Rebecca and the Radicals
It’s August and hot. Paul Granger shows up for his appointment in a sweaty T-shirt, blue jeans and sandals. “Hi, Paul,” Rebecca greets him warmly, “What can I do for you?”
“You know I love you, right? I love what you’ve done for this town. I’m on your side all the way. However, we’re in serious trouble. We’re in the crosshairs and are about to be blown away.”
“You know they’re already fracking in Othertown. That’s only 300 miles from here. They’re gonna be coming here eventually. You’re against fracking, right?”
“Paul, you know better than that. I have no opinions. I am here to help the people of Anytown make and implement their decisions together.”
“Well, that Dan Burton and his crowd of developers are inviting the fracking frackers in here. They don’t care about our water. They don’t care about global warming. All they care about is money. You’ve got to stop them!”
“Paul, the way to handle this is to call a town meeting. Do you know how to do that?”
“I know about meetings, but I’ve never called one. What’s the deal?”
“OK, go down to the DDR. Tell them you want to call a meeting. They’ll give you a form. Fill out that form describing as exactly as you can the topic of the meeting. We’ll handle the rest. You’ve been to a lot of meetings, so you basically know the procedure.”
“Problem is, this fracking thing is not negotiable. We don’t care what anyone says or thinks, we’re not gonna allow fracking in this area. We’re farmers. We need our water and we need it clean. We can’t take any chances. I don’t think we can even be part of a discussion about whether or not to frack near us.”
“I understand your position and your feelings, and I appreciate you letting me know where you stand. On the other hand, you live in a community. Shouldn’t you at least give the folks in your community a chance to do the right thing? If you just refuse from the start to even talk, you’re starting a process that can only lead to violence. In fact, you deciding on your own how things should be without considering the opinions and feelings of others is already violence. Please call a meeting. Please give the process a chance. You can always turn to civil disobedience or some other tactic later if you’re not satisfied with the result.”
“I’ll call the meeting, but I have a bad feeling about this. There’s no way Burton is going to back down, and neither will we.”
“That may be true for you two, but let’s see where the rest of the city stands, can we?”
After Paul calls the meeting, the DDR announces the start of a process to resolve a dispute regarding local fracking. In the local paper and on local TV, City Hall calls for participation in an initial planning meeting. That initial meeting sets the date and the ground rules for the town meeting. The date and the ground rules are announced, again using the paper and TV.
The meeting is called to order on August 31. Dan Burton and the developers come in and sit on one side of the auditorium. Paul Granger and about a hundred local farmers come in and sit on the other side. According to the ground rules, each side can make two 10-minute presentations. Who goes first is decided by a coin flip. After the presentations, the floor is opened to questions and comments.
By the time the presentations are over, the conflict is crystal clear. On the fracking side is the prospect of jobs and oil revenue meaning greater prosperity for Anytown. On the farmers’ side is the prospect of contaminated water, oil and chemical spills, and the boom-bust cycle, that is, the appearance of large numbers of single men coming into town for a few years bringing alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution, then the loss of all this activity, good and bad, when the oil runs out.
When the floor opens, the comments come fast and furious. Despite the ground rules prohibiting interruptions, cheering and booing, the white-hot passions are impossible to control. Shouts keep anyone from being heard. There’s not much cheering, but booing from both sides makes civilized conversation impossible.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Rebecca shouts into her microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen. Please. Calm down. Everyone of you agreed to follow the rules when you came in here, but you’re not following those rules. We cannot let this descend to a shouting match.
We’re not ready to deal with this issue. I’m sorry. I should have prepared better. I’m about to adjourn this meeting. But before I do, I want to tell you that I have just heard from one of my staff an idea that I think might make all of you happy. We need some time to work out enough details to explain it to you. Right now I’m asking you to give me a week. Let’s meet again one week from today. Until then, I’m asking you to stay away from this topic. Do not continue this debate as you leave. Do not start fights in the parking lot. Just go home and wait for one week. Can you do that?” General agreement. The police are all over the parking lot. They intervene a couple times to quell shouting matches, but the crowd disperses without violence. To some extent, this willingness and ability to calm down is the result of previous experience and faith that Rebecca and her administration will do their best to resolve the conflict in a way that satisfies all parties.
For her part, Rebecca regrets bringing the groups together without some preliminary shuttle diplomacy and more public emphasis on the ground rules. She had taken this conflict too lightly. Luckily, Jed has a great plan.
One week later
The auditorium is full. Far more people are in attendance than last week, and the rest of city is watching on TV. In fact, several million people around the country and around the world are watching on TV or livestream. Rebecca takes the floor.
“It’s my understanding that this week passed without incident. For that I’m grateful. Thank you for your patience. Now, as promised, we will present our idea. I don’t expect this to be the final solution, but I’m hoping you’ll listen carefully with open minds and do your best to see how you can use it to get what you want or need. I’ll let Jed Graham explain. Jed.”
“Let me summarize what I think are the interests in conflict here. First, we’d all like Anytown to be more prosperous. Many of us lack jobs these days. Many of us are working in jobs that don’t pay enough and offer no benefits or security. So we need to improve our local economy. Next, we probably do have some shale oil in our area, especially in the prairie west of town, and some of us would like to tap into that oil. Doing so will bring considerable investment into Anytown, which will create jobs, wealth, excitement and prosperity.
“On the other hand, the prairie is already producing livestock, and, while some of the ranchers would be happy to lease land to the oil companies, others don’t want to lose their land to what they believe will be a temporary boom. Finally, many of the farmers as well as the environmental activists in our area believe that fracking will contaminate our land and water. They say the oil companies will come in, take our oil, keep most of the money for themselves, and leave us with a toxic mess when they leave. Does this pretty much cover the conflict?”
“Earthquakes,” comes a voice from the crowd.
“OK, I take this to be a part of the environmental concern, the idea that fracking could cause earthquakes in our area. Are there other concerns?” Silence.
“Now here is our proposal. First, we’ve investigated the experience of several cities in North Dakota where the fracking boom was big. We found that in Williston and Watford fracking did bring in millions of dollars and 60,000 jobs. These jobs lasted for only a few years. The boom is permanently over now for some towns because the oil is gone, but for some, it could come back when the price of oil goes back up. But the question is, how can we attract a high level of investment without the environmental problems and eventual bust.
To investigate this issue, we studied Hannover, Germany. There, the city government has adopted a ten-year plan to make the city a net energy exporter using only renewable energy sources. Every building in the city has been analyzed for its solar potential. The windiest parts of the city, including right downtown where the wind whips through the tall buildings, are full of windspires. Also, all trash from the city is used to make methane or directly burned for heat that boils water that turns a turbine that generates electricity.
This plan has attracted tremendous investment, which came from the national government, state government, local companies and residents. All residents benefit from energy prices that are 40% lower than the rest of Germany and far lower than they were before the implementation of this plan. As the plan is more fully implemented, the cost of energy will go down further or city revenue will increase. Maintenance costs for the solar, wind and incinerator are low, so once they’re in place, they pay back the original investment in five or six years.
Here in Anytown we have plenty of solar and wind energy. We can also burn our trash, of course, but we also have the river, which has several significant drops in or near the city. Using new micro-hydro technology, we can generate considerable electricity without damming the river or altering its flow in any way. Thus, part of our proposal is to make Anytown completely energy self-sufficient within ten years. We will liberate ourselves entirely from both the power and the gas companies, and we will use our own energy to keep energy costs super low or to fund municipal projects.” Murmurs of assent sweep through the crowd at the idea of liberation from the power companies. “The question is, where will we get the initial investment for all these energy projects? I will get back to this later.”
“But energy is only part of our proposal. We also propose a city-wide permaculture project. With the help of our farmers and environmental activists, we will turn every inch of arable land in this city to the production of food or other useful plant products like cotton, bamboo, and trees for lumber. In addition, we will fill our city with chickens, ducks, goats, and sheep. On larger tracts of land outside the city we can raise cattle, kangaroos, ostriches, llamas, alpacas, and other useful and enjoyable animals.
This permaculture project will have four goals. First, and foremost, we want to demonstrate that a city like ours can provide good, healthy food to all its citizens free or nearly free. We will not be growing food for cash. We’ll be growing it for food for our residents. We’ll all do the work, and we’ll all reap the rewards.
Second, we will demonstrate that permaculture and natural agriculture techniques can be used to produce more food per acre than industrial agriculture while creating a sustainable, productive system that is healthy for all its inhabitants—plant, animal and human.
Third, we will become a model of low-energy-low-waste, post-petroleum living. As we experiment and learn how to live within our energy means, we will be preparing well in advance for the day when we can no longer rely like we do today on petroleum. We all know this will happen someday. If we start preparing now, we will be able to handle it much more gracefully when the time comes.
Fourth, by creating a model, post-petroleum, permaculture, energy-self-sufficient city, we will become the greatest tourist attraction in our region. As you well know, we’re already an Internet attraction, and that is already bringing in visitors. Tourism in Anytown has increased well over 100% since Mayor White became our mayor, but since tourism was practically nil before, the absolute numbers are still low. What we are proposing is to create a city that is self-sufficient, healthy, enjoyable and inexpensive to live in—one that will serve as a model for urban development in the 21st century. If we succeed at this, we will, in the long run, attract far more dollars than fracking. We’ll change our city for the better, and that change will be permanent. Better yet, that change will prepare us to be as resilient and successful as possible whatever the future may throw at us. And, people will come from around the world to see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. You all know the DDR is a profit center, right? If we implement this plan, we can make our whole city a profit center. What do you say?” Enormous roar of approval. “Any questions?” Incomprehensible shouts and mutterings. Then Dan Burton pics up a mic and asks, “So where’s the money coming from? You said you’d deal with that.”
“Sorry. Yes, I’m afraid this won’t entirely satisfy you, but we haven’t had time to explore all the possibilities thoroughly. What I can tell you for sure is that many of the programs this plan entails are eligible for national and state subsidies. In addition, many foundations have programs that offer funds to communities experimenting in the ways I’ve described. I think we can do most of what I’ve been talking about with government and foundation funds. However, let me point out that this plan is one we can do ourselves if we put our minds to it. Not only that, the less help we get from outside, the more valuable we will be as a model.” Confused murmurings and small group conversations.
Rebecca takes the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen. Can I have your attention?” Gradual return to order and silence. “Thank you. I believe that you are, like I am, excited by Jed’s proposal. However, we all know that this is easier said than done, especially the part about the initial investment. Let me ask tonight for two months to explore the possibilities and work out the details. I promise you that by mid-November, we will present you with a detailed proposal explaining exactly how we could accomplish the vision Jed has just outlined. We will give you a step by step description and a realistic funding plan. Then, we will give you a month to respond with your objections or better ideas. Finally, by mid-January next year we will hold a referendum on this plan. You’ll be able to vote it up or down. Is this acceptable?” Roar of approval.
“Mr. Burton, I assume you can feel the will of the people on this. However, I don’t want you going away angry or feeling like you lost something. I hereby offer to put you and any two or three others you choose on the committee to come up with the details of this plan. Or, if you prefer, you can work with the fracking industry to prepare an alternative plan. Then, in November, we will present your plan along with ours. And, in January, you can offer your plan and the people can choose between yours and Jed’s. What do you say?”
“I came in here tonight ready to fight, but I have to admit I love the picture you’ve drawn. If you can demonstrate to me that all this is feasible, I’ll be one of your most enthusiastic supporters. I have questions myself about the wisdom of fracking, and I know the oil won’t last forever. If we really do have a choice, I want to go with a healthier, longer-term plan. Please do put me on the committee. I’m looking forward to this.”
And thus did Anytown become a model 21st century city. The initial investments were covered by grants and donations. Millions of dollars came in even from people overseas who wanted to see Anytown succeed. The local power companies resisted, but decades of abuse had turned the population against them. They quickly gave up. In fact, they joined the party, donating their transmission infrastructure to the city and working to set up a smart grid from which they could receive energy when the system produced a surplus.
Now, by consensus agreement, every capable resident has to do at least two hours of physical labor a day or pay someone else to work for them. In return, all residents, including restaurants, get extremely low food and energy costs, high community satisfaction, and a strong sense of security. People are friendlier, less stressed, more cooperative, and proud of the town they live in. Tourism took off, as did permaculture and energy management training. Of course, a few billionaires and millionaires came down from New York to cash in, but it only took a few mistakes for most residents to realize that their community is worth far more than money. Anytown is not for sale. No one wants to leave, so there’s no room for speculators. You’re welcome to visit, but if you want to buy or stay, go home and create your own Anytown. Anyone can do it.