Podcast: Designing the Regeneration

By Adam Brock

In order to graduate, every Gallatin student is required to participate in a colloquium: a 90-minute conversation with three professors around a topic of his or her choosing, centered around a list of 20-25 books.

My colloquium, “Designing the Regeneration,” took place last Friday. It focused on the shift towards thinking sustainably, and how it relates to ancient beliefs and contemporary trends. I was the first Gallatin student to opt for a Community Colloquium, as I felt the conversation wouldn’t have been complete without my community there.

The whole thing was recorded, and I’ve made it available for download as a set of zipped mp3s. Here are the tracks:

1. Introductions and colloquium format

2. My background

3. Sustainability and scaleability

4. Precedents from other cultures

5. Ancient texts: Plato, Genesis, Thomas More’s Utopia

6. Private property

7. The technology question/3 Shades of Green

8. Peak population, peak energy

9. Economic growth and international development

10. Our ethical imperative

11. Summary of systems thinking

12. Q+A


i rose from the mountains like campfire smoke

The following is an emergent poem by Gallatin Consciousness, created by members cutting phrases out of books and taking turns pasting them in. What’s astounding is that the thing reads like the work of a single (very talented) individual.


maybe I was on the way to a dead end.
the idea became a working thing.’/’Like raw sewage.’/O/how it trembled/like a yawning cat,
In his eyes I saw courage/beyond anything I could remember
He/set snares for rabbits/quietly hopping around/and/he said./give me an atomic warhead any day
I turned from it./and through the mountains echoes/clutched ever more wildly at/these rambling fancies
the land looked as though someone had/turned on all the electric lamps/and/darkness was complete,
yet not a city/built in 1925
i/had been overcome./by/the truth in all its naked ugliness.
I will advise you/as if to prove/nobody saw a wolf alive,
with/withered and whitened hearts/hanging precariously/like the desert,
I buckled the seatbelt,/and/not daring to look round,/we rested
I said,/”Nobody believes it. WE just don’t do it.”
He shook his head,/-I don’t know,/What’re you fishing for?”
What ho!/That did not please me!/like/Pelvis-to-pelvis dancing
This was the time when the earth tipped
In seeking to augment it./I/rose from the mountains like campfire smoke.
Of course/we’re hanging between up and down./I thought,
Now/The side road/has/ended.

No Impact Man, Shellenberger and Nordhaus at NYU’s Focus the Nation

By Adam Brock

If you haven’t checked No Impact Man’s blog recently, here’s the final installment of a fascinating back and forth between Colin and Michael Shellenberger, of the Breakthrough Institute – a think tank that’s devoted to reframing the environmental debate around optimistic values.

Incidentally, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough partner Ted Nordhaus will be the keynote speakers at NYU’s Focus the Nation event tomorrow, which we’ve decided to theme around “local solutions to the climate crisis”. To provide an opportunity for them to continue the NIM conversation face-to-face, I invited Colin to be a part of the response panel, an offer which he kindly accepted.

It should be a pretty interesting back and forth – not only will Colin be responding to Mike and Ted’s presentation, but so will Marty Hoffert, NYU’s own climate scientist superstar. If you’re around the Washington Square area and can make it, I would highly recommend stopping by.

NYU Focus the Nation: Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis

Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, NYU Kimmel Center

60 Washington Square South

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are on at 6:00, the response panel starts at 7:00.

Loose and Local: NYC’s Niche Green Networks

By Adam Brock

At Just Food’s Good Food Now! summit on Saturday, I attended a workshop session held by members of the Green Edge Collaborative, a newish organization that facilitates potlucks and eco-eatery tours around the city. Listening to the participants brainstorm ideas for future events, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of deja vu – Green Edge seemed to be aiming for a cross between Green Drinks and Green Arch, with a little bit of Green Maps thrown in.

The experience keyed me into a trend in the New York environmental movement that seems both entirely obvious and completely novel: thanks in large part to the adhesive powers of the internet, the regeneration is creating a proliferation of loose, local communities centered around increasingly specific themes. These mini-networks exist half online, half in the real world, and are usually managed by one or two people in their free time. They’re multiplying at a dizzying pace, but it would be silly to think of them as competing with each other: as Annie noted the other day, maintaining diversity in the movement is key. Here’s a rundown of the NYCentric green collectives I’m hip to (it’s by no means comprehensive – please add your own in the comments):

Perhaps the best known verdy social networks in NYC are the two local chapters of Green Drinks, which host monthly gatherings at bars in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each meetup usually brings a few hundred young greensters to eco-conscious locales around town, though I can’t say they’re really my scene: the crowd tends towards the lime and profesh.

Another network that’s been getting some hype of a different stripe is freegan.info. These folks are best known for their propensity to dumpster dive, but there’s far more to the freegan philosophy than that: drawing wealth from the abundance of other peoples’ waste is just one strategy in their fight to extract themselves from the global capitalist system. On the freegan.info site, you’ll find the scoop on upcoming bike workshops, wild food foraging walks – and, yes, trash tours.

On a slightly more entertaining tip is nonsense, a weekly email of hipster happenings curated by Williamsurg resident Jeff Stark (also a co-host of the biweekly freegan feast grub). While many of the nonsense events don’t have a lick of greenness about them, the ones that do make it well worth the occasional read – this week’s email included a benefit auction for food security in Nicaragua, a gathering of the “trash worship society” and a holiday fair of local crafts.

Eating Liberally is an NYC sustainable food network run by Greenwich Village residents Kerry Trueman and Matthew Rosenberg. Eating Liberally hosts and promotes potlucks, food-related parties, and movie screenings, and the site’s got a terrific blog on sustainable ag.

The NYC chapter of the Peak Oil Meetup group has been hosting some thought-provoking talks as of late: see my posts on recent lectures by peak oilers Albert Bates and Daniel Lerch.

Finally, there’s the Green Arch Initiative, a google group managed by yours truly that promotes verdy activities around NYU and NYC at large. Green Arch was founded a few years ago as a student club, but is now largely an online presence that caters to NYU students and New Yorkers alike.

Post-Carbon Cities and the Future of Growth

By Adam Brock

Like climate change, peak oil is a difficult concept to understand, and its implications are difficult to accept. It’s no wonder, then, that the theory is still pretty much off-limits to policymakers: openly discussing the fact that we might be in for some serious economic woes courtesy of dwindling oil supplies isn’t exactly a vote-winning platform. But, also like climate change, peak oil presents a pressing and potentially catastrophic threat to our future, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.

Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book “Post Carbon Cities,” might be the best messenger for yet for the peak oil cause. I attended one of Lerch’s presentations at the NYU law school last Wednesday, and while it wasn’t quite up to Inconvenient Truth standards, I found it to be the most digestible explanation of peak oil I’ve encountered yet. Unlike Albert Bates, the engaging but decidedly forest-hued peak oiler that spoke in New York about a month ago, Lerch came across as practical-minded and sympathetic to skeptics. His target audience is planners and municipal policymakers, and he framed the dimensions of the peak oil crisis in language familiar to those groups.

The talk began with a few fundamentals: the demand for oil is accelerating, while the supply seems to have hit a plateau. Sooner or later, supply will outstrip demand, causing oil shortages that will get ever more severe as the remaining reserves become more difficult and expensive to extract. This much, to me, seems pretty hard to refute.

But why do most peak oilers predict that this energy gap will wreak havoc on the economy? Can’t we just scale back our consumption slightly for now and eventually replace the gap with energy efficiency and renewables? That’s certainly the popular consensus among politicians and grass greens. To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who hosted a peak oil conference in 2005, “I don’t think it’ll affect the consumption of consumer products. It’s not gonna have a dramatic negative impact on our economy – we’re just gonna drive less.”

But according to Lerch, oil shortages are a lot less simple than having to turn down the A/C and line up to refill the gas tank. For one thing, models predict that once production starts slipping, it’ll slip fast – far faster than it’ll take to replace our needs with wind, solar or even nuclear. And as Lerch explained, In the last five decades we’ve become dependent on petroleum in countless ways, and seemingly insignificant disruptions in supply can have far-reaching repercussions. During the summer of 2006, for example, the spike in oil prices doubled the price of asphalt, a low-grade petroleum product. Routine road repairs were suddenly wildly overbudget, and many municipalities were forced to defer maintenance on their roadways.

Another chilling example is urban food supply. Many grocery chains nowadays stock their food on “rolling warehouses”, where food comes straight out of the factory or shipping dock and onto the truck to cut down on overhead. As a result, very little food is in storage near cities, so if an oil shortage like the one we experienced in 1973 were to occur today, many grocery stores could be empty within a matter of days.

One of the key concepts in Lerch’s talk was “energy uncertainty”: the notion that peak oil won’t just make energy prices higher, but also increasingly volatile. This makes it almost impossible to make long-term plans: how is a city supposed to cut a budget for its vehicle fleet if it doesn’t know whether gas will cost $3.50 or $6 a gallon?

Energy uncertainty is, of course, analogous to the “climate uncertainty” that the IPCC’s been talking about with regard to global warming. Put the two together, and you’re left with a frightening conclusion: two of the most complex systems on earth, the biosphere and global economy, are set to become much less stable within the next few decades.

Lerch’s prescription to city governments: start planning now. First off, follow the lead of Portland and Oakland, and create a peak oil task force to determine how petroleum shortages would effect your city. Strategize on how to relocalize energy production and manufacturing, plan infrastructure investments for the long-term, and, most importantly, start adopting a nonlinear, systems-thinking approach.

Peak oil or no, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: flickr/azrainman

Measurement of Success

Rebecca Oshins, my co-conspirator in putting together NYU’s Footprint Forward week, wrote the following post for the program’s blog. – Adam

Colin posted about Footprint Forward Week at NYU on his blog today, and he has gotten some fascinating responses, the majority of which are positive. Most of the comments have been about how great it is that people are willing to take the ‘baby-steps’ necessary to make an impact.

This has got me thinking. I have been working on planning this week for a while, and now that the week is upon us, I have been struggling with measuring success. Since I have never done a program like this, and to my knowledge programs that challenge and inspire students to go no-impact are not particularly popular college events at other places, it has been hard for me to step back and see how well the week is going.

So I have thought about this for a few days now. I have mulled it over while sipping from my travel mug or my re-used glass water bottle. I have considered it while at lectures and workshops, while dumpster diving and while climbing the steps to my ninth floor classroom. And, I think success is measured by how much I have thought about it.

I consider Footprint Forward a success because I have been carefully considering each one my actions in a new way. It is a success because a new community of students all considering their actions has been formed. It is a success because people are talking about it, discussing it, debating it, worrying about it, excited about it.

My conclusion (though the week is not over) is that this is NOT a week of no impact. This, I think, may be what it feels like to have a personal impact.

Impactfully and intentionally yours,
Rebecca Oshins

The Real Food Summit: A Campus Movement Takes Shape

By Adam Brock

For progressive college students this school year, it’s all about food. In dorm rooms from San Francisco to Vermont, jars of homemade Kombucha are appearing next to textbooks on the windowsill, and the weekly potluck is fast becoming the new dance party. But even as sustainable food becomes one of the flagship causes of the regeneration, there’s a glaring disparity between what students are buying (or dumpstering) themselves, and what they’re able to get on the meal plan. For decades, most colleges and universities have fed their students with the help of corporate food service providers like Aramark, Chartwells, and Sodexho, which in turn source the majority of their ingredients from factory farms – the icons of unsustainable food.

One thing’s for certain: campus dining won’t go green overnight. Because of the numerous agents involved – producers, distributors, food service providers, and campus administrations – transforming the way a college gets its food is an enormously complex undertaking. The last few years have seen some encouraging first steps towards building sustainable campus food systems, with over 300 schools setting up limited farm-to-college programs. But to take the movement beyond the fringe, colleges will need to start working together to demand changes in the structure of food production and distribution.

Thanks to last weekend’s Real Food Summit at Yale, that collaborative effort is up and running. The summit brought together 175 student leaders from nearly 50 Northeastern colleges and universities with the aim of coordinating the dozens of sustainable food initiatives in the region into a cohesive framework. Throughout the weekend, participants built a working knowledge of the details of food service contracts, learned about best practices from other schools, and shared ideas and strategies for how to begin the battle for “Real Food” on campus.

Within the first few hours of the summit, it became clear that one of the most difficult challenges to sourcing large quantities of local food is distribution. Thanks to sophisticated national supply chains, food service providers are used to planning menus months in advance and getting reliable quantities of food sourced from all over the country. In one of the Saturday panels, John Turrene, a former Aramark chef and consultant on sustainable campus food systems, underscored that dining programs must be willing to change this mindset to adapt to seasonal menus and limited ingredients. Meanwhile, local producers need to form networks to help make supplies a little bit more secure.

Another critical issue is accountability. Anim Steel, director of national programs for Boston’s Food Project, led a brainstorming session of how to track and quantify progress in sourcing Real Food, suggesting that purchases be plotted on a graph with scales of “who” (fair trade, local) and “how” (organic, humane). Kelley Erwin of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project spoke to the need for ensuring “product integrity”: making sure that the food being labeled as local was actually grown and processed locally. Even with a proper tracking system in place, she warned, it’s likely that campus groups will need to perform periodic checks of boxes and invoices, because food service providers get volume discounts that give them a financial incentive to stick with national distributors.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the weekend was the genesis of the Real Food Challenge, a national ten-year framework to divert 20% of the $4 billion in annual campus food purchases to local, sustainable and fair trade options. The Challenge was drafted by the summit’s organizers and collaboratively edited throughout the weekend, with a national launch slated for September 2008.

With an unprecedented confluence of student energy and professional input, The Real Food Summit marked a turning point in the movement for sustainable campus dining. Of course, it was merely a call to arms: for each campus, reforming their food system will be a long and difficult process. But with the knowledge gained and connections formed over the weekend, it looks like the dream of sustainable food on campus is well on its way to becoming real.

Photo Credit: flickr/lookoutbelow