Intense. Doing a seven-week work placement is like moving to a new place on fast-forward – you have to learn the job, the people, the politics, the town, and feel like you’ve seen the sights and accomplished something before you leave, all too soon.
Then you come back to school and sum up what you did in the most impressive, professional with world-traveling bohemian spirit way possible. Brevity and wit encouraged.
I did outreach and communications work for two alternative energy companies, which included writing press releases, being interviewed for newspaper and television stories, and organizing an international conference on community-scale sustainable biofuels with a film premiere and a weekend of workshops. I also built two websites, for Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op and the Collective Biofuels Conference, managed conference advertising , attendee communication, registration and oversaw the graphic design department (we had some great SWAG!)
I fell off the map during my internship this summer, figuratively and (almost) literally. When I headed to Vancouver Island for a seven-week placement, I planned to blog weekly (or more!) and stay in touch with people. But after being on the edge of North America with no cell phone makes it hard to keep up, and it was easier to just lose contact.
Plus it was much busier than I imagined. Running a conference you become a de facto ‘expert’ on all sorts of things – meaning taking WAGs (wild-ass guesses) at any and every answer, trying to make sure you’re not wrong…
Travel logistics gain an added dimension of awesome when you add an island to the mix – only reachable by ferries and float planes. This is considered extreme blaspheme by Vancouver Islanders – but build an effing bridge! Or at least have more than three times per day you can get to the island. I felt like we were in an episode of Lost!
Border control questions, like can I bring a minor across the border with a letter, mix with currency exchanges, press releases and public relations, spokesperson duties, and dabbling in fundraising, website design and logo creation. No matter what, working in a non-profit will never be boring, because it’s a game of musical chairs where there’s never enough people playing. So you need to be sitting in more than one chair at the same time when the music stops. Hence, my summer trip to Vancouver was more midnight website editing, and less magical frolicking. I didn’t even see a bear, or a unicorn!
In the 7 weeks I was on Vancouver Island, I did get my days of fun – making wine labels, building raised beds and planting a garden, tubing down the Cowichan river, seeing a folk festival, camping in Pachena Bay. But I also got to feel like I was living in a place – biking to work, bringing my lunch, knowing the shopkeepers. It was like a mini-placement, where somewhere in the middle I forgot the beginning and the end and just worried about whether anyone would come to our conference, like a normal employee.
Luckily, the conference, my raison d’être this summer, was a success. Sixty people attended the event from across North America – we even had an attendee from Iceland! It was a small gathering, but community-scale biofuel production is a niche market, and we had representation from all the big names of grassroots alternative fuel distribution – Lyle Estill from Piedmont Biofuels, Todd Hill from Promethean, Jason Burroughs from DieselGreen Fuels, Jennifer Radtke with Biofuel Oasis, and many more speakers from all parts of the sustainable biodiesel production chain.
Almost all our attendees use waste vegetable oil as their feedstock and are committed to strengthening their supply chains – making sure all the inputs are as sustainable as possible, and that there is resilience in sourcing and available alternatives. This crowd is definitely not in it for the money, but is committed to providing clean-burning locally produced carbon-neutral fuel to our communities.
It was great to see people I have known for years and hear how their companies have grown and changed, and their refined takes on the future of energy consumption and production in America. Because as much as we ignore it America runs on cheap fossil fuels (and Dunkin Doughnuts, according to their campaign) – but that can’t go on forever. In a world of finite resources, Peak Oil and Peak Everything are near certainties, and my generation is going to need to deal with growing competition for natural resources in an economically and environmentally damaged world, where America has lost its historic moral leadership and wealth.
A country that depends on foreign oil to grow our food and power our economy, that has no energy plan, sounds like insanity – but that country is America. I don’t see how the system we’re currently living in is desirable or sustainable, and we are going to need a lot more than recycled waste vegetable oil to deal with the challenges of the next few decades. I hope that bio-based energy will be one of the many available solutions.
Biodiesel, ethanol, biomass, and biogas all have their issues – and questions of indirect land use, workers’ rights, deforestation, net life cycle emissions, global food prices and soil replenishment are all reasonable. But if we don’t make aggressive steps now to embrace every organic renewable alternative to fossil energy sources, it will be too late when the time comes. And I believe the time is coming within my lifetime, if not within the next 10 years – in terms of having the opportunity and resources to make extensive change to the global energy mix.
The beauty of biodiesel and ethanol is they can be used in the existing energy infrastructure without modification, can be produced locally and ethically, creating jobs and greening our communities.
Biodiesel has gotten a bad rap as taking food from the mouths of the starving, and many environmentalists have a knee-jerk aversion to it for this reason. I think (and this isn’t my original idea, but shared by other biodiesel advocates) that the bio-bubble burst in 2008 was a smear campaign contrived by Big Oil to destroy biodiesel. A few observations: that was the summer that gas was about $4/gallon, and food and fuel prices have a strong relationship. Isn’t it even more likely that the rising petroleum prices were the culprit? Also, most of the corn and soy grown in the US isn’t for human consumption, and the distiller’s grain left after making ethanol can still be fed to livestock.
The Frame Job
Why Big Oil couldn’t just jump on the train to sustainability town is unclear, but instead the story was that growing corn and soy to make fuel was leading to massive deforestation and starvation as food prices spiked. It’s true there’s been some horribly perverse subsidies and a lack of regulation in the biofuel industry, resulting in deforestation in the Amazon and Borneo, some commodities price fluctuations, and other unintended consequences. But America’s Farm Subsidies and other policies also negatively impact the poor and create serious environmental degradation, including a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Texas.
I think there’s more to it – people don’t like goody two-shoes. And environmentalists get the rap of hall monitors or something. So whenever there’s an idea that’s environmentally friendly it gets held to the ultimate hypocrisy test. Like – Big Oil are all scum and we know that, so when they lie cheat and poison the oceans, that’s just Business As Usual. But if a ‘green’ initiative is started, if it’s not the most environmentally friendly mythical fairy of a technology ever, it gets trashed.
After a semester in grad school, MIIS has definitely taught me that we need to be pragmatic idealists. As long as people live on this planet we will leave our mark. Capitalism, consumerism, creation – all these things require inputs. I don’t think that the economy should grind to a halt or we should stop all resource extraction – but there’s only so much of any element or resource on this shiny blue ball, and once we use it up we’re SOL. So we should be thoughtful and careful about our resource use.
The same goes for energy. You don’t get anything for free, so any energy that isn’t directly from photosynthesis or burning calories will have some effect on the planet. It’s obvious we’re not going to do away with fossil fuels like coal oil and gas in the near future, and we need to supplement/replace them with less polluting energy sources. That’s for the health of our rivers and streams, soil, air, oceans, communities, and for our economic future.
So why poo-poo any technology that could be part of the solution, even if its first generation product has problems? I can’t think of a more polluting disgusting immoral industry than oil and the other big energy companies. And I can’t think of a single ‘clean’ technology that doesn’t have its own casualties. Solar panels and wind turbines use rare earth minerals mined in conflict countries – often creating a ‘resource curse’ for local populations, and extracted with extensive damage to local ecosystems. Hydro destroys marine life, geothermal involves digging up large tracts of soil… But we have to move towards these cleaner technologies while we have the excess human and natural capital to enact such a large change.
I worry about the future of the world, as we blithely go on consuming without any thought to the long-term repercussions of our actions. I guess since the economy hasn’t totally collapsed so far, every day we can limp along is a false positive – yes, the system can work! But like Ishmael says – we’re just falling and haven’t crashed yet. I hope that the career I’m choosing in renewable energy can provide some cushion to our fall, and that I will have the skills and knowledge to help my community when energy prices spike. China’s out there buying up global natural resources, but America fiddles as Rome burns, and I guess that these days we’re Rome.
Preparing for the unpredictable inevitable something that’s coming feels like the zeitgeist (at least among my overly educated, environmentally aware friends). We’re all uneasy about our futures – individually and as a global collective. My computer skills and jokes won’t feed me in the event of some sort of global meltdown, and no empire has lasted before, so why should America? Whether you call it urban homesteading, survival skills, or apocalypse-preparedness, my generation seems to be prepping to get ourselves to the bunkers. I don’t have a cache of food and weapons in a back woods cache somewhere, but I feel remiss. I should have enough food and water to survive a short emergency (like if the town I live in turns into an island for a few days because we lose highway access, or if there’s an earthquake, or if there’s a tsunami down by Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor like the one that hit Japan, or a terrorist attack, or a superflu outbreak, or zombies, or…) the whole point about unexpected things is that you don’t expect them.
So when I invest time in biofuels and other sustainable solutions, when I read about seed saving or research organic agriculture, it’s because I think I’m going to need these skills. Maintaining the system we live in takes a huge amount of wealth and energy, and without those constant inputs we will quickly crumble. Most towns only have enough food in them for 3 days. Most of Manhattan would be under water in the same amount of time if not for the sump pumps that constantly drain the island. It isn’t hard to imagine some scenarios that could shake up society pretty quick. Vermont doesn’t know when they can rebuild their highways, parts of Texas lost power for almost five weeks after Hurricane Ike. New Orleans is still a moldy shell of its former self, and Detroit doesn’t look like it’s ever turning around if Van Jones doesn’t pull a ‘Get Out of Poverty Free Card’ out of his dashing three-piece suit.
America isn’t a game of Monopoly but these days it seems like Mr. Moneybags holds all the cards, and probably has an escape plan much like Dr. Evil that involves a one-man rocket and nefarious cackling.
I do what I can (*as a broke grad student) – I bring my own coffee mug, I bike, I don’t take a plastic bag, I use biodiesel. I gave $50 to The Nature Conservancy last week on the street because I secretly know I can afford it, and they’re protecting land for our collective future. It feels so insignificant as to not even be countable, and like I’m stuck in a system that doesn’t register my actions. But if I can make alternatives more available to my community, and be educated about the way our systems work, maybe I can be more of an asset than a liability. I figure everything I eat drink and wear takes a resource away from someone or something else. But unless I want to kill myself (which I don’t), as my econ professor says ‘life displaces life’. So I try to buy organic, fair trade, local, used, and not add more to the waste stream than being an American demands.
I’m on a kick to learn more about living sustainably and off the land this year, and hopefully form networks of like-minded individuals, with good Rapture Skill Sets (for those of us who will be Left Behind in the Rapture, duh, check out the best-selling series if you’re not already deeply troubled by America’s moralizing evangelical fanatics – and the fact that they want the world to end, so that Jesus can be proven right?!).
I question whether I will want these thoughts floating around in the ether forever with my name connected to them, but they’re honest. I am into renewables because our system seems broken, and like the flaw is about to be exposed. We are living in a kleptocracy where the politicians and corporations run roughshod over ordinary citizens and our collective rights to clean air, water and biodiversity – never mind human rights and workers’ rights.
Whether you’re in Detroit or Darfur, an e-waste dump in South Africa or on a reservation in South Dakota, our economic and environmental wealth seems to be declining, along with our ability to take effective collective action to change the course of the world. Maybe cynicism is my generation’s illness, but it feels like the more we ‘connect’ with social media the less we get out and actually enact real change.
I was more of an optimist before, maybe I’m a realist now. The government isn’t much better than the corporations they’re supposed to protect us from (but they are still better!) – especially in America with our regulatory capture of the USDA, FDA, and the political lobbying and campaign financing available to any rich committed group of extremists. Voting once every 2 or 4 years is just about the easiest job performance review I’ve ever heard of.
As I become more disenchanted with the system, I wonder where my new perspective will lead… in some ways I identify with the Militia types who are preparing, on the other hand I think most of them are weird religious bigots who don’t believe in education or human equality (at least for minorities and gays)… or am I the xenophobe now? It scares me how much ‘ordinary’ people don’t seem worried about the possible collapse scenarios I envison for America almost constantly, while the ‘nutjobs’ are prepping to go off-grid.
I guess my final, most positive reflection, is: Let the end of 2011 be about building positive community resilience for 2012. Whether it’s getting additional supplies like food and water or learning how to forage for wild plants, we can all strengthen our communal capacity for adaptation. And by doing that we are acting as good members of our communities and preparing for an uncertain future. What do you say, anyone want to join my apoca-pod? (That’s short for Apocalypse-Pod: A network of prepared citizens ready to support each other in an emergency. Read Chris Martenson’s blog for more on the subject.)
So that’s me – half-joking, half-terrified, half-pontificating, for an audience that by this point in my post probably just includes my mother. What do you think, mom, ready to learn some carpentry skills for the land plan?