Setting priorities

There were many things about the tail end of 2015 that did not feel sustainable — that did not feel particularly “we” in our community.

It’s a new year… a new climate… a new call for change that has wafted in from Paris and North Minneapolis. What happens next?

One interesting, foot-forward thinker I met recently is Nate Hagens. After a decade living the “high life” as a Wall Street trader, Hagens now enjoys living the “low life” with his dogs on a farm in Wisconsin, collaborating with people like one of the early Greenpeace strategists, and teaching an interdisciplinary honors course at the University of Minnesota. He has a master’s degree in finance from the University of Chicago, and a doctorate in natural resources from the University of Vermont.

Hagens has written extensively on the topic of energy, and in one of his “The Oil Drum” blogs he suggested this assignment: 1) Write down the 10 things in life that you most enjoy or like to do. 2) Then, imagine you could only choose three from that list. What would those be? How much energy — the kind that comes from oil and sends greenhouse gases into the air — needs to be consumed in order to enjoy those priorities?

Ranking needs in Minneapolis 

In three recent “Sustainable We” forums I hosted, the conversations that emerged seemed to boil down to this: How much do we think we need to consume in order to survive?

In October, Minneapolis residents and policy makers gathered to largely wonder together whether our pesticide use for pristine lawns and parks was truly a priority as a community going forward. Given the impact of certain toxins on our bees, water and air, perhaps it is time for a new narrative?

In November, we discussed the life cycle of our waste. Community members pointed out that waste is less about what we throw in the trash — and more about what we consume. That’s because it is extraction of resources, manufacturing, and distribution of products that has the most impact.

At our forum at Fulton Brewery in December, a lively panel of home designers and builders led a discussion about the state of energy-efficient housing stock in Minneapolis. Will we set and meet new standards to cut carbon emissions from our leaky old houses and inadequate insulation? How?

One of the outspoken voices in the room was Michael Anschel, of O&A Design + Build. He believes an emphasis on energy efficiency shortchanges an even greater question we need to be asking ourselves. Fossil fuels are currently fast, portable and inexpensive as an energy source. Is our society motivated to do things any other way? If the commercial world simply finds more ways to use energy — even minimally, like the LED lights now sold in balloons simply to illuminate them with colors, for example – what are we gaining? 

Re-evaluating costs

In a different way, Hagens also challenges our ways of approaching the serious issues of sustainability that we face. In a conversation with University of Minnesota energy club students that I attended, he said that measuring the costs and benefits of energy use — even defining the measurement sticks we use — needs to be turned on its head.

He believes we would have a clearer sense of our resource usage if we measured how much energy and water it takes to get a barrel of oil, for example, instead of our measuring with our usual method of dollar terms. At what level does overall cost reduce benefit?

Hagens says we use new technology to design solutions that maximize profits — often displacing human labor to do so — rather than improving our long-term resiliency. One energy club student who has roots in India said that his culture has adopted solar energy more quickly than Americans, partly because it is an easier way to heat water than what we’ve grown used to in the West.

“Sun and wind and geothermal are great options as renewable energy sources,” Hagens said. “But not this society. Not with this footprint.”

He said that in the long run it is our friends in India — where 65 percent of the population farms compared to America’s 2 percent — that will fare better when resiliency becomes more relevant. They know their food comes from soil, sunlight, water and work, instead of at a grocery store.

It is our fear of scarcity — seeing ourselves as individual lives in individual homes in individual neighborhoods — that drives so much of our consumption habits. Hagens told the story of Johnny Carson, who joked on his national TV show in 1973 that a toilet paper shortage was looming. For four months after, a black market in toilet paper existed and stores could not keep enough supply to satisfy a frenzied panic.

Similarly, Hagens said modern industry is built around 24/7 access to electricity. When as individuals we learn to re-appreciate a life that doesn’t require uninterrupted power, he believes, we might reach our stronger potential as a society. Perhaps a world in which dolphins and hummingbirds and elephants have value in a 100- or 500-year plan of our making.

It is up to individuals like us, he said, to “change what we aspire to be.”

Perspectives and priorities 

Since the new year began, I have done research projects on everything from gun violence numbers to kinetic art, and have connected with the past in ways that remind me that everything has incredible potential to become something else.

What these eclectic intersecting points have revealed to me — connecting the dots with 4-D glasses — is that our perspective is not a fixed point. It is a shifting view that changes depending on where you are standing, what you are hearing, how you are having the conversation.

We can all re-prioritize, whether it is a new year, a new crisis, or not. We can all talk about the true cost of current ways. We can all decide to re-assess the price tags we place on the things and issues that surround us.

Hagens talked about how we need “intelligent raging” about this ultimate question: How did we get here, and what do we aspire to be as a species?

 “What do we really want?” he asked. “If the answer is heaven and quarterly earnings, we’re screwed.”

Mikki Morrissette is the founder of and the “Sustainable We” forums, designed to lift up and celebrate the innovators in our midst who are working to resolve issues of sustainability.