In the new book Small Stories, Big Changes, more than a dozen authors share their stories and experiences in working toward sustainability in their communities. On Nov. 11, six of them took part in a panel discussion that felt a bit like watching family members argue on a sitcom.
The authors’ mix of political beliefs and backgrounds set the stage. Lyle Estill, a biofuels innovator, edited Small Stories. He has written many books on local, small-scale change with big results. Anne Tazewell is a program coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program. “I never thought I would be working for the government,” she said. Gary Phillips is an activist, poet and pastor. Eric Henry manufactures local clothes, advocating a dirt-to-shirt process in which consumers are more connected to the fiber that makes up their garments. Megan Toben is an environmental educator, and her husband, Tim Toben, is a green-building developer.
Held at Warren Wilson College, the discussion garnered a small yet diverse crowd of students, teachers and Asheville-area community members. At the outset, Estill prompted Tim Toben to recount his story. Tim had made millions in the corporate world before deciding to use his earnings to invest in a 10-story, green condominium building in Chapel Hill. He recalled that in the midst of the recession, “I went from having $14 million and a beautiful castle on a hill to zero dollars.”
Well, not quite, his wife quietly reminded him. He still had his family, his wife and kids, and at least some money, which the Tobens used to buy and settle onto a nearly 40-acre farm, Megan noted.
Even so, said Tim, “I learned that financial wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
When the building was being built, neighborhood concerns and attacks from what Toben called “anarchist groups” helped delay the project, and Tim was not sure why the opposition was so strong. Green building was the new big thing. He was helping the community and the environment, and those people should support him and his building, he thought.
After going through a foreclosure on the building — and having lost millions — he decided that so-called green building and the green economy is a distraction. (The project was subsequently bought and completed by another company.) “It’s a false promise for wealthy, liberal white people,” he said. “It’s so that they think good things are happening when they really aren’t. The 5 percent of people who are building green buildings, driving Priuses and buying things from Whole Foods [Markets] because they think that it is going to save the planet, it’s a total joke.”
But other panelists stepped in to commend the green movement, professing optimism and noting the progress and gains made over the years. “Things used to be fringe, like organic food,” said Tazewell. “Because there’s been a growing awareness about health, organic food has become more mainstream. That gives me a lot of hope.”
For Estill, many changes, both cultural and legal, indicate progress and an upward trend for the planet. The use of coal as a power source “is dropping,” he said. “We are capable of change. This book is about changing stories to change the culture, and the culture is changing.”
Tim nonetheless warned the group, “Let’s not be so quick to pat ourselves on the back.” With the social, economic and environmental degradation the world is experiencing, he argued, humans are on a negative slide. Mentioning that in the last few years, the only time that the carbon emissions of the United States were on the decline was in 2009, he declared, “What we need is another recession.”
A man in the audience was not so convinced. “Hey man, you’ve got your 32-acre farm. You’re set,” he remarked.
“Who in this room believes that this state is going to enforce a carbon tax, or is going to equalize pay across all sectors?” Tim asked, after noting that he shares his land. “The people in this room have to make that stuff happen. Corporations and the government aren’t going to make it happen.”
Estill pointed out that a few states, as well as some provinces in Canada, have already passed carbon taxes.
“We are the government,” Tazewell said, calling for people to take charge of the issues. “We are the people. We can’t afford to have the whole system go down.”
Whatever the most feasible route for change, Phillips was quick to point out the one thing that must be first addressed, both institutionally and socially: “The systems of oppression, that has to change in order for anything to change,” he said. “Our government is so far behind the people that it is almost always at odds with the people.”
After an hour of discussion, and after several disagreements between audience members and panelists, Megan Toben expressed some discontent about how the conversation had gone. She asked the audience to stand while Phillips concluded the event by singing a song, and invited the audience to participate in attempting to end this hour-long series of quarreling on a happy note.
While they were not able to agree on much, perhaps they would be able to agree with Megan’s assessment that change has to be comprehensive. “You can’t just fix one piece of the system,” she said.
— Micah Wilkins is the editor-in-chief of The Warren Wilson Echo.