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Normal is getting dressed
in clothes that you buy
for work and driving
through traffic in a car
that you are still paying
for - in order to get to
the job you need to pay
for the clothes and the
car, and the house you
leave vacant all day so
you can afford to live in
– Ellen Goodman
Stories and Tunes
by Stephen Morris
Stories and Tunes
What an honor to be asked to participate in this year’s SolarFest. This event has come a long way, baby, and now can rightfully claim to be the nation’s premier event of this type. One of the great strengths is how this event has organized the renewable energy community.
My specialty is publishing and “to publish” is literally “to make public.” I have an experimental book publishing company called “The Public Press” and a magazine for “friends of the environment” called Green Living Journal.
This event, with over 95 workshops presented against a backdrop of great music, tasty food, and the Green Mountains of Vermont is, by my definition, a form of publishing. Books, magazines, events, blogs, social networking sites ... by my definition these are all different forms of publishing, because they are different ways of making information public.
I don’t want to offend any bloggers out there, but I have to tell you about my favorite cartoon. Two dogs are sitting and talking to each other. One dog says to the other “I used to have my own blog, but I’ve gone back to random, incessant barking.”
Let me tell you about my first SolarFest. At the time I was a book publisher at Chelsea Green, and we had decided to collaborate with the SolarFest folks to provide access to our authors and staff to stage workshops and presentations. Being a big, fancy executive type, I left the administration of details to my marketing staff. Literally, on the drive over, my marketing manager said “I hope you don’t mind that I volunteered you for a panel discussion on sustainable living.”
“That’s no problem. I can wing my way through that,” I said confidently.
“Well, actually,” he said, “You’re running the panel discussion.”
“Oh ... normally I like a little more notice. How long is the session?”
“Two hours,” he said.
I had all of about fifteen minutes to prepare. My panelists were Michael Potts, author of The Independent Home and Jeff Wolfe, then of Global Resource Options. We met in the tent, which was packed, and decided that the best strategy would be to just get down into the dirt with the audience and play. And it worked! It was of the best panel discussions I have ever been part of, and I’m hoping that we can experience the same sense of play today.
Just to give you a sense of the passage of time, another of my theme’s today, Jeff Wolfe’s presentation could be summarized as “How I escaped the corporate rat race to open a mom & pop renewable energy business in rural Vermont.” groSolar is now the fourth largest solar supplier in the country, and knowing Jeff, he’s not going to rest easy until he’s number one.
The title of this presentation is “Stories and Tunes,” and it’s just that, some hopefully entertaining and instructive stories from my professional career, followed by some brief tunes that will leave you astounded that I would get up to attempt anything musical after a weekend of such incredible music. If nothing else, I think you’ll be amazed at my courage.
I’m one of those guys who has a resume that would cause most people to say “Couldn’t this guy hold a job?” Other people, and I suspect there are a fair number of you in this crowd, will get it and see how I have been blessed to be associated with people and organizations that have been at the epicenter of environmental activism.
Story the First–The Bard of Beer
Like a lot of young people I got out of college determined to change the world, but clueless as to where to start or how to go about it. So I decided to start at the top and to write the Great American Novel. It was called Foodball, and it was story of two young men raised in the same podunk town.
One of them, the hero, is smart, articulate, and can really see what is going on in the world. The other is a plodding dummy, doomed to a life of flipping burgers. In the process of doing this, however, he decides to take fast food to a new low by putting your hamburger, fries, and thick shake into a blender, then deep frying the resulting pellet of glop into a Foodball.
The Foodball, of course, sweeps the nation by storm, bringing fame, fortune, and power to its inventor while our insightful hero keeps redefining the definition of failure. If anyone wants to become the first person in America to read Foodball, it’s still sitting in the bottom drawer of my desk.
Meanwhile, another opportunity presented itself when I read that Paramount Pictures was going to make a major motion picture of The Little Prince, the children’s classic that is for more than children . When I was in college I had done an adaptation of The Little Prince for the stage that was, I modestly admit, was a smash success. Armed with my script I stormed the offices of Paramount confident that Darryl F. Zanuck or whomever would recognize my merits and my future in Hollywood would be insured.
Instead I was unceremoniously shown the door and shortly thereafter received a letter from Paramount’s attorneys to the effect that they would sue my young ass if I tried to associate myself with The Little Prince in any way shape or form. (The movie, I am glad to say, was a complete dud.)
I was living in London at the time, thanks to my wife’s gainful employment with an American college program, and one of our favorite pastimes was to visit neighborhood pubs. We lived in a cramped basement apartment so escaping to a local pub was a nightly treat.
What a different world this was from what I was accustomed to. In America bars were long and linear. You sat on a stool, facing forward, into a regiment of liquor bottles often backed by a mirrored wall. The beer in America was yellow, bland, and fizzy. There were different brands, but they all tasted the same. Bars in America are good places for feeling sorry for yourself and getting drunk.
In London, however, many of the pubs are architectural masterpieces. Since most people live in small living space, the neighborhood pub is like a communal living room. People drink standing up, which promotes social interaction, and most importantly ... the beer is alive.
This was my introduction to REAL ALE.
This was my first experience with a “live” food. We’re hearing a lot on the importance of beneficial live organisms in sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles, all kinds of food. Back then, it was an unknown subject. Then I learned something even more remarkable:
You can make your own beer.
This was unthinkable. Beer was made in a factory with huge tanks and gleaming kettles. But I learned you could walk on down to Boots the Chemist, buy a beer kit, mix it up, add the yeast, and within a few weeks–voila–live, delicious beer.
I couldn’t wait to show off my newfound knowledge when I returned stateside, but guess what? It was not legal to make your own beer in America. Moreover, it was a felony, a carryover from Prohibition. Something was wrong in the States of America. You could buy all the ingredients to make beer. You just couldn’t put them together. Or, you could use the ingredients to make bread, but not beer.
My sense of outrage was complete, but at last I had the key to understanding what was wrong in this country I would learn about beer and in so doing, learn about our culture. Maybe I could even figure out why beer in America was so bad.
Initially, my goal was amorphous ... learn about beer, sample different kinds, talk to people. I began to see a real correlation between the health of a culture and it’s attitudes towards beer. This made sense. Humans evolved as nomadic hunter/gatherers, until some genius left some grain in a clay pot. It got rained on. Wild yeasts invaded. The genius decided to sample the brew:
AND IT WAS PRETTY GOOD!
Even more importantly the fermented grain would not spoil, like bread, and this mean that a tribe could winter over in a good place and not always be on the move. Beer, therefore, was the very foundation of civilization.
The more I studied beer, the more I realized that there was almost nothing available in the realm of popular literature. This was it, my new opportunity. Forget about the Great American Novel. I would go on an epic journey. I’d call it The Great Beer Trek, write up my experiences, and become The Bard of Beer.
And it almost worked out that way, the key word being “almost.” I made the trip, visiting every brewery then in operation–all 42 of them–then just as I was writing up the saga an English writer with the ironic name of Michael Jackson came out with a book called The World Guide to Beer. This was a beautiful–well written, beautiful color photos, authoritative. I felt a little like someone had punched me in the stomach. He instantly became the Bard of Beer.
But not really. I still did pretty good. The Great Beer Trek was published in two editions. It was reviewed positively in everything from Publisher’s Weekly to Playboy and Penthouse. For a couple of years I was well-enough known that I couldn’t buy a beer in a bar in America. A few years later the book was translated into Japanese.
By this time the Beer Revolution was well underway, and I was curious why the Japanese publisher would publish a book so out of day. He said “Over here, you’re regarded as the Father of American Microbrewing.”
It’s not true, but every once in a while it’s nice to get credit for something you don’t deserve.
So why is this story relevant to people at SolarFest? Three reasons: I went to a workshop on sauerkraut at the NOFA Conference last winter, and when they flashed up the bibliography at the end, three of the four recommended books had been published by me! I’m sure that never would have happened, had I not had the Eureka experience of drinking real ale.
Secondly, my first stop on the GBT was Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich. There I met a gritty homesteady kind of guy named Tim Matson who had written and underground pamphlet (remember, homebrewing was still a felony then) called “Mountain Brew.” Tim lived in a house he had built himself, had a garden and a pond, and he homebrewed.. I fell in love immediately with Vermont. This was my kinda place, and the seed was planted ... I wanted this to be my home.
Thirdly, and finally, when I cam here on The Great Beer Trek, Mountain Brew was the only beer scene happening. Twenty-five years later Vermont Magazine commissioned me to do Beer Trek of Vermont Trek which I did with my son, who inherited the beer gene. Our first stop was Dan & Whit’s in Norwich. There is now more beer variety in this one store than was available across America then. Not only that you can literally throw a stone from Dan & Whit’s and hit a fantastic little brewpub at the Norwich Inn. There are now 17 microbreweries in Vermont, putting out a mind-boggling array of healthy, tasty, and alive beers.
From the perspective of a beer drinker, Vermont and America are vastly better places today. Revolution is possible and Revolution can taste might good! Keep that in mind when you think about overwhelming environmental issues like global warming.
The Defiant, The Vigilant, and the Resolute
Two footnotes to my previous story: I eventually moved to Vermont and became Tim Matson’s publisher when I was at Chelsea Green. I also became a personal friend of Michael Jackson, who passed away not too long ago, as did another Michael Jackson who also changed our culture in several important ways. I’d like to raise an imaginary glass of real ale to both Michael Jacksons.
My initial foray into homesteading as a “pleasant disaster.” I bought a piece of land in Nova Scotia–260 acres with 18 cleared and an old farmhouse overlooking the Annapolis Valley–for $8,000. “Boy did you get ripped off,” my friends up there told me. “They could see you coming.”
It turns out that buying the piece of property was the smartest thing I did. Everything else was dumb. I astounded myself with what I didn’t know. I was the product of the city. I didn’t know where my water or electricity came from. I didn’t have, or know how to use, tools despite my avid reading of the Whole Earth Catalog. I didn’t know how to garden, how to fix machinery.
Despite my general incompetence I had a great time building stone walls, patching a roof that was beyond repair, and learning the nuances of an outhouse. The Canadian government came to my rescue, sending me a letter to the effect. “We don’t care if you’ve got a college degree. We don’t care if you can recite the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We don’t want people who can’t do nuthin’ in our country for more than 90 days. Application denied!”
Eventually I sold the property for a tidy profit, proving I was a more astute real estate speculator than homesteader. Although I retreated to the suburbs of Boston, I hadn’t lost my zeal for becoming more self-reliant. In fact, it intensified in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo which sent several significant shock waves through the culture. Almost instantly we learned:
I should say “some” of us learned this, because most Americans returned immediately to their gas guzzling ways. I saw a story about a local man who responded to the embargo by heating his home with wood using one of those new-fangled Scandinavia woodstoves.
WHAT? You can actually do that? So clueless was I that I had never given thought through where my heat came from, other than the thermostat on the wall. I drove by the man’s house, amazed at the wood stacked on the porch.
I tried to incorporate aspects of homesteading into my suburban life, looking for a way to combine earning a living with a more close-to-the-ground lifestyle. The opportunity finally came when I answered a classified ad for a “customer service manager” at a small woodstove company in Vermont.
Vermont Castings had its origins in the madcap design/build community based at Prickly Mountain in Warren. A group of creative designer/architect types held a competition to see who could come up with the best woodstove design. One of them was Duncan Syme whose approach was to combine the aesthetics of the American Franklin Stove with the airtite combustion principles of the Scandinavia stove.
The company had located in the old Sargeant/Osgood/Roundy foundry building on the banks of the 3rd branch of the White River Randolph, although all their castings were sourced overseas. Syme teamed up with his brother-in-law, Murray Howell to create the entrepreneurial duo that was the prototype for Ben & Jerry. “I’m as creative as the sole of your shoe,” said Howell, “while Duncan is as organized as a bowl of spaghetti.”
I supervised a staff of 5. Then came the 2nd Arab Oil Embargo. Within six months my staff had grown to 65. It was a business environment that I’ve never experienced before or since. Every product we made was ordered and paid for in advance. We benefitted from free publicity from features in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall St. Journal. Because Duncan and Murray, although egomaniacs in their own ways, were personally shy, dealing with the press was something often relegated to me.
“Jut make sure every other word out of your mouth is ‘quality’” Murray instructed me. I rewarded their trust by doing a wire service interview I which I uttered quote which became famous within the company “This year you’d have to be a fool not to make money in the woodstove business.” Of course that became the headline, and I wasn’t allowed to forget about it for years afterward.
The embargo ended, oil prices plummeted, that silly guy Jimmy Carter who put solar panels on the White House and called the need for energy independence “the moral equivalent of war” was voted out of office. In came Ronald Reagan, down came the solar panels, and back to the gas guzzlers went Americans.
Woodstove manufacturers began dropping like flies, but Vermont Castings continued its upward trajectory. We had built a strong community with our customers and later our dealers. We built state of the art manufacturing facilities. Most importantly, the commitment to product quality and customer service was real.
Not that it was ever smooth sailing. The company’s flagship product, the Defiant (named for an America’s Cup champion sailing yacht) experienced a disastrous product failure in the field. Most of the stoves that failed had been sold direct to the consumer, and no one wanted to cope with shipping and re-installing a 400# product. It was not a situation with an easy solution, and my guess is that most companies would have done backflips to shed themselves of responsibility.
As the person responsible for customer service, I went to Howell and Syme for guidance. “We don’t care what you do,” they said, “just make sure you exceed the customer’s expectations.”
Armed with that mandate and its accompanying authority I turned a lot of suspicious and nervous Defiant owners into the company’s most enthusiastic supporters. Several years later when we invited customers to Randolph for an “Owner’s Outing” Stove School, a foundry tour, music, and a free hot dog we were amazed when 3000 showed up. The next year 10,000 came from all over the country. This event which built community by combining education and fun inspired other events ranging from Ben & Jerry’s One World One Heart Festival to the annual gathering of Airstream Trailer owners.
Who knows? Maybe we even had some influence on the original creators of SolarFest. That would not be such a bad legacy..Here Comes the Sun
A few year ago I got a call from my mother who at that time was living with my sister in Tucson, Arizona. “I just had the most fun day,” she said. “We just went on a tour of homes in the area that were built out of straw bales and mud. And they had solar panels and wind generators and natural landscapes. It’s called the National Tour of Solar Homes. Have you ever heard of it?”
“Mother,” I said, trying not to show too much exasperation, “I invented it.”
This is not an Al Gore thing of inventing the Internet. The National Tour, called the Green Buildings Open House, coordinated by the American Solar Energy Society now claims 140,000 attendees visiting some 5,000 buildings in 3,000 participating communities. And I invented it. Let me back up and explain how.
This story begins where the last one ended. When the dust of the Reagan era settled, Vermont Castings was the #1 stove company in the world. I was now the Vice President of Sales and Marketing, achieving the dual goal of gainful employment and “the good life” of a semi-self reliant lifestyle in a rural setting.
Somehow I had managed to write five books during this period while coping with all the demands of raising a young family. Don’t ask me how I did it!
The Vermont Castings story, however, did not have a happy ending. Murray Howell died at a ridiculously young age. His partner, Duncan, undertook an acquisition of a major competitor while the industry was in a business slowdown. This was the era of “Greenmail” and the “leveraged buyout.” Bad move and the money guys took away his company. For all his brilliance and hard work, he ended up with only the memories.
The days were numbered for the rest of us who were part of the old culture. By this time I was irrevocably connected to Vermont, so I hung out my shingle as a consultant. Perhaps because I had both business experience and was a published writer one of my clients was Chelsea Green Publishing, a small firm that had scored a major success with the publication of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. Their subsequent books, however, were less successful. They were good books, but they were all over the map in terms of their content. They retained me to help them find a path to profitability. I studied the trading terms of the book business, and they are the worst trading terms I have seen in any industry, geared entirely to the advantage of big publishers who can gamble on blockbuster titles.
I didn’t see any way out. I told them to get out of the book business, but they weren’t about to do that. OK, I said, then plan B is to pick one of the areas in which you are publishing and put all of your resources behind it. Try to become the dominant publisher in that one category. Bet it all on double zero.
The category they chose was “sustainable living,” not even an established book category, because they were just in the process of publishing Beyond the Limits to Growth by Dana Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers. This was a follow-up to their controversial best-seller from the early 70s, The Limits to Growth, which introduced the concept of “systems thinking” and used computer models to predict the impacts of time and population growth on natural resources.
In the 70s they said “Computer says we’re going to start running out of oil between 2010 and 2020.” Then, in the early 1990s they said, “Yup, still on track to run out of oil.”
I’m going to come back to Chelsea Green, but I don’t want to lose the thread of how I invented the National Tour of Solar Homes.
Another client of mine was Real Goods Trading Company. Real Goods had been one of the earliest dealers of Vermont Castings stoves, and I think the founder hoped that I could bring some of the magic of those early days.
Real Goods had started when John Schaeffer, then living on a commune in Mendocino County, got a day job. Every day when he headed off for town people would say “Hey, John, would you mind picking up a bag of bone meal for me. Hey John, while you’re at the hardware, will you pick up a galvanized tub. Hey John, since you’ll be going right by the food co-op, will you pick up a ten pound bag of rice.”
One day, as John drove the twisty road from Boonville to Ukiah, he was seized with inspiration. “What if I start a store that sells all the products needed for life on a commune, not the bullshit, just the Real Goods.”
John broadened the definition of Real Goods when he discovered some dusty 12 volt DC lights in a hardware store and he realized that he could run these off his car battery. Then he discovered that there were appliances made for direct current. He bought himself a small TV and became the most popular guy on the commune on Saturday nights when Saturday Night Live came on.
By the time John and I reconnected Real Goods was no longer in the woodstove business, but was now selling primarily solar panels and related products to cater to the population in Mendocino that lives “off the grid.”
This was a new term to me, but my marketing training had taught me always to look for what is called an “unfair advantage,” that is, the one element of your business that is stronger than anyone else’s. Real Goods had an unfair advantage, because they were located squarely in the heart of one of the nation’s premier dope growing regions. Marijuana was an is the biggest business in the county, and its largest practitioners were living off the grid and buying their products from Real Goods.
This was demonstrated when John needed some financing for his growing business, but his credit rating was less than shaky. He put out an appeal to his customers, saying “send me some money. I will pay you better interest than you get from a bank.” And the dope growers of Mendocino reached under their mattresses and sent him a quarter of a million dollars.
I became Real Goods’ marketing consultant. The company had sales of about a million dollars at the time. They had a very funky, but interesting, publication called The Real Goods News. Recalling the success we had with event-oriented marketing at Vermont Castings, I suggested we come up an Off-the-Grid Day promotion where we would encourage people to flip their breakers and to disconnect from the grid for 24 hours.
“Declare a Day?” said John. “Can you just do that?”
“Let’s see,” I said.
John brought me out to California to meet with another group called SEER (Solar Energy Expo and Rally) who were doing something similar having a focus on electric vehicles. We had a summit meeting, and–for reasons that I have never understood–I was introduced to everyone as the mastermind behind the Great American Smokeout, a well-publicized, national anti-smoking event.
First I am the Father of American Microbrewing and now the creator of the Great American Smoke-out. I’m better known for things I didn’t do that what I did.
Together we came up with an elaborate plan that involved drafting a Declaration of Energy Independence for which we would solicit signatures that would eventually be delivered to the White House in an electric car driven by Ralph Nader.
Was it smoke and mirrors? Yes.
Was it hype in its purest definition? Yes.
Did it work? Like a charm.
The real impact of OTG Day was minimal and probably localized to a twenty mile radius around Real Goods. It attracted a fair amount of interest from press around the country, all asking the same question: “Where can I see this happening around here?” So the next year we repositioned the day as the National Tour of Solar Homes and spent the whole year getting Real Goods customers around the country to participate. When the second Tour happened, the local reporters had someplace to go and photograph and real people to interview. The event continued to grow, as did Real Goods. Ultimately it was decided that it was unfair for such an event to “belong” to a private company, and the Tour was given to the American Solar Energy Society to administrate.
So, there, Mom!
But what’s really important here is not who gets the credit, it’s that the event is still happening and that it’s stronger than ever.
Mark your calendar ... October 3 for this year’s National Tour of Solar Homes and the Green Building Open House.
A Declaration of Victory
But now it’s time to connect some of the dots.
I attended a show on behalf of Real Goods where the goal was, ostensibly, to teach their technicians how to more effectively convert sales of renewable energy systems. The focal point of the booth was a sleek wind turbine which drew a small crowd who pelted the Real Goods tech with questions. When the poor guy finally caught a break, I asked him what percentage of the people asking questions would eventually convert to buyers. I’ll never forget his response:
“Rounded to the nearest whole number ... zero.”
He was spending all his time educating people interested in wind energy why it was not a feasible option for them!
A short while later a book manuscript called Wind Energy for Home and Business by Paul Gipe hit my desk. Back in those days I was Real Goods’ Vice President for Projects No One Else Knew What to do With. “We could really use a book like this,” said John.
Book ... wind energy ... sustainable living ... Chelsea Green. I called them to see if they’d be interested. I received a quick response: “We’ve already rejected that book.” Why? “The market niche is too small for bookstores and libraries. We’d be lucky to sell a thousand copies.”
I brought the news back to John Schaeffer, who was incredulous. “We could sell more than a thousand copies of that ourselves.” The long-story-short is that we worked out a deal where Real Goods would agree to buy a quantity of books to make the publication feasible for Chelsea Green. It wasn’t too long before Real Goods was making more money selling books on wind power than selling the equipment for wind power. The book has been through numerous reprints and new editions, was the first in a series of a dozen books co-published as the “Solar Living Series.” The series included definitive titles on Green Building, Solar Energy, even Organic Gardening. Hundreds of thousands of books were sold, and most of them are just as relevant today.
Thee years ago I was attending the BALLE Conference in Burlington, having lunch with Chris and Judith Plant of New Society Publishers. We had been friendly competitors while I was at Chelsea Green, and had stayed in touch since I started my own book publishing company (The Public Press) and acquired Green Living Journal.
“What exactly is ‘green living?’” one of them asked. “T seems to be one of those things that everybody talks about, but no one can actually define it. Maybe you could put together a book that would explain what green living is.”
“Let me think about it.” There are a thousand good reasons to write a book. Money is not one. I have a friend who tracked his time writing a book and calculated that he made $1.60 per hour. A book would give instant credibility to my magazine for “friends of the environment,” plus it would provide a great networking opportunity.
“I’ll do it,” I told Chris and Judith. Now all that remained was to figure out how.
A year earlier my book publishing arm, The Public Press, had undertaken a reunion book project for my college class. We did it as what we called a CSB, a Community Supported Book. The project had more than 100 authors, 18 editors on four continents, and it was put together without using a single piece of paper. If I could bring the CSB concept to the new book, it could work.
I started with three friends–Chris Morrow of the Northshire Bookstore (he’s did a workshop here this weekend), the aforementioned Chris Plant of New Society, and Paul Freundlich who I knew from my days on the board of Co-op America (now Green America)–and asked them to give me the names of people from their email address books who might have interesting perspectives on the state of the environment.
To these people I sent an email telling them about the idea for the book, now called The New Village Green, asking what were the most influential ideas, people, and events to shape our environmental world view. I also asked them to forward the question to others who might have interesting thoughts on the subject.
The result was ... a LOT of emails!
Organizing them was a little daunting, but I started throwing them into buckets ... a Silent Spring, here ... a Scott and Helen Nearing there ... a Small is Beautiful. Before long eight buckets were overflowing, the three just mentioned plus:
All of these ideas had in common that they were formalized originally as books, all of them are more relevant than ever now, and all originated around the same time within a few years either side of 1970. Silent Spring published in 1962, around the time of the Kennedy assassination, was the first shot across the bow. For the first time someone had the courage to say “all this talk of total electric living and better living through chemistry is bunk.”
A few years later we attained the goal of putting a man on the moon. Out of this grew the solar technology that is now gaining traction today, but of equal importance we saw the image of the earth from outer space for the first time. This image inspired James Lovelock, a British scientist and originator of the Gaia hypothesis, to say “Omigod, it’s alive,” and the idea of the earth as a living organism with all things interconnected was born.
A group of crazy hippies on the West Coast used the same image on the cover of their new magalog/catazine and called it The Whole Earth Catalog offering “Access to Tools” and it’s only a short jump from there to the Real Goods.
Some young turks at MIT fed data into a computer the size of a small house and said “this oil thing is a bubble about to burst” and a young man working for the New Yorker took the thought even further by saying “it’s worse than you thought. The problem isn’t just that we’ll run out of oil, but we’ve taken that oil ad put it into the atmosphere, creating conditions that will mean the end of nature.”
I can remember the exact moment when I became a “friend of the environment.” It was on May Day in 1970. It was barely a week after the first Earth Day, but the world seemed to be in chaos. The US had bombed Cambodia; the ghettoes were burning; the Black Panthers were on fire; classes and exams had been cancelled. I looked out of my dormitory window to see the National Guard troops and tanks brought in to quell the expected riots. Only three days later four students would be shot dead at Kent State.
That’s when I had my homesteading Eureka. And between beer, books, and solar panels it may seem like a zig-zaggy path, but to me it seems like a straight arrow between my dorm room and the stage at SolarFest.
I’ve also been privileged to meet many of my heroes along the way. In addition to the great entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, I’ve shared beers with the Whole Earth crew on the fantail of their houseboat in Sausalito. I’ve broken bread with Helen Nearing. I debated the merits of various kinds of mucking boots with Beyond the Limits author Donella Meadows. And I’ve swapped stories of Red Sox obsession with Bill McKibben.
(By the way, does anyone know the score of today’s game?)
My son Patrick, who went with me on the Vermont Beer Trek, asked me recently “If beer is a barometer for the health of society, then why in the 50s and 60s, when America was at the height of its powers, did we have such lousy beer? And why now, when the empire seems to be crumbling, is the beer so much better?”
The answer is that we weren’t at the height of our powers back then. We were at the height of our drunken arrogance and oblivion. We’re seeing things a lot more clearly now. The great ideas that were new 40 years ago are now just gaining acceptance. What if we look 40 years into the future?
What I see in the future is the past. We have to remember some of the things we forgot when we blacked out on oil. A hundred years ago, in 1909, the food was organic; commerce was local; community was strong; health care was available and affordable; the air and water were clean, and the village green was where it all came together.
We don’t want to go back to 1909, but if in 2109 the food is organic, the commerce local; the community strong; health care available and affordable, the air and water clean won’t we have made great progress? Won’t it be time for a declaration of victory?.My Career in Rock and Roll
This presentation has been “Stories and Tunes” so inevitably we have to get to the tunes. I’ve left out the part about me being a rock and roll star.
Don’t worry, I have no pretension of being even a competent musician. I just want to show that anyone can have fun with music. And you will be happy to know that my musical mantra is: SHORT, FAST, LOUD, AND GET THE HELL OFF THE STAGE!
My musical career started on my birthday, February 9, in 1963 when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Like millions of teenage boys across America, I saw all those screaming girls and said:
“That looks pretty good. I think I will give it a shot.”
So I bought a second hand guitar and within a year I had learned a few chords and turned pro, actually getting paid to play at drunken fraternity parties at Brown University. Six months after that I was writing songs that were being recorded by my band, The Fabulous Van Goghs, “the artistic sound in rock ‘n roll.” Here are the lyrics to one of the “artistic” songs I wrote:
[lyrics to No Remorse]
Keep in mind, at the time I wrote this, I had never had a girl friend.
I retired at age 18 when I went off to college, and my musical development has been nil ever since. Luckily, you can still play a lot of rock and roll with four chords.
Over the years I’ve written a bunch of songs. I’ve got a birthday song, a sea shanty, a blues, songs about my sons, songs about Mud Season, and the good news is, I’m not going to inflict any of these on you. I am content to perform them to no one, mostly late at night.
But I am going to perform a song that is relevant to this presentation. We published a book by the title of “Believing Cassandra” while I was at Chelsea Green. Cassandra is the figure in mythology who predicted the fall of Troy. She had been given the gift of foreseeing the future by the god Apollo who was enamored of her. She didn’t return his affections, however, so Apollo cursed her by making it so that no one would believe her predictions.
In past year too many of us who consider ourselves “friends of the environment” have been Cassandras, pointing out the evils of modern society but being exclusionary about being on the right side of the issue. But there’s no percentage in being right, or being first, pointing fingers, or saying “I told you so” when it comes to the environment.
In the barber shop where I go, the table is covered with hunting magazines and the walls covered with antlers. My barber is quick to call himself a “friend of the environment,” but he would be quick to add “but I ain’t no tree hugger.”
The James Lovelocks, Rachel Carsons, Scott and Helen Nearings, Donella Meadows, and too a lesser extent Stephen Morrises of the world have been Cassandras warning about the dangers of the future if we don’t change our greedy, consumptive ways. For years the message has fallen on deaf ears, but now the time is right to welcome the deer hunters and NASCAR fans into the ranks of “friends of the environment.” It’s time for us all to be “Believing Cassandra.”
She shucks and she jives
Predicting our lives
So I’m believing Cassandra.
She’s going to help us survive.
The girl’s been misunderstood.
She says the future looks good.
So I’m believing Cassandra,
And I think that you should
chorus: I’m believing Cassandra (four times)
I love her loose-fitting clothes
I love her broken off toes (alternatively: I love the chips in her nose)
So I’m believing Cassandra
And my love grows and it grows
The skeptics all mistrust her.
Authorities disdain her,
So I’m believing Cassandra
To me it’s just a no-brainer
chorus: I’m believing Cassandra (four times)
The fishes in the ocean,
The birdies in the tree say
“We’re believing Cassandra!”
Smells like the future to me
[repeat chorus twice.]
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