Karl Meyer                                                                                December 9, 2007

                  Holding up a candle

I am at a meeting of excited townspeople, and a certain magical realism seems to be at work.  The evening’s focus is the building of a sustainable downtown.  It’s a sharing of ideas. I’m feeling like I want to hold up a candle, but that would be a mistake.  Though it might seem otherwise, what’s mostly heard here is an affirmation of the belief there will be continuing plenty into the future.  And the crowd continues to warm to that idea of plenty.  Slowly the sentiment builds into a celebration of much-ness.  But maybe it just an awkward human jab at a universe that perhaps seems filled with dark–an indoor howl at a fluorescent moon.

I am new to this town, though I’ve known it for years.  I wanted to see what neighbors might have to say about living in harmony with a warming planet and each other.  And those neighbors showed up–close to a hundred.  Most are what are called progressives here.  In general they appear to be either business owners or nascent entrepreneurs.  Tonight’s sustainable topic is fostering vital downtowns.

The downtown here is a little ragged, but making progress.  A seemingly endless theme has been the political tug of war over when, if, and how, a big box retailer should be brought into town.  Since, overall, it’s not a particularly wealthy community, big WalMart-ideas get good traction among the less well-to-do, who are not represented here–and the better-healed chamber types and construction interests.

But the people at this meeting believe in a smaller version of things.  They want to see shops and businesses in the downtown spaces—and they want to be running them, or retailing products through them.  But something is missing.  The conversation in this town of eighteen thousand always swings back to perceived customer bases that are either tourists or people on the other side of the globe hankering to purchase distant products over the world-wide web.

Some presenters do speak briefly and well about sustainability and community.  But that message has been heard before, and no one is here to step on anyone’s toes.  Several have done their best to incorporate products and ingredients from local manufacturers and growers.  One is a local food coop/grocery store.  Another is a pub-restaurant that has reduced its footprint to just one bag of trash per night.  Another briefly mentions reestablishing a vanished infrastructure of regional dairy, meat, and manufacturing plants.  But the majority have businesses and dreams fixed on a big-box pipeline—overseas imports arriving at astonishingly cheap rates that promise their particular sustainable/local enterprise comfortable profits into the future.

This crowd, and many of its panel members, are a cheering squad for big time marketing by small players.  Though a few are about cooperatives, most pattern themselves as the enlightened individuals of the entrepreneur frontier.  A glow of dollars flashes across faces when profit is mentioned.  They want to profit from ideas.  And, in return for such things, we’d each like to believe that the earth should offer us sustenance.  And a whole lot of comfort beyond that.  But unacknowledged in the back of this thinking is an invisible pool of cheap labor, the foundation of this dream of cheap goods and money.

Of the actual people here that produce something sustainable there could be a dozen.  At least three people are from farms, and several more sell and install soft energy products.  But there are no union people here, and no one looks poor.  This is not the face of diversity.  Most here have probably had a least one restaurant meal in the past week.  Ultimately they give a college cheer when someone explains a gimmick to bring a nearby run of tourists up the hill and into town from the interstate.  Everyone smiles at the idea of money from elsewhere, marching onto Main Street.  Those consumers will surely purchase meals and jewelry and imported treasures and electronics.  Or, they can be sold financial services, insurance, web-sites, second homes, advertising, or art.

But almost nowhere is the bedrock question about the fuel behind this windfall of consumers addressed.  They will be expected to sweep in daily and then leave—as regular as the tides.  There is no mention of gasoline—sustainability; a warming planet.  Though someone mentions bicycles, no one is talking trolleys, passenger rail, or even tour busses.  There is up-front recognition that this group’s sustainable idea of itself could never be supported by a community of a mere 18,000 souls.  These market ideas require a much larger pie.  They are meant to serve armies arriving in individual vehicles—convoys from New York City, 170 miles away.  And there’s the rub.

What’s mostly missing in this view toward a sustainable and vital downtown is the idea of sustainability.  Though many of these folks don’t like taxes, neither are they prepared to admit the obvious—that we’ve taxed the planet to the point of no longer sustaining us.  We believe our ideas–and a few well-placed investments, are enough afford us a comfortable living.  We feel entitled to be comfortably fed and warmed by the planet simply for figuring out how to get money from people from afar.

Honest sustainability talk might acknowledge that systems need to change—that we need to change.  Our notions can no longer be fueled by exhaust spewing cars from afar–arriving with hungry tourists wishing to purchase products from distant lands with dollars leveraged on over-heated, carbon-fueled, production fires in Asia.  Honest talk would recognize the hum of devastating wars that fuel this idea of plenty.  That too is unsustainable.

One woman makes a point that begins to address the underlying issue in a simple thought.  She’s one of the farm-connected people.  She states that what ultimately is going to impose itself as the limiting factor–above any and all ideas here, is the carrying capacity of earth’s systems–the actual limits of the planet we each inhabit for just a few short years.  But her nugget of common sense is mostly-missed by this crowd.

And, as a newcomer, I do not hold up my candle this night.  It is best.  It’s not something I’m good at.  I’m more likely to bonk people over the head and say—what are you possibly thinking?  No one would see that clumsy light.  But I’m grateful for my friend Tom, who holds his candle light up into the face of the night’s roaring fire.  It is humble; it addresses the present.  And what he has to say perhaps reaches a few who care to see beyond its small flame.

Tom’s in his eighties, but you wouldn’t know it.  And he’s been sick for a while, but you wouldn’t know that either.  I see him stand—way up front, and be recognized as the night’s last speaker from the audience.  His message is brief.  He speaks honestly of sustainability, but perhaps what’s most important is encapsulated in his last words: “I hope as we go forward, that we’ll all take the time to take care of each other.”