Easter in Las Vegas

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A Personal Report on the Focus the Nation Organizing Conference April 6-8 2007

Introduction

I took the bait for Focus the Nation while attending the first national conference of AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in October 2006. That conference attracted 800 faculty and administration activists and featured a panoply of environmentalist superstars. In welcoming remarks, the President of Arizona State University declared that ASU henceforth would stand for Arizona Sustainable University and announced the formation of a Sustainability Institute endowed with a five million dollar grant from the Wrigley family.

The conference’s show of strength raised the confidence of every beleaguered soul who attended, but the only action item I came away with was to set up a chapter of Focus the Nation at my home campus. Dreamed up by Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College, Focus the Nation’s objective suited the immense scope of the climate crisis, yet was defined, immediate and feasible: a nationwide teach-in on Global Warming solutions at a thousand colleges and universities on January 31 2008, just before the primary elections.

Professor of Business, Kate Lancaster, with whom I had worked on several campus sustainability projects, agreed. We tried to recruit Tylor Middlestadt, Cal Poly’s legendary student leader, but he would be graduating before the event, so he put us in touch with two fellow engineering students, Chad Worth and Matt Hutton, who joined our core organizing committee. We met regularly during Fall and Winter quarters, discovered lots of support for the idea on campus, expanded the committee to include three more faculty members, and set to work getting endorsements from the Associated Students, the Faculty Senate and the University Administration. After Eban scheduled an organizing conference for the national group in Las Vegas over Easter weekend and we found a one hundred dollar round trip flight from San Luis Obispo, we all decided to go, whether or not we got funding.

In the sleepy Santa Maria airport, we boarded a huge Alliant Airline jet for the one-hour flight. It was packed with a jolly crowd”multigenerational families, golfers, gang bangers, farmworkers, a bachelorette party”all eager to spend their wealth in America’s fastest growing city.

The flight attendant announced our landing at McCarren airport. That name rang a bell: the McCarren-Walters Immigration act, passed when I was growing up in the nineteen fifties, invoked to deny visitor visas to undesireables like Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Dennis Brutus, Farley Mowat, Jan Myrdal and Pierre Trudeau.

McCarren is vast and soon to double in size. A tram takes you several miles from the terminal to the rental car garage, an atriumed palace where the name of the renter appears in lights above the reserved car. But the trip from the terminal gate to the garage exit took as long as travel across two states.

The voyage to our hotel near the University included another hour in traffic on the Strip, where much of the congestion was caused by dozens of eighteen wheelers advertising the same attractions featured on huge moving screens posted along the street. Gridlocked, we got to admire a glass pyramid which rocketed a thick column of light toward the faint stars overhead, a fake Manhattan skyline, an illuminated Eiffel tower, and sidewalk stalls selling cheap t-shirts and beer.

Hungry and cranky after checking-in to non-smoking rooms that reeked of stale tobacco, we found coupons in the lobby promising free beer that steered us toward The Hofbrau, a replica of a large Munich beerhall nearby. Trestle tables, dirndl-clad waitresses, a lank-haired blond man in lederhosen blowing a ten-foot shepherds horn lent ambiance enriched by one inebriated customer who goose-stepped to the music. The room was designed for noise. To make himself heard over the well lubricated crowd, the emcee maxed the volume on his hand mike so that his incomprehensible words only added to the roar. Above the entrance to the kitchen in Gothic script was the slogan “Durst ist schlimmer wie Heimweh,” (Thirst is worse than homesickness). After downing a quick mug, the mood mellowed and I decided to enjoy the overpriced dinner of sauerbraten–the closest to a low-cholesterol meal on the menu.

The Conference

Next morning we arrived on the UNLV campus, where a bounce-house session and easter egg hunt for local kids was in progress outside the conference lecture hall. Eban Goodstein welcomed us with a preview of the talking points to be emphasized all day:

  • to avert a world-wide future catastrophe, we face an unprecedented challenge
  • we need to transform American values
  • we need to promote a design and technology revolution that will stop pumping climate destablizing gasses into the atmosphere
  • the present political system is gridlocked, and it is up to grassroots people like us to bring about change.

It felt a bit ambitious for this group of about 80, most of them students.

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Wahleah Johns, a navaho organizer working for the Campus Climate Challenge was the first guest speaker. A young woman with an old soul, she presented a story exemplifying the terrible obstacles we were up against. At first I thought this would not facilitate our nuts-and-bolts organizing efforts, but as she proceeded her words seemed to dissipate some of the Las Vegas curse.

She spoke of the Black Mesa energy project, which mines for coal under a sacred native american landmark, drains the pristine water from a desert aquifer to create a coal slurry that’s transported two hundred miles to Laughlin Nevada to fuel a generating plant that powers the billboards and searchlights on the strip. This Mohave power plant was cited for 40000 violations of the clean air act before it was shut down by a lawsuit brought by Sierra Club in concert with tribal political groups. The power company maintained that they couldnt install the scrubbers required by law because of expense.

Wahleah grew up on the reservation that includes Black Mesa. She and her family had no electricity and they hauled water every day from wells that tapped the aquifer. Since the drawdown by the coal company, their wells have run dry. Now the company negotiates secretly with some tribal leaders for permission to drain another deeper aquifer nearby. She and one of the groups she’s involved with testify before the Cal PUC which licenses the plant, trying to get them to enforce the law, and to implement a Just Transition Plan which will move investment and jobs from coal to renewable energy sources. Their work has helped to heal age-old rifts between Navaho and Hopi that the coal company has exploited in the past.

In the discussion period, Maria Godough from West Virginia spoke briefly about her battle with the coal company in the Appalachians practising Mountaintop removal, which destroys landscapes and local cultures in order to export coal to 28 countries, in violation of laws that are not enforced. Her hillbilly dialect and manner was as distinct from the American mainstream blend as Wahlea’s, both their faces marked with tragedy, incessant struggle, and unbreakable links to ancestry and place.

Eban transitioned from these horrors of extraction of fossil fuel to address the consequences of its burning”climate change and global warming. The issue is still on the back burner in people’s consciouness, in the media and especially in the priorities of politicians.

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He reminded us of our task as communicators: to convince people of the reality of climate change and of the fact that its harm can be limited only by immediate action: reducing climate pollution now and transitioning immediately to clean energy technology. He predicted that those young people who take on the task at this supremely urgent moment in history will be looked back upon as “the greatest generation.”

His lecture rehearsed the story we need to tell: first the danger, then the solutions.
The dangers

  • There’s no more debate in the scientific community about climate change
  • The ten hottest years ever recorded have taken place during the last decade.
  • The cause is the thickening of the carbon blanket in the atmosphere, no longer no longer to be referred to as the “greenhouse effect.” Preindustrial emissions were measured as 280 ppm, today they are 380 ppm. The only explanation is human impact, which pushed up the CO2 levels in an unprecedented experiment in altering the planets climate control system.
  • The official assessment is that temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10.5 degrees in the next century. This is an ice-age magnitude change.
  • A 3-4 degree warming will lead to the extinction of 25% of species. Impacts of this lower end change will be serious but manageable. But if the warming is at the higher end of the range, consequences will be catastrophic.
  • Examples:
    • spring is two weeks earlier this year
    • mountain glaciers are retreating all over the world
    • snowpack in mountain ranges which provide water supply to a large proportion of earths population is disappearing
    • Consequences include
    • spread of pests and diseases
    • worsening storm events, like Katrina
    • possible runaway catastrophes caused by positive feedback loops
    • shut down of the gulf stream
    • ocean acidification, and destruction of marine food chains
    • fire driven deforestation of the Amazon
    • melting tundra causing a methane pulse and adding a couple of degrees
    • irreversible collapse of ice sheets, raising global sea levels 35-40 feet

The solutions

  • There’s hope for limiting the damage if we can hold emissions to 450 ppm worldwide. In the nineteenth century, fossil fuels replaced animals and vastly reduced the pollution caused by horse manure. Now we need to go beyond fossil fuels for our energy productions. This can be done. Wind is cheap and efficient. Europe is on target for reducing emissions to 1990 levels, the Kyoto targets, and Japan and Canada are making serious efforts. But the U.S. has pulled out.
  • Clean energy is also affordable. Some economists think it will be free to convert since conservation produced for instance by fuel economy standards will save everybody money. More pessimistic economists judge that such a conversion will cost something like $300 per year for family. But the Iraq war cost has been greater than the total cost of abiding by the Kyoto accords and the economy hasn’t suffered.
  • Kyoto allows developing countries to cut back less than developed ones since we have the wealth to invest in new technologies. But developing countries will be able to adopt them more quickly, just as in Ecuador cell phones have come into use without the necessity of first stringing wire.

The last part of Eban’s speech modeled the kind of impassioned plea that’s needed to move people.

  • Shifting to a clean energy policy is an intergenerational gift. It will take 20 years of technological development before the new model can be fully in place. California’s investment in wind power 25 years ago makes possible its large scale adoption today. Sadly, when the subsidies of the industry dried up, the industry moved abroad, and new we shop for our wind turbines in Denmark. The Japanese saw the future coming and invested heavily in hybrid technology in the 1990’s They’re now reaping the benefit, while Ford goes bankrupt.
  • We have to stabilize the climate now and make the investments the next generation needs to rewire the planet.
  • Surveys show 70-80% of the public and business in general knows this is true.The only people who don’t get it live inside the Washington Beltway. People are no longer buying the false claims that this transformation will cost too much. It’s a smokescreen. A social movement is underway like the abolitionist movement, the woman’s suffrage movement, the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

Finally he offered some concrete suggestions for carrying the movement forward:

  • Reach out to colleagues, faculty are are going to say I want to get involved.
  • Involve many disciplines. For example get psychologists to discuss denial and obstacles to change, biologists to talk about life without polar bears, a religious studies person to discuss stewardship of creation.
  • At the end of the day’s events plan a round table with bipartisan panel of elected officials and student questioners.
  • Any time someone says “Global Warming” say “Focus the Nation.”

Eban’s talk was followed by discussion. I advised finding a person interested in Faculty Senate procedures to conduct the FtN resolution through the executive committee, first and second readings. You write the rationale and explain it as guest speaker. Get Senate and Student government to endorse if the President is reluctant. He’ll be less so if following them.

Steve Rypka, Green Living Consultant talked about how Los Vegas is actually going green. Thirteen billion dollars are now being invested in LEED development. And the Nevada state regents are requiring any state funded construction to be LEED certified.

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Alfredo Fernandes-Gonzales, professor of architecture, gave a presentation on work he’s doing in Las Vegas and on the 2030 challenge and the 2010 imperative initiated by solar architect Ed Masria. Based on the observation that fifty percent of greenhouse gases are produced by buildings, it demands any new building or renovation today cuts emissions and consumption by 50% of what’s produced by buildings in its neighborhood. The US Green Building Council which administers LEED refused to adopt this challenge until Masria convinced the American Institute of Architects to do so and then it followed suit. The challenge stipulates that by 2030 all new building be carbon neutral. These goals were developed by reading backward from the requirements for climate stabilization to avert catastrophe posed by James Hanson, top U.S. climatologist. They have been adopted by the mayor of Chicago.

Alberto showed some samples of projects that he’s working on with his students to measure the carbon footprint of sections of Las Vegas, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. These calculations will be used to find and encourage conservation and to discover and discourage waste. He concluded, the Titanic is already sinking, theres a lot of work to do in little time.

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At lunch in the cafeteria I sat with two British exchange students in meteorology, now at U of Oklahoma, and a New Yorker attending Prescott college. We talked about the recent debate between climate sceptics Michael Crichton and one scientist against three eminent meteorologists which resulted in most viewers siding with the sceptics.

At the first afternoon session, Billy Parrish, head of Campus Climate Challenge, who’d made a huge impression at the October AASHE conference, spoke briefly. He acknowledged the need for federal policy change. However students are not yet ready to influence at that level, but rather should follow the example of the modern conservative movement in organizing locally to make higher education the engine for change toward sustainability. Campus Climate Challenge is asking for 80% reduction in university carbon footprint by 2050.

Much of the afternoon was devoted to small group discussions of local campus strategies. My recommendation, prompted by my University Provost’s request, was for each organizing group to develop a budget of projected revenues and expenses right away to facilitate planning and gain credibility.

The anticipated conference highlight was a talk by David Orr, every academic environmentalist’s hero. Like Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism by Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins, and William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, Orr’s Earth in Mind is a mind-expanding, life-changing book. What he had to say about higher education was further from conventional wisdom and more on target than anything I had ever come across: in sum, that any education that doesn’t awaken a student to the environmental and moral crisis of our civilization and empower that student to change it is miseducation. The breadth of subject, the clarity of expression and the power of insight in this and the other books he produces with unbelievable frequency made me a disciple. His building, the Environmental Center at Oberlin, is the material embodiment of his wisdom. One motivator of my activism has been Orr’s approving words for a book I edited, Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide, and his acceptance of my invitation to speak at our campus three years ago.

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Orr was introduced by another hero, Jim Deacon, creator of the Environmental Science program at UNLV. Swivelling around in his mechanized wheelchair, he recollected his address on the first earth day in 1970 and his warnings about global warming in 1989 and 1992. Like others of our generation he was astounded by the refusal of the U.S. to endorse the Kyoto treaty, having “thoroughly underestimated the human capacity for self-delusion.” He presented David as a man who has labored mightily to destroy those delusions, an aptly buddhist description.

David apologized for his hoarse voice, worn out from previous speeches, the breadth and urgency of his message amplified by his rushed delivery peppered with epigrams one wished to linger upon. His leitmotif was “rumors of unfathomable things,” a quote from a book by Nicole Krauss describing her family’s response to the Nazi holocaust:

There were rumors of unfathomable things, and because we could not fathom them we failed to believe them”until we had no choice and it was too late.

Taking up Jim Deacon’s theme, Orr explored the question of why we have ignored the warnings sounded since 1978 for so long. Many of the answers lie in the history of our mass media. In 1992, for example, in the New York Times, the “paper of record,” the official warnings from the National Ocean and Atmosphere Office that our planet is dying appeared on page 8. The headlines on page 1 were about Terry Schiavo. Ronald Reagan overturned the Fairness Doctrine in effect siince 1949 that insured that airwaves belonging to the public must present truly fair and balanced information about controversial topics. The consolidation of media allowed by the Telecommunications act of 1996 reduced our news organizations from 50 to 5 today and has rendered us the 27th freest press in the world. The transformation of the media from appealing to the intellect to appealing to the unconscious was engineered by Edward Bernays, founder of the modern advertising industry that spends half a trillion dollars a year to keep us ignorant.

Now the problem is no longer ignored. The media, business, the general public have become aware of it. The christian coalition is making a 180 degree turn on climate change. But because of our delay, time is not our friend, there remains no margin for error in this global emergency. We are already committed to substantial warming before the end of the century.

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It’s too late to avoid trauma but not too late to prevent the worst. There are twelve possible tipping points, not only of climate change, but other threatening factors. Each can kick off the others. One is international terrorism, a result of “Blowback” from our imperial adventures. Another that the National Debt will reach 231 percent of gross domestic product by 2050, making us a major debtor nation, ill equipped for the investment required to transform energy production. However the solutions exist. We must solve for pattern, for what Orr calls security by design, using the wedge strategy, breaking the big problem into several solutions.

BUT we must be sure not to engage in “problem switching” instead of problem solving. We must always ask how much carbon we can remove for a dollar spent. Examples of problem switching include:

¢ “clean coal,” Cheney’s plan, which involves mountain top removal and the derangement of ecosystems
¢ carbon sequestration, an expensive, doubtfully effective high cost process
¢ nuclear power which is crude technology with bad economic return and myriad dangers and negative consequences
¢ biofuels, which require huge subsidies and absorb food production resources.

Real solutions include

¢ solar
¢ Amory Lovins’ 1976 soft path, decrease energy demand by increasing efficiency, for example: refrigerators
¢ efficient transport
¢ high performance buildings
¢ energy efficiency
¢ prices that tell the truth
¢ taxing waste not work
¢ promoting renewables

Another example: the Lewis center created by Orr in Ohio, a building which generates 30% more power than it uses and emits zero discharge. The solar panels that power it were developed twenty miles from his campus, but they are no longer manufactured here, you must buy them in German, and you must buy windmills in Denmark.

The New Apollo project, which is developing wind resource potential in Kansas, Texas, North and South Dakota. The cost of renewables is now in free fall. His student developed a technique for turning blueberries into photovoltaic material.

In conclusion Orr said, this revolution in technology will only buy us time. The question is time for what. He emphasized that sustainability is about more than gadgetry. Its about securing a fair and decent world, what the Preamble to the Constitution calls “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” We have undergone a massive political failure that has led to a worse tyranny than the Founders fought against, intergenerational tyranny. No generation has the right to alter the Earth’s natural cycles¦we are trustees for all life yet to come.

Orr ended with reference to Thomas Berry’s book, “The Great Work.” Every generation, he said, has its work imposed upon them, is given the battles it must fight. Ours is stabilizing the climate by reducing all heat trapping gases, rapidly transitioning to energy efficiency and renewables and building a world secure for all, by design.

Conclusion

After the program ended, Chad and Matt and Kate (along with Wiley, her ever-present guide-dog-in-training) and I supped at a quiet local restaurant, the Mediterranean café. I got to order vegetarian shish kabob and rice. With wistful laughter we shared stories of past political adventures”mine at Columbia in 1968, Kate instructing accounting at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute of Sustainable Business on Cortez Island, Matt and Chad in staying up for weeks planning an energy audit of Los Angeles for a statewide competition that provided no academic credit.

And we assessed the value of this trip. Unlike the sensation of being gathered into a movement of inexorable momentum after the AASHE conference, or the feeling of having attended a historic event after the September 2005 Sierra Summit in San Francisco, here we were left to our own resources. There is no well-financed highly organized institution of professionals that will make Focus the Nation happen. It may not succeed in turning January 31 2008 into a day remembered by our grandchildren. But if it does, it will have been because of us. And regardless of how FtN proceeds nationally, we have bonded to it and to one another as a team confident that the Cal Poly event will be terrific.

Next morning over breakfast in the hotel lobby, we created our budget. Kate taught us to format the spreadsheet, I estimated how much we could get from the deans and central administration, and Matt and Chad calculated financial and facilities contributions from student government and clubs. We were done in forty minutes, in time for a hike in the red rocks before flying back home, two pairs of working partners, three generations, taking up our small part in the Great Work together.

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P.S. From February 1 2008: The outcome

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