Wednesday, 18 Sep 2002

MISSOULA, Mont.

Wednesday is largely a travel day for me, as I wend my way back to Olympia, Wash., my hometown (and the seat of the Climate Solutions Empire). So rather than talk about how great my flight was, or about my board meeting later this evening, I thought I’d write a bit about the talk I gave last night for the Sustainable Communities Lecture Series in Missoula.

Attendance was great, and my speech went well, as far as I could determine. But who the hell were all of those students asking the ridiculously difficult questions? I had to draw on all of my resources to answer some of them during the nearly one-hour Q&A period following my lecture. And some of them I simply couldn’t answer.

At one point, I attempted to introduce a new idea that, in actuality, I know too little about, but one that is fascinating in its implications for global warming and the transition to clean energy. In his book, The Tipping Point, author and New Yorker columnist Malcom Gladwell says, “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.”

To me, this is an incredibly powerful notion, and, when it comes right down to it, it’s the underlying intent of any public talk I give. The global warming issue is so big and so seemingly out of our control that the response of many people is to go into hibernation.

So one of our first challenges as educators and activists is to bring the global warming issue to people in terms that they’ll understand. We need to make them aware that it’s about the water we drink and the air we breathe. It’s about our food and our forests. It’s about our communities. And it’s about the quality of our daily lives.

Next, we need to provide people with a clear vision of how they can make a difference. Global warming is a problem that people cause, and as such, a problem that people can fix. In the end, it’s about our creativity, and our ability to advance solutions that, in addition to solving the climate crisis, will ultimately make all of our lives more satisfying.

At one point in my lecture, I laid out my largely unformed vision of Missoula as a national test-bed for weaning a community off of fossil fuels and producing most, if not all, of its power from local renewable resources. The audience broke out into applause. For me it was just an interesting idea, but the response demonstrated the degree to which people are hungry for inspiration and change.

Paul Hawken once wrote that it’s hard for people to imagine a truly restorative economy or Fortune 500 company. I agree. It is. However, if we are ever to rise above our growing economic and environmental conundrum, we must, as Gladwell says, engender in people the belief that change is indeed possible, and that they can play a critical role in bringing it about.

After my lecture, I went out with a few colleagues to a local pub for a late night brainstorming session with Dale Horton (no relation, as far as I know), the energy guru at the National Center for Appropriate Technology. We talked more about the Missoula vision. In the end, we agreed that, while such a transition might be easier in a sunnier or windier location like Libby, Mont., or Boise, Idaho, with the right combination of aggressive energy efficiency, solar, biomass energy, and some wind, there’s every reason to believe that it could work in Missoula. Sure, there are lots of institutional barriers to overcome, but — no guts, no glory. Now that the seed is planted, it will be fun to see how it grows.