has dropped to 49 percent, from a high of 61 percent, the sharpest decrease in 40 years. It appears we are failing in that most Americans of pastimes– the pursuit of happiness.

How to explain the undercurrent of unease in the midst of such affluence? Could it be that millions of people sense that below the veneer of our prosperity lurk dark secrets that distress us even as we pretend to be satisfied?

Perhaps it’s the poisons we fear. Our luxurious lifestyles float on a sea of artificial chemicals that — while they give us conveniences like plastics and disposable packaging– also pose a clear risk to our health. Since World War II, the production  of synthetic materials has increased 350 times, and billions of pounds of chemicals have been poured into the environment. studies show that 287 toxins and chemicals are regularly found in the umbilical cords of newborns. During the post-World War II industrial age, the incidence of cancer has increased nearly 50 percent. today, about half of all men and 38 percent of all women in the United States will be diagnosed with some form of cancer. That could be reason enough to be distressed.

The air we breathe is also cause for concern. By some estimates, 64,000 people die prematurely every year due to the soot from power plants. Rates of asthma are skyrocketing. An estimated 6.3 million children suffer from asthma, double the rate 20 year ago.

Our food, the very thing that should bolster our health, is exactly the opposite. In their relentless drive to maintain growth, food corporations encourage us to eat more and more. The result has been a national obesity epidemic. Sixty-five percent of adults are overweight contributes to heart disease, stroke, and respiratory problems. Most troubling is the increase in Type-2 diabetes. About one in three children today  are at risk of developing the disease, making them the first generation in U.S history to have a short life expectancy than their parents. Such daily assaults on our personal health no doubt serve as a drag on national morale.
The problems are compounded by our political system’s unresponsiveness to these crises. Our democracy– which of course has never been free from cronyism or corruption– seems to grow more distant from average citizens with every election cycle. While official Washington quarrels, the standard of living for million deteriorates. Rough 40 million Americans live without health insurance. Fifteen percent of all children in this country, 30 percent of

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African-American children, live in poverty. Personal bankruptcies and household debt are at all time highs.

The political class’s neglect of these issues can be traced, in part, to the massive wealth disparities afflicting the nation. Our political leaders know they can stay in power as long as they enjoy the largesse of the wealthiest individuals. This includes the CEOs who today earn, on average, more than 400 times what the average work makes.

The incompatibility of democratic principles and huge wealth gaps should be obvious .s As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once warned: “We can have a democratic society or we can have the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.” Wealth without equity is not prosperity.

To add insult to injury, most Americans are working more and earning less. Since the 1970s, wages for blue-collar workers have been virtually stagnant. Salary stagnation is now hitting college-educated workers too; from 2000 to 2004, salaries for skilled workers dropped 5 percent. Yet we are working longer. Since 1980, Americans have tacked on more than 80 hours to their work year.

For the ecosystems on which we depend, our frenzied lifestyles result in a tangible loss of vitality. The evidence is all around us. the planet’s ocean ecosystem is collapsing, with scientists predicting that by 2048 most fish populations will be depleted beyond the point of regeneration. Eighty percent of the globe’s old growth forests have been stripped. About one-third of the earth’s plants and mammals are at risk of extinction, a die-off of historic proportions. The earth’s topsoil, – the resource on which every terrestrial species, including us, depends – is eroding 10 times faster than the natural rate, in a kind of chemical peel of the earth’s skin.

To put this in market terms, our demands are beginning to outstrip the planet’s supply. The American Dream it appears, is turning into a nightmare.

Expanding the Definition of Green

Heard enough doom and gloom? We have.

the good news is that the local green economy is changing the culture of the progressive movement from one of protesting what we don’t like to one of creating what we do like. As our friend Van Jones is fond of saying, “Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a complaint.’ He said, ‘I have a dream.”"

Our dream is the local green economy. some of our stories will not fit what you think of as today’s “green economy.”: solar panels, organic food, recycling. We are using the term to mean what it will inevitably mean in the not-too-

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distant future: a popularly controlled economy that can guarantee human survival without destroying other species. Given the accelerating collapse of all biological system, there will son be little choice. We will either make a transition to a sustainable economy or we will perish by the millions. Earth’s biosphere cannot continue supporting the wasteful, nature destroying economy that has dominated the planet for the past several centuries.

When–and it is a matter of when, not if–catastrophic environmental developments start cascading down onus, the grassroots heroes portrayed herein will look very prescient. Fifty years from now, they will mark the early years of this century as the period when many people realized that we must make a shift toward biomimicry. Biomimetics is the science of studying how nature operates and then engineering our economy and out society toward that model. It’s a model in which there is no waste, where everything is recycled, and nothing gets thrown away–because there is no “away.”

The green economy is no longer some quaint sideline. It is the most rapidly growing sector of the economy. Sales of organic foods are skyrocketing; renewable energy is the hot frontier of the venture capital; hybrid vehicles are all the rage; and green building technology is transforming the construction industry.

After centuries of an economic system built on extraction and exploitation, the twp greens are finally merging. The green of money is synergizing with the green of nature as ecological enterprises prove themselves to be more profitable. As natural resources are depleted, business models that save or restore nature will increase in value.

No one knows exactly what the green economy will look like, but that’s part of the beauty of the process. It’s an organic, evolving, being. There are, however, several fundamental features of the local, green economy. They include:

  • Eco-sustainability: Safeguarding the biological systems on which we all depend so we can meet the needs of everyone today without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. As green architect William McDonough says: “How do we love all the children of all species for all time?”
  • Social responsibility: ensuring no one is left out or abused, acknowledging the basic human rights principle that no group in inherently superior or inferior to any other, and institutionalizing that principle in law and policy.
  • Fiscal Responsibility: Making sure that costs and rewards are distributed evenly, and that those who can afford to carry more of the load compensate for the less able. For example, healthy adults should be expected to work harder than the young, the old, and the sick.

This green economy must also be a democratic economy. It must create the

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kinds of economic structures that give everyone a voice in the production and distribution of key resources. After all, no one wants to live near a dangerous chemical plant, or chooses to pay themselves a poverty wage. The ethos of creativity – allowing people to let their imaginations run loose while gaining control of their living conditions – is the backbone of the emerging green economy. If the top-down corporate economy is monotone and homogeneous, the green economy is the exact opposite: polyphonic and heterogeneous. It is based on natures core principle – unity-in-diversity – whereby all living things are connected in webs of interdependence.

We must now incorporate that principle into every aspect of our lives. We are, in fact, part of nature and cannot escape Mather Nature’s embrace. We can no longer afford to deveive ourselves about our ultimate dependence on sun, soil, air, wand water. In everything we do, in every policy we enact, we must put our connectedness with nature and the environmental consequences of our actions at the center of our planning. We must internalize a green worldview.

But the local green economy movement is not yet a unified movement. you will notice that some of our stories are obviouslyu green and otheres are more about local people asserting control of our society, with no obvious environmental angle. Yet we believe that these latter struggles are crucial to building a green economy. A necessary – but not sufficient – condition for creating a green economy is citizens learning to assert control over the institutions that govern their lives. The attitudes and organizing skills that people develop during the course of a struggle to shut down a bad prison or oppose the Patriot Act will be crucial ingredients in creating the green economy. Building the green economy will involve more than technology and economics; it will also require people empowering themselves to assert their authority over all aspects of our society.

Ecology teaches that ll living things are interconnected. that insight can prompt an expansion of the definition of green, so that green also comes to mean empathy and solidarity, compassion and kindness. Ecological thinking says that we cannot afford to sacrifice the sweatshop worker or the sea turtle because those living beings are part of us, and we are dependent on them, whether we realize it or not.

If we fail to transform human consciousness so that people feel themselves to be part of nature, we will never achieve true sustainability, and we will pass on to our children and grandchildren a failure that will give new meaning to the word shame.