From 2015-16 I focused a reporting campaign on conversations in Minneapolis about sustainability: homegrown food, greener design, waste, toxins, energy. I hosted a few forums, interviewed experts, and sat down for discussions with several Minneapolis residents about their insights and passions. It’s a collective story about wanting to make the local world a better place, and views on how to do that.
Here is some of what I learned.
“We need to be financially sustainable, environmentally beneficial, and supportive of the community – internally and externally,” Tim Brownell said. “If we do only two of those things, without benefitting the people who are doing the work, that’s a problem.”
Products are no different than humans in that we are born, live, and then die. Most of us recognize the death of a product as waste, without noticing that 90% of a product’s environmental impact, including waste, happens well before we recycle or throw something away.
“We tend to understand that we need to make things safer,” he said. “It’s not a matter of good and evil. It’s not a question of ethics. The question is — how? Our barrier is in invention. We can insist that every chemist must only synthesize non-toxic elements, but we haven’t changed our chemistry textbooks in 40 years.”
Collectively we need to become more attuned to how much value we place on products instead of people. And… how the voices of certain people are valued more than others. For Minneapolis to become truly sustainable as a city — beyond simply having a reputation as a progressive community — we need to own up to how we are all segregated in our approaches to the issues that plague us.
Modern industries are built around 24/7 access to electricity. When as individuals we learn to re-appreciate a life that doesn’t require uninterrupted power, he believes, we might reach our stronger potential as a society.
Is this a good time to invest in community solar gardens? What new technologies are coming in renewable energies? Are low-income communities able to participate in cost savings opportunities?
“The middle housing need is big in our city,” Peichel says. “We also need to preserve what we have — not just create new construction. How do we stabilize what we have, and make more of our properties desirable and sustainable well into the future? How can re-use become a stronger element in our community?”
The nearness, and challenge, of getting there, he said, “is why I get up every morning. I’m optimistic. The future is bright. Our level of performance [from home efficiency] will accelerate. The pendulum swings, and right now it is our opportunity to be here while it swings in this direction. I’m only worried that there aren’t enough of us who understand how to design what we’ll need.”
The first-world problems we talk at length about, such as where the light rail goes and how it affects homeowners, or how/where we burn and recover energy from our garbage, are plot points in a Big Story. Each thread is important, especially to people whose health is disproportionately affected by it. But I believe we have long grown in an unsustainable way because we tend to focus discussions on one part of a larger story.
If we start with the notion that our community/ world/ universe is connected, then maybe the ways we divide ourselves up politically, economically and socially will no longer make sense to us and we’ll get about the business of repairing it.
Stories to come…