Sunday, November 22, 2009

Green building, green money.

I recently presented at the Sierra Club's New Orleans Green Rebuilding Conference at the Doubletree. Big fan of the organization. I think they are keeping the conversation going and real issues on the table. Not a diatribe against our leading enviros.
But was troubled by the lack of interest among many attendees in making at the connection with social justice issues around costs of greening. Let me elaborate:

To recycle in New Orleans, one must contact a private company, pay a monthly charge each month. To have the type of ceiling fans that Global Green recommends using as the most efficient, one must fork over 400.00. To install solar in your house, will run you anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 and in a humid, sub-tropical climate like ours, how smart is it to punch bunch of holes in one's roof and hope for good installation during wind gusts of 30-90 mph?

Back when I was working to build a small house post-Katrina, I went looking for info about green and if I could make it downtown to info sessions, I could learn how I could BUY green. I could not see demonstration projects in my neighborhood about building small, not could I go to a group that would just show me how to reduce useage or band with others to buy cheaper. (more on that on the subject of geothermal another time).
What concerned me then and again when reading about building green, most is about buying new products that will allow me to have the same relationship with the environment (meaning how is it to be used to my benefit at my pleasure) rather than being a movement about building an alternative to consumption and to an energy industry that literally controls governments.

I can't ask that the store allow me to use my own jars to fill coffee or spices. I can't demand that the city buy their power from alternative sources. My landlord will not change the orientation of the house so I can get light from natural sources during the day.
I am still in the industrial energy system and I see no way out while it is only a system to encourage me to buy new things and what I get in return is only a reduction in the pocketbook costs for me.

I often talk to groups about the beginning of the "good food" movement back in the early 1970s and how small farmers came out of the hippie movement and started to bring organic products to the marketplace. Unfortunately, those organic apples usually cost around 4-6 bucks each at those tiny, well-meaning natural foods stores one saw back then. And you had to be a member and usually donate time as well. So, it did not spread into a movement. (Recently went back to my first co-op in Cleveland, which is still there more than 25 years later. It was still the same, with crowded shelves dusty and with prices that shocked me now. Funny how perception changes...)

Luckily, many activists in the enviro and consumer movements came to see that food issues were at the core of many of our problems and that the lack of healthy food and healthy spaces to look for food was moving our world to epidemic. Painstakingly, the new open-air markets started to spring up and when they did, those organizers were pretty savvy for 3 reasons:
1. They reached across the political spectrum for supporters. Libertarian farmers, old-money funders, environmental warriors, regular shopppers who didn't even know what a persimmon was, all were invited to join the town square. As far as issues, farmland preservation, soil and water quality, public safety, nutritional access and F-U-N social space were all part of the organizing strategy ever week.
2. They made competition a hallmark of good public markets. Trust me, we argue among ourselves about how much competition we allow in our markets, what underselling is allowed, how to balance different farmers needs, but the point is, we work to manage a fair price for both shopper and farmer. We do that to ensure that price can remain as democratic as possible for all.
3. They designed a taut but elastic structure that allowed for change and growth. Now, with the advent of electronic wireless technology, many of us are bringing debit and food stamp useage into these parking lots, raising money to pilot this and the outreach needed.
Listen, we got our problems. We have angry rural people coming into the city and sometimes missing the point of taking products to market; bringing inferior stuff or charging prices that are unrealistic. We have rich shoppers who are still the face of most markets, and they tend to be white and when in New Orleans, from the other side of Canal. We obsess over every tiny detail and then miss some big ones to our everlasting embarrassment.
And sometimes to my large frustration, I realize how few people have heard our message that we are building an alternative to the industrial system of food and as the alternative, scale is different and success is different. When we are compared to storefronts who buy food from wholesalers, never insuring that the farmer is also winning with this transaction or that price will be managed as fairly as possible, I know it is a marathon not a sprint.

But we know this food movement is not just about buying local. It is about knowing where your food comes from and how it is made and what the benefits are to you to participate- when you can. And the market movement is about more than food. I can define that with one sign you see at many "third places": "Seats are reserved for paying customers" Understandable I guess for a retail store that needs people to buy every hour. With markets, we have no such sign and most of us would leave before that ever even discussed seriously. Storefronts are usually single entrepreneurial activities and do not need to stand in for grassroots movements, so I am not comparing apples to satsumas, but point made.
Reality check: with 4 tiny farmers markets weekly in the city, you had either be very mobile or unemployed or a true zealot to get ALL of your food from them. If you're not a bunny-kissin', tree-huggin' food fringer, you need to get to that industrial food system too once in a while. Yes Whole Foods is part of that. Yes, Dorignac's is part of that. Yes, Terranova's is part of that. It's okay as long as you see the consumer side and the movement side. When so many shoppers of ours tell me that they now grow some food, or seem to know that local is not as available at those stores as it could be, or when we see a kid learn how to dig in a lavendar plant over a lazy, sunny Saturday morning under the tent, I know we are really, truly building a movement and not just another part of the consumer system.

And for those who don't like markets with their multiple check out lines and corny events, I say don't worry- we are building an alternative system that will allow more people to grow food to see good food and to find that food in spaces that we don't manage but (as long as they remember to benefit farmers, shoppers and maybe their own bottom line last) we will assist them. They can surely have access to some of the lesson we are learning. Schools who are building a whole system like Green Elementary, or that Rouse's down the street that is buying a bit directly from farmers, we can work with that while building our movement.

And THAT is what I am waiting for in the green building movement. I think it is coming, I do skeptical friends, but we need to insist that is about more than a 200.00 faucet that is beautiful and energy efficient. We need managed competition and a balance of education, advocacy and marketplace.
We need to see more than retail stores on Magazine street looking at energy efficiency-and those non-profits involved need to find ways to reuse, reduce AND build an alternative system of clotheslines and open windows in the fall to go along with their shiny new products. Like Janna Levitt, the architect from Toronto who was assisting me. She drew a 400 square foot house with every idea used being about my comfort level and knowledge about useage, climate. Spent more time explaining to me how I could reduce whenever needed than ever selling. She gets it.

I end with a quote from my current favorite writer, Rebecca Solnit, who spoke at the recent conference. When talking to these green activists and well-meaning, visionary architects at the Doubletree, she reminded them to not only think of the buildings, but also "remember to build the social space in between the buildings."
In other words, build a movement.

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