We haven’t seen a single car for 466 kilometers. It’s November 15, 2010, and Alec Neal and I are finishing our “Solutions Revolution”—a cross-country bicycle trip filming a documentary about local communities’ solutions to the climate crisis. We’ve traveled 4,979 kilometers, over 91 days, through 13 states and 21 communities, with four bicyclists and one support-car driver. All of this to learn firsthand about 45 solutions to the climate crisis.
We began in Portland, Oregon, and we arrived in Washington DC, where we met with 20 congressional offices. From there, we planned to take a train to Florida and then to sail across the Gulf of Mexico to the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico. We were joined by Malkolm Boothroyd, an 18-year-old from Whitehorse, Yukon, who had biked 21,144 kilometers to follow migratory birds two years before; Don “Peace Rider” Ross, a 67-year-old from Fairbanks, Alaska, who had biked from his home state to DC the year before; and Paul Thompson, a 61-year-old community organizer and Cool Planet founder from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The following are some of the solutions we filmed across the country during our trip. More can be found at www.solutionsrevolution.org.
Grayland, Washington: Wind Energy Funds Social Services
After dipping our bicycles in the Pacific Ocean near the rural town of Grayland, Washington, we interviewed the CFO for the nonprofit Coastal Community Action Program, which recently built the first coastal wind farm in the Pacific Northwest. With just four turbines, the nonprofit expects to earn $500,000 a year to put toward social services for the elderly, low-income people, and people with disabilities. It’s the first nonprofit in the country to augment its financial base with wind energy and to combine low-income tax credits with renewable-energy tax credits—a “wind-win.”
Oakville, Washington: Wild Forestry
With the wind at our backs, we pedaled 57 miles inland to Oakville to interview Washington’s Forester of the Year, John Henrikson, at Wild Thyme Farm. Henrikson practices “wild forestry”: harvesting timber from a forest while preserving its wild habitat. This allows Henrikson to hit the sweet spot between high quantities and quality of timber, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity. Henrikson hypothesizes that in the long run he will be able to harvest more timber through wild forestry than with clear-cutting or conventional selective harvesting.
Sandpoint, Idaho: Micro Hydro
Turning off the beaten path, we arrived at the home of Chris Park, a local furniture maker who powers his hand-built, off-grid home with a micro hydropower system. The Harris Hydro Turbine is basically a 24-volt truck alternator attached to a Pelton wheel. Creek water is transferred to the turbine through a four-inch underground pipe that drops 50 feet over 700 feet of run. There are four nozzles that shoot water at right angles onto the Pelton wheel, which spins the alternator, like in a car, and generates power. The turbine continuously generates 25 amps, enough to power everything except the stove and the fridge. The system cost $5,000 to install and has provided all of Park’s power for over 15 years, requiring only two hours of maintenance per year.
Bozeman, Montana: Carbon-Neutral Biofuel Brewed from Fungi
After biking 398 miles southeast—including 50 miles on Interstate 90—we crossed over Bozeman Pass, heading to Montana State University. There we met with mycologist Gary Strobel and talked about his recent discovery of Gliocladium roseum, an endophytic fungus that produces biofuel. Strobel is testing the fungus to see if it will digest cellulose and emit biofuel. Since cellulose can come from any plant matter, including agricultural waste (like corn husks), this could be the first carbon-neutral biofuel.
Town of Dunn, Wisconsin: Purchase of Development Rights
Up and over the glacial drumlins of northwest Wisconsin, we rolled through the cookie-cutter suburbs of Madison and into the rural Town of Dunn. Here, Chairman Cal DeWitt recounted the town’s history for us: In 1986, the rural land was preserved when Dunn’s residents gathered at the town hall and voted unanimously to raise their own taxes to pay for the purchase of development rights from their farmers. Otherwise, the land would have been developed into suburban housing tracts, because many farmers needed to sell their land to pay for retirement. Developing the land would have increased the town’s carbon footprint and taxes, since new roads would have been built, along with sewer systems, street lights, schools, and so on. Residents had to “raise their taxes to lower their taxes.”1
Detroit, Michigan: Pregnant Teens’ Urban Farm
A third of all residential lots in Detroit are either vacant or contain abandoned homes. Detroit’s bulldozing initiative has rendered the cityscape a patchwork of tall-grassed vacant lots, caving-in abandoned houses, and inhabited homes. In downtown, we visited the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a public school for pregnant teens and preteens. When science teacher Paul Weertz discovered that formaldehyde in dissection animals is harmful to pregnant women, he realized he needed to find another way for students to receive an equal educational experience without the toxins. So Weertz and the students started a farm in the lots behind the school—complete with a red barn, chickens, geese, goats, orchards, vegetable plots, bees, and even a horse. In addition to growing and selling produce in Detroit’s food desert, the teens use the farm as their laboratory. Whenever an animal dies, the whole school gathers to dissect it to discover the cause of death. When it was brought to Weertz’s attention that someone was stealing compost, he replied, “So what? It’s not cocaine. What do you think they are doing with it? They are growing stuff with it and that is what we want.”2
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Growing Alternative Energy on Vacant Lots
Across the Rust Belt and into the Steel City, we arrived at a reused material playground in a blighted neighborhood and were greeted by Chris Koch of GTECH Strategies, a nonprofit that invests in community revitalization by means of alternative energy, land reclamation, green tech, and social enterprises. One of GTECH’s projects grows alternative energy on vacant lots as a transitional, short-term strategy to achieve productive reuse. The Black Street Moms’ Playground started as two torn-down vacant houses. GTECH cleaned up the rubble and planted sunflower seeds, which uptake lead from the soil, reduce blight by beautifying the neighborhood, and can be converted into biodiesel. In the fall, the neighborhood kids help harvest the flowers and learn about biodiesel conversion. The community transformed these lots because they were next to a home for mothers dealing with addiction, where there were 30 kids without a place to play—now they have this natural playground.
Meeting with Politicians in Washington DC
Our goal in DC was to inform politicians about the climate crisis solutions their constituents are working on across America. We were able to meet with 20 congressional offices, including those of Rep. Henry Waxman, Sen. John McCain, Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Sen. Al Franken. Fellow rider Malkolm Boothroyd summed up DC better than I ever could:
Everyday was a blur of the same things—the reflections of incandescent lights in marble floors…the swish of suits…the clicking of high-heels…the endless ringing of telephones in congressional offices. … All the Democrats we spoke with shared the same gloom about the future of climate legislation, “If we couldn’t pass the cap and trade when we had sixty votes how will we do anything with just fifty-three?” Nobody offered any ambitious game-plan; all the Democrats were focused on preserving the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding and ability to regulate carbon emissions. Republicans we spoke to advocated an “all of the above” energy strategy that would rely heavily on nuclear, natural gas and carbon capture and storage.
What is the outlook for our future if Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on an issue that threatens to wreak havoc on global peace, national security, economic prosperity and environmental health? If scientists tell us we have just five years before global emissions must start taking a nosedive—then how will anything happen if the United States won’t get any legislation passed in the next two or possibly four years?
When enough citizens mobilize and take the lead on climate change then governments will follow.3
The UN Climate Change Conference
After weeks of unsuccessfully searching for a sailboat, the five of us flew over the Gulf of Mexico to Cancún, emitting 0.20 metric tons of CO2 each. Our plane touched down in Cancún on an 80-degree December day. Alec and I caught the public bus (about a hundred times nicer than Greyhound), which took us down a skinny highway bordered on both sides by a jungle so thick you couldn’t walk through it. We passed soldiers manning machine guns mounted on the tops of Jeeps, guarding Cancunmesse, one of the two conference centers for the UN Climate Change Conference (dubbed COP16). Unlike its predecessor, COP15 in Copenhagen, COP16 was divided in two. The NGOs’ exhibitions were at Cancunmesse, and the negotiation meetings were at the Moon Palace, a $500-per-night-minimum hotel. The negotiation meetings were closed to observers, so we couldn’t get in even with our UN delegate badges courtesy of the Will Steger Foundation. This calculated exclusion of civil society from the climate talks followed suit with the decrease in science’s weight in the decision-making and the increase in the power of politicians. Another major shift in this round of talks was toward using market mechanisms to solve the climate crisis.
These changes heightened the importance of the People’s Climate Summit, Klimaforum10, a space open to anyone to present and debate true, sustainable, and socially just solutions to climate change. Klimaforum10 aimed to be an environmental conference located in nature and existing in harmony with it.
We pitched our tent on a crushed limestone field at Klimaforum10’s ecovillage. At the far end of the white field was a sun-soaked, dreadlocked kid in his twenties banging away on a full drum kit outside a veggie-oil-powered school bus that looked like it drove straight out of the 1970s, hand-painted with a desert sunset and the words “Soul Fire Project.” The healthiest youth I’ve ever seen were streaming out of it to practice yoga, acrobatics, fire dancing, and apartheid-era freedom songs. Next to the bus, they had set up an outdoor kitchen, with a bread oven made out of rocks and mud. Drinking water was gravity fed to the kitchen from a water tank on top of scaffolding. Another tank fed water from the cenotes (underground rivers) into outdoor showers built on top of pallets, with old billboards for curtains. Blue morpho butterflies fluttered around the compost pile. In the morning, a trumpeted conch shell started a sunrise ceremony led by Mayan, Chiapas, Taiwanese, and Northern American Indian grandmothers and grandfathers. We stood in a circle, raised our hands to the sun, and prayed to the earth.
Many innovative climate crisis solutions were exchanged at Klimaforum10. The Klimaforum09 coordinator, HansHenrik Samuelsen, theorized that “instead of calculating CO2, I think we should calculate all oil, coal, and gas. It is said that if we want to keep the planet’s warming under two degrees Celsius, we can only use 60 percent of the known fossil fuels. That means we should stop looking for more. We only have a certain amount of fuel left to use on the planet before it burns. That amount of fuel should be divided equally. I guess that means that the people who have already used a lot of fossil fuels should get less and those that have used very little should get more.”4
British environmental lawyer Polly Higgins proposed making ecocide an international crime against peace. Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to, or loss of ecosystems in a given territory. This proposal to the United Nations will be up for vote at COP17 and, according to Higgins, would drastically reduce businesses’ impact on the environment within three years.5
Forward the Revolution members traveled 12,000 kilometers from France to Cancún by foot, hitchhiking, and boat-hiking while abstaining from spending any money. “Money is behind all troubles of our world,” they said, “wars for resources, hunger for lack of distribution and industrial exploitation, pollution for economic expansion and enrichment….However the solution is simple. It is as easy as saying no…no to money and yes to freedom and happiness.”6
COP16 also perpetuated false solutions, such as the market mechanism Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD+. At the side event Advancing REDD+: New Pathways and Partnerships, speakers supporting REDD+ included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, Dr. Jane Goodall, Walmart Chairman Rob Walton, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, George Soros, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo, and Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann. REDD+ allows northern polluters to buy carbon rights to forests in the Global South; a carbon credit (right to pollute) is earned by not cutting down trees. Money will be funneled from polluters through the World Bank to developing countries where REDD+ projects are located. Businesses are interested in REDD+ because it will be cheaper to buy REDD+ credits than to reduce emissions. Carbon credits typically range from $25 to $35, but a REDD+ credit will be as little as $4. Loopholes and oversights in REDD+ will allow a credit holder to evict indigenous communities from their forest, clear-cut the forest, plant a GMO monoculture tree plantation, and still achieve the carbon offset.7
On the morning of December 7, we hung hand-painted banners and 50-gallon drums to the sides of the Soul Fire bus as makeshift music drums. Banging on these, strumming guitars, and singing on the roof, we joined La Via Campesina’s peasant farmers out in the streets for the march to the Moon Palace. Karmakanonen’s bicycle-powered sound system pedaled in and turned the march into a moving dance party, with quilted puppets of corn husk wombs, images of the Statue of Liberty succumbing to sea level rise, and the COP16 logo subverted into a money tree. Indigenous Environmental Network members carried “No REDD+” signs, and Anti-C@P inflated a 30-foot toy hammer to throw at the lines of riot cops blocking the march from reaching the Moon Palace. The hammer, like the march, was a comical gesture rising out of an inability to take real action.
The passion of the people at the march was the same passion I saw in each person we interviewed while biking. Love, fascination, and respect for the planet—not a return on investment—fuels people’s search for true solutions. I am still trying to figure out how to get our politicians to wake up, stop representing special interests and start representing the people’s efforts to create a future we all can share. Solving the climate crisis is not a question of scientific capability; it’s a question of political will. We need to remember that political will comes from the people, from us, and we must take back our government and our future.