If you think cruising around in a gas-guzzling Hummer represents real American values, then you might be surprised by the motto for the sixth annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo: “The Power of Patriotism — Sustainable Living for a Strong America.”
But to Ned Ryan Doyle, the S.E.E. Expo’s jovial and energetic father, there’s an obvious correlation between “green” living and patriotism. The nation’s current energy policies, he maintains, are “crippling our economy, environment and social fabric” — which makes turning away from fossil fuels nothing less than an expression of love for one’s country.
And however one views the event’s slogan, it’s clearly meant to spark some dialogue. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the S.E.E. Expo, which runs Friday through Sunday, Aug. 25-27 at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher. The largest eco fair in the Southeast according to the Web site, it draws activists, sustainable-business owners and “green” visionaries from throughout the region who present and explore a dizzying array of exhibits pertaining to the future of energy and the environment.
The expo, notes Doyle, provides a unique opportunity to learn how the seeming jumble of ideas showcased — which range from clean technology to sustainable agriculture to the health effects of deteriorating air quality — are actually quite interrelated. “In general terms, a disconnect clearly existed about five years ago,” he recalls. “Environmental-conservation groups were pointing out the problems, while green businesses were giving the solutions. Yet people weren’t seeing the correlation between, for instance, solar hot-water heaters and clean air in Western North Carolina.”
Not just about networking in the sense of swapping business cards, this conference encourages participants to connect the dots on their own mental maps of ecological and energy systems.
Taste the future
One thing that sets this year’s expo apart from past editions is a back-to-basics focus on food systems. The practice of sustainable agriculture is inherently linked to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, according to Doyle. “It’s all the same thing,” he declares, pointing out that most supermarket products travel thousands of miles before they hit the shelves, not to mention the substantial amounts of fossil-fuel-based fertilizer routinely applied to crops.
Having a localized food system also supports farmland preservation — a hot-button issue in these parts — notes Program Coordinator Peter Marks of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “At a recent agriculture workshop, I asked a group of farmers, ‘How many of you have been asked to sell your land in the last 60 days?’ And about 90 percent of them raised their hands,” says Marks. Accordingly, he’ll lead a S.E.E. Expo workshop emphasizing the value of having locally produced foods. “The Fresh Food Revival” will give participants a chance to do actual taste-testing. Another ASAP workshop, titled “Who Grows Your Food?” will explore the complexities of conventional agriculture. Yet another session, called “Farming for the Future,” will trace the intricate links between agriculture and energy use.
Not all the talk about food is theoretical, either: Expo visitors will also enjoy some immediate, tangible benefits in the form of this year’s expanded lunch options, which will soar far beyond the realm of cheese fries: Several vendors will be selling locally grown and organic dishes.
At home and on the road
If the back-to-the-land approach represents one prong of the movement to free ourselves from dependency on fossil fuels, then employing an army of techies to retrofit every aspect of the American lifestyle seems to be the other.
What could be more central to the American lifestyle than the car? Accordingly, the expo will include an auto show featuring the latest in low-impact vehicles. Open for browsing all weekend, it will be supported by a Saturday-morning tutorial on alternative fuels. Presented by the Hendersonville-based Environmental & Conservation Organization and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program, it will spotlight such options as ethanol, electric, biodiesel, hydrogen, compressed natural gas and propane. Meanwhile an intensive, half-day workshop presented by Blue Ridge Biofuels will give wannabe greasers the lowdown on everything from conversion options to the legal and tax issues surrounding the use of biodiesel and straight veggie oil.
But the majority of the expo’s hourlong and half-day workshops will focus on the various technologies used in environmentally friendly construction and design. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, our dwellings and workplaces account for 65 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States. Local enthusiasts will present an array of workshops on such topics as North Carolina’s HealthyBuilt Homes Program, natural building methods, wind power, photovoltaics, solar hot-water systems, retrofitting conventional structures and rainwater-catchment systems. The Western North Carolina Green Building Council will even host a “green” home show and green-buildings tour (for more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Perhaps the biggest shift in this year’s S.E.E. Expo is the emphasis on greening the business world.
“I originally wanted to call it the Southern Energy, Environment & Economics Expo,” confesses Doyle. But maybe there is such a thing as having too many E’s.
Still, an affiliated event called the Green Venture Forum, scheduled for Aug. 25 at the Broadmoor Golf Links near the Ag Center, will feature a presentation titled “How Entrepreneurs Can Attract Venture Capital,” plus details on funding opportunities that are giving sustainable-business startups the green light.
“We’re trying to get people together to explain how much funding is out there for green energy. It’s enormous right now,” says David Wallace, program coordinator at the Asheville branch of the State Energy Office, who helped organize the forum. Financial adviser Don Honeycutt of Merrill Lynch will lead a workshop on making a difference by investing in socially and environmentally responsible companies.
Other presentations appear to take a more or less opposite approach. A workshop titled “Kiss Off Corporate America,” led by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist, will tell the story of how this happy pair of homesteaders began living off the grid and growing most of their food.
“If AT&T doesn’t have to pay taxes, why should you?” asked Ivanko, speaking from his solar- and wind-powered Wisconsin home during a recent phone interview. (According to the Web site multinationalmonitor.org, AT&T paid no income taxes in 2003, despite making a profit of $2.7 billion that year.) “Right now, our solar panels are generating so much power that the meter is spinning backward,” he reported. The couple will also make an appearance at the S.E.E. Expo Author’s Corner to promote their book Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life (New Society Publishers, 2004).
Meanwhile, environmental groups ranging from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to The Canary Coalition to Earth First! plan to inundate participants with literature about new coal-fired power-plant construction, soaring asthma rates, transport of nuclear materials through the region, and local contributions to climate change. In neighboring Tennessee, Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, mining companies are blowing the tops off the Appalachian Mountains to extract coal seams, and grassroots activists will be on hand to spell out the grisly details.
Be green now
But the S.E.E. Expo also has a secondary motto, “S.E.E. the Future,” which seeks to link those issues with potential solutions. And judging by the event’s expanding audience (last year’s edition attracted 7,000 people, a substantial jump from the 3,000 who came in 2001), the big picture may be beginning to sink in.
For better or for worse, various circumstances that have kicked in since last year’s expo may be supporting that trend. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, inviting speculation that it was tied in with weather-pattern shifts due to climate change, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is being screened in mainstream theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, crude-oil prices — which were already at what seemed an astonishingly high $65 per barrel during the 2005 expo — hit $78 per barrel in mid-July. A few months ago, General Electric announced that it plans to spend billions annually on renewable energy, and even Wal-Mart — the retailer many environmentalists love to hate — has unveiled a plan to green up its act.
These days, the S.E.E. Expo includes everyone from investment bankers to eco-defenders. It’s a diverse world out there, and climate change (not to mention the price of gas) doesn’t limit its impacts to a particular demographic group. As the expo tries to deconstruct the complex linkages between seemingly disparate issues, the underlying message is really pretty simple: We’re all in this together, folks.
Navigating the Southeast’s largest eco fair
WHERE: WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 25, noon to 6 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 26, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 27, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
COST: $8 adults (half-price for adults traveling via Asheville public transit, which will run to and from the expo on Friday and Saturday); $4 ages 13-18; free for children 12 and under. A $50 VIP Weekend Pass provides admission to all three days of the expo and all one-hour presentations, a 2006 S.E.E. Expo T-shirt, a tent/van campsite for up to four nights, and a pass to the Friday-evening VIP/Exhibitors Networking Dinner.