Earth Day Special Q&A with one of Providence's unsung environmental heroes.
Tell everyone about yourself, your background.
I grew up in New York City but from an early age I had an affinity for the woods. The Bronx Zoo and Museum of Natural History were regular childhood haunts, as was the library. I organized my high school for the first Earth Day, and have been immersed in the Greening of America ever since. My academic background is evolutionary biology and anthropology, but I dropped out of grad school to hitchhike and live in the woods. I had an amazing woodlot, ran a successful social carpentry business and built an award winning solar house when I got married. I cleaned barns so I could have more compost and build the soil fertility in my garden. Eventually we moved to be closer to aging parents and ended up in Providence. In Providence I have expanded my practice in community prosperity on planet earth and find this a wonderful place to work.
What are you working on?
I work part time for the Environment Council of Rhode Island with a mandate to further the evolution and development of the environmental community. I organize events, talk in schools, help connect the various threads of the environmental community, and foster the development of the next generation of environmental activists and organizations with a focus on environmental justice. I run a consulting practice called ProsperityForRI.org which is mostly a repository of my writings on the ecology/economy interface.
I currently coordinate the Compost Initiative which is a vast web and partnerships seeking to take all of the food scrap in Rhode Island get it composted and have it returned to the land so that we can grow more food here. This project challenges me to use everything I know about ecology, business, management, politics, composting, agriculture, and the economy, and all my skills as an activist, and translate it into concrete steps that that develops the economy as it improves the health of the ecosystem.
Do you see a connection between economic development and environmental issues?
I have been studying economics for only 25 years and am self taught. My findings tell us that water, soils, forests, wildlife, the atmosphere are seriously depleted and damaged. With 7 billion of us on the planet we have reached peak oil, which combined with global climate change and other ecological disasters we are experiencing, has lead to a strangely static economy in the developed world, while some of the poorer countries are experiencing rapid growth. The rapid growth is fueled by the consumption of resources especially forests and water. The new boom times will be shorter and they bring shortages faster because there is no new place to go for resources.
I think that in a place like Providence, an old industrial place struggling to find its place in a rapidly changing landscape will only find its way through healing ecosystems and building community resilience and self reliance. We have many wonderful practitioners.
We are making a start, cleaning rivers, restoring fish runs, replanting forests, expanding organic gardens, and developing a compost industry while contemplating the wonders of clean energy.
What is the value of composting food scrap?
On an ecological plane, composting food scrap instead of throwing it away extends the life of the landfill, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and provides the compost we need to rejuvenate our agricultural soils and store carbon in them. Economically it might save businesses and communities' money on trash disposal costs. The tip fee structure in Rhode Island makes it very cheap to throw things away and more expensive to recycle them.
Even if it costs a bit more to collect and compost our food scrap, instead of tossing it in the landfill, composting will provide great economic benefits to the community while improving the health of the environment. Large scale operations can also use one of the steps in composting the food scrap to generate various forms of energy for heating water and buildings or generating electricity.
Parting thoughts on what it will take for Providence to become one of America's Greenest Cities?
A greater embrace of Providence as a former industrial power and port city may provide us some of the tools to help us understand how radical our situation is. The nature of our embrace of our urban agriculture, restoration of fish runs, reforestation, and green energy will go a long way to determining whether our economy improves. A half hearted embrace is likely to lead to more problems for our fair city, while a full embrace of ecology in all of our economic development efforts, is more likely to be fruitful.
I garden and compost at home. I will continue to push the community to be more ecological in our approach to developing community prosperity. Food scrap is easiest and most economical to collect when population is dense and when there are many hospitality businesses and institutions. Providence has more food scrap per square mile than most places, and therefore more opportunity to move forward with various composting operations.