Saving the planet, one block, one small project at a time
SCALLOPS, Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound, is a loose-knit alliance of about 60 neighborhood groups in Washington state seeking to organize grass-roots efforts to live on the Earth more lightly. The groups take on small, practical projects ranging from garden-sharing to light bulb replacements in an effort to promote energy conservation and local/organic food while discouraging waste, among other things.
ON A WINTRY day in January, Dave Reid loaded some 700 pounds of freshly harvested organic vegetables into the cabin of his 27-foot sailboat in Sequim Bay, hoisted his sails and rode an outgoing tide into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, bound for Seattle. Over the next two days, Reid sailed on quirky winds, dodged state ferries, scooted past Chinese container ships and even encountered a mammoth Trident submarine before eventually docking at Shilshole Bay. That's where his customers showed up to collect their allotments of herbs and greens.
In an economy that usually rewards speed and efficiency, Reid's carbon-free voyage gives new meaning to tilting at windmills. It took 36 hours to make a trip a small truck could have accomplished in two hours. And his 700 pounds amounted to a minuscule percentage of the food consumed in Seattle that day.
But Reid and his collaborators in the regional sustainability movement are dead serious about the idea of transporting goods by sailboat. It's an idea that's less about straight-from-the-farm spinach and arugula than it is about proving that just about anything can be moved from Point A to Point B without burning a drop of oil. To make that work on a larger scale, he says, the effort must start small. Instead of waiting for President Obama or the Ford Motor Co. to conserve energy, he's taking action now, riding on the belief that individuals and neighborhoods must take matters into their own hands.
On a rather microcosmic level, Reid appears to have made his case. Six months after his test run, he has negotiated deals with several Puget Sound farmers and has dozens more interested. This summer, Reid is making weekly voyages from Sequim and Poulsbo to Shilshole Bay.
A soft-spoken engineer who quit his job to launch his Sail Transport Company, Reid doesn't expect to make a profit anytime soon. But he insists that his business is not about profit anymore than it's about maritime nostalgia. "We are not looking backward," he says. "We're looking forward, dealing with the emerging realities of a new economy."Sustainability — broadly understood as meeting today's needs without exhausting resources or compromising the future — is hardly a new concept in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle and Portland win frequent kudos for programs such as solid waste and public transit, and former King County Executive Ron Sims got a White House appointment this year in part because of his experience with the idea.
But Reid's voyage is an example of a new wave of efforts that spring not from City Hall or the Statehouse but from neighborhoods and small towns. From Bellingham to Olympia, from Burien to Ballard, neighbors are organizing low-budget programs designed to grow food in their backyards, get people out of their automobiles, switch to low-energy light bulbs — anything that encourages energy conservation and discourages oil consumption.
Sustainable Bainbridge, for example, supports local food production by putting farmers together with consumers, preserving farmlands and helping local people grow their own vegetables.
A group called Spokespeople, supported by Sustainable Wallingford, is attempting to organize recreational cyclists to use their bikes to deliver fresh food — including Reid's vegetables — to people who otherwise would drive their cars.
Sustainable Ballard has invented the "Undriver License," which encourages people to reduce their use of cars, and is working on a program to help people do weatherstripping and caulking to better insulate their homes.
In Port Townsend, a group called Local 20/20 helps train residents to organize "neighborhood circles" that could respond more efficiently than government to a flood, storm or other major emergency.
And several of those groups hope to train thousands of volunteers to install 1 million low-wattage fluorescent light bulbs in local homes. Think about it, says Vic Opperman, who cofounded Sustainable Ballard. If community groups could recruit, say, 10,000 volunteers and each replaced 100 light bulbs in the neighborhood, they could have a dramatic and immediate impact on energy consumption.
Fueled by such optimism, community groups have begun to trade ideas via yet another new grass-roots organization with the acronym SCALLOPS, for Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound. Like its constituent groups, SCALLOPS has no paid staff, no office, virtually no budget and no political authority. Still, it's now more than 60 groups strong, organizing with volunteers around kitchen tables and on the Internet.
What they lack in budget and political heft, these groups make up for in sheer ambition. Reid and friends aspire to do no less than introduce an economic and environmental sensibility to a nation and a world shaken by the failures of past years. In Seattle, local government consults grass-roots groups on issues such as transit routes and bicycle paths. A Port Townsend group initiated the political uprising that led to last fall's successful ballot measure authorizing a local public utility district to take over delivery of electricity across Jefferson County.
Organizers may be 20-something idealists wearing dreadlocks and pierced earrings, 30-something software engineers, or 70-something grandmothers in sensible shoes. But they share a core mission. Opperman calls it simply "radical energy conservation."
A TALL, HANDSOME woman, Vic Opperman trained in architecture and became determined to help curb what she sees as society's stumbling course toward self-destruction. It began for her, she says, when the Bush administration was ramping up to invade Iraq. "I started going down to Ballard and protesting every Wednesday. I had never been involved in anything like that, but I found myself organizing rallies."
While the war raged on, Opperman turned her attention to energy conservation, which became the founding principle of Sustainable Ballard. It is not a huge organization; the annual meeting and elections in January attracted just 40 people. But that small group has made itself felt by incubating ideas for reducing the community's dependence on oil.
As similar groups sprouted all over the region, Opperman and two friends saw a need for an umbrella organization — "something like a congress" — where activists could bounce ideas off each other. Hence, SCALLOPS.
"The idea was basically: Let's find something that works, and then help other communities do the same thing," says Neva Welton of Bainbridge Island, who cofounded SCALLOPS.
"Each community is unique, and there are differences in how they organize," she explains. "SCALLOPS gives organizers a chance to hear how somebody else did it."
They meet every three months or so, hearing reports from far-flung organizations about projects that have worked or not worked. "I feel like I'm back in the '60s," says Cathy Tuttle, who organized Sustainable Wallingford last year. "Except this time people seem to know better what they are doing. We're better linked into the power structures."
Tuttle has been tracking these issues longer than most. With a Ph.D in urban planning, she worked seven years for the city of Seattle, writing and evaluating neighborhood plans and compiling a list of indicators of local sustainability. The city never formally adopted those indicators, but they have been used in other cities as far off as northern Europe, she says.
Tuttle offers a more poetic definition of sustainability. Ultimately, she says, "it's about learning to live on one small planet with grace and joy."
WHILE POPULIST environmentalism has gurgled for years in Puget Sound neighborhoods, nobody seems to know for sure why the movement has suddenly taken off. Certainly, popular concerns over oil consumption and carbon footprints have been on the increase, fueled in large part by Al Gore's widely touted books and documentary film. Last year's spike in oil prices lent momentum, but the movement seems to have continued to grow even as gas prices declined.
There was Hurricane Katrina, too, which showed Americans that they cannot count on government to rescue them from a catastrophe. And then the ongoing economic crisis, which has forced people to look for economical ways to live. Most recently, the idea has been elevated by a president who campaigned on a platform of energy conservation and a change of values — a script that might have been written at a meeting of Sustainable Ballard.
"None of this is new," says Kathy Pelish, a Microsoft employee who helped organize the Sail Transport Network, which has helped promote Dave Reid's venture. "This has been building since the '60s. We had Jimmy Carter, who got skewered for touching the third rail. Since then, we've been living on borrowed time."
The challenge, she says, is to fundamentally change attitudes toward economics, consumption and the environment before the world bumps up against the limits of oil and other natural resources.
There's also a hunger for community, says Tuttle. "People desperately want local meaning and local solutions to problems, and that translates to local food, local transportation, more reliance on your neighbors."
It was community, not politics, that inspired Amy Pennington, an avid cook and gardener who had been frustrated by the lack of a vegetable garden at her Queen Anne apartment. She figured Seattle is full of people who yearn to grow an edible garden but lack the space, and other people who have garden space but lack the time or skills to work it. What's needed, Pennington decided, is an Internet site that puts these people together, like an online dating service.
She teamed up with Sustainable Ballard and a friend created her Web site, and on March 1 launched urbangardenshare.org.
Pennington, who also produces "In the Kitchen with Tom (Douglas) and Thierry (Rautureau)" Saturdays on KIRO radio, expected her new project would draw lots of aspiring gardeners and far fewer gardens. But by early summer she had 200 people and equal numbers of each. One of them was Laura McLeod, who has a large yard behind the Ballard home that has been in her family since 1907. She posted her profile on urbangardenshare.org, and promptly was matched with a neighbor, an experienced gardener who needed space. Then another, and another.
"Now there are four neighbors tending their gardens in my yard. We have seven raised beds with lettuce, kale, spinach, beets, lots of tomatoes. One neighbor comes early in the morning and recites mantras as he works."
Do the gardeners worry about sustainability and attend neighborhood meetings? Probably not. But, consciously or not, they have become part of a movement that makes a strong connection between petroleum and fresh asparagus, between energy and community.
"We are not trying to reverse history," insists Reid as he rigs his boat for another carbon-free delivery. "We're moving forward."
Reid and Opperman and friends bring to the environmental movement a surprising sense of optimism. Like their counterparts at Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, they believe that the Earth's ecosystems are in serious trouble. But they're not filing lawsuits or marching in the streets. Instead, they're determined to do something about it — whether it's riding bicycles or taking the bus, growing vegetables or transporting them to hungry Seattleites.
"These things are concrete and hopeful," says Pelish, of Wallingford, "and that is what makes them powerful."
Mary Rothschild is a former Seattle Times editor. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
The information in this article, originally published August 2, 2009, was corrected August 10, 2009. A story incorrectly said that Sail Transport Company has been offered free dock space by Seattle City Hall and the Port of Seattle. The company, in fact, pays all required dock fees.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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