Letter from America #3: Something powerful stirs in Texas...
I grew up watching Dallas. It’s a TV show with a lot to answer for. When I lived in Ireland, I met an Irish academic doing their Masters research in architecture around the question “why is it that a culture that created something as beautiful as the Book of Kells creates such dull and horrible architecture?” (I’m sure her actual question was couched in slightly more academic language). One of her key findings was that it can be traced back to ‘Dallas’, the TV show that arrived on Irish screens just at a time when Ireland was starting to find its feet economically.
A trip around Ireland, especially the west coast, can leave one with the impression that everyone wanted to create their own private Southfork, a phenomenon made worse by a book called ‘Bungalow Bliss’, a pattern book for bungalows, a kind of restaurant menu of uninspired and ugly buildings (“I’ll have a number 13 with arches please”).
So now, a week into my US adventure, I find myself in Texas. My mental picture of the place comes from watching Dallas as a child. Cowboy hats, leather boots, huge cars, oil derricks. I was visiting Houston and Austin, both oil cities. Surely searching for a sustainability initiatives in these cities would prove as challenging as searching for a beautiful home among the pages of ‘Bungalow Bliss’? Well no. Both cities proved to be a pleasant surprise.
I was hosted in Houston by Mark and Kathy Juedeman. Mark is one of the co-ordinators of Transition Houston, as well as being on the board of Transition US and a thoroughly nice guy too. His and Kathy’s house is surrounded by mature pecan nut trees, and their kitchen contained baskets of last year’s harvest. Delicious they were indeed. By the way, in the UK, ‘pecan’ is pronounced in a way that rhymes with “freakin”, whereas here it is pronounced “peek-ahn”. Just thought you’d like to know that.
Transition Houston has a number of neighbourhood groups as well as a city-wide hub. Activities so far have included a great event promoting cycling, a number of ‘permablitzes’ (one-day intensive make-overs of gardens), training and skillshares and tours of the homes of people who have done energy efficiency measures. One of the things that is most fascinating to me is that a number of those involved work, or worked, in the oil and gas industry. It’s not something I expected, but it’s logical when you think about it. People are people, and people care about things.
I gave two talks in Houston, both with Jason Roberts of Team Better Block. Jason in an inspirational activist, whose work is mentioned in The Power of Just Doing Stuff and featured in a great TED talk he gave a couple of years ago.
His work has many overlaps with Transition. The first talk we gave was at lunchtime at Rice University. Being lunchtime it wasn’t that well attended, but was very enjoyable nonetheless. In the afternoon I spent some time with some members of Transition Houston, discussing their challenges and experience. It was a great group, a wide range of ages. Like many groups, they were concerned about not engaging more people, about not having achieved what they wanted to have.
I suggested we go round and hear about the things that Transition Houston has done that they have been proudest of, something groups so rarely do. That took us some time, hearing the various activities that meant things to those who had been involved. We discussed some ideas for broadening appeal, for supporting each other better, and the need to actually celebrate more what they have achieved.
The evening’s event was again at Rice, but this time drew a much larger crowd. This time Jason gave a longer presentation about his work with great slides, inspirational projects based around healing unloved places in short bursts of inspired activity. One of the things from Jason’s presentation I liked was his idea that if you want to get things done, you need to ‘blackmail yourself’. “If your apartment is messy, don’t tell yourself you’ll tidy it sometime next week, ring a few friends and invite them over for supper that evening. You’ll get the space tidy”. Jason’s work is great, and an interview I did with him will appear on this website in early November.
In an unexpected and very moving conclusion to his talk, he revealed that a year before he had been diagnosed with cancer, and that his friends and people in his community had rallied round, holding fundraisers around the idea of “Build a Better Jason”, raising $25,000 towards his medical bills. He is now free of cancer.
For me, giving a talk in a city built on the oil and gas industry, at an event supported by the Shell Sustainability Institute at Rice University and stating that four-fifths of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, and that the age of cheap energy is over, was an odd experience. But it seems like it really is not news to anyone anymore. The talk generated a great response, and was followed by lots of conversations and book signings. Especially interesting was the number of younger people excited by the possibilities of Transition.
One of the challenges Transition Houston face is that of trying to find their niche in a city that already has so much going on in terms of sustainability. There are all sorts of initiatives, around local food, cycling, renewable energy and so on. The University campus contains three community gardens. I met Dr Bob Randall of Urban Harvest, who run permaculture courses all year round, who run an annual fruit tree sale where in one day they distribute $140,000 worth of trees, set up Farmers' Markets and a lot more besides. Transition Houston has identified a niche for themselves, but exactly what that niche is and the role it plays in the larger picture will be constantly evolving.
At the end of the Houston event, we asked people what Transition is, how they would describe it (my huge thanks to Sarah, who fixed my iPad enabling me to upload this video, as well as the ‘”What is Transition?’ and ‘Why do you do it?’ films I made in Portland, Maine. Thanks also to Kathy for filming this). Here’s what they said:
The next day Mark and I travelled to Austin for SXSW Eco, a huge sustainability conference in the city. The conference took place in the Austin Conference Centre, a vast, sprawling, impersonal space, more akin to an airport than an intimate conference venue. First thing I did was a Mentor session, where I chatted to a couple of people about their ideas and shared any thoughts I might have.
The first person I spoke to, a young guy from Houston, began by saying “I read your book five years ago, I had a well-paid job, and after I read it, I gave up my job, and moved into a semi-derelict house...” I was a bit concerned that he was going to burst into tears and say I had ruined his life, but just the opposite, he is now doing all sorts of great stuff, and feeling like he is living a life much closer to his values. Phew, that was a relief ...
My talk at SXSW went well, with a very attentive audience, and great questions. The book signing afterwards sold out of books, and I met some lovely people while signing books, including a man whose first name was Sheffield. Anyone ever meet a Sheffield before? Nice guy. He had never been to Sheffield, but as a child found it very exciting when he found cutlery with Sheffield written on it (isn’t that sweet?).
It was fascinating to meet a lot of people involved in sustainability stuff in Austin. It is a city projected to double in size over the next 20 years or so, and already has a reputation as a “weird” city, as a place that likes to do things differently. I spoke to various people involved in that process, all committed to the possibilities of doing something different that would really put the city on the map. Their most frequent comment was that there is so much happening in Austin, but the media doesn't report any of it, and seems unable to figure out how it might do so. I wonder how much that is also the case elsewhere across the country.
After a quick pop to the SXSW end-of-conference party in an upstairs club venue with a DJ playing funky rare groove breaks, above a bar called ‘Bikinis’ (where all the women serving at the bar wore ... well I imagine you can guess ... you don’t get that in Totnes), we were off to meet Transition Austin.
Transition Austin has struggled to gain much traction in the city, failing to find its niche with so much other stuff going on, in the way Transition Houston has. It has struggled to find the best scale to work at. We went out to what has to be one of the oddest talks I have ever done. We drove to an ‘RV Park’ (recreational vehicles, like motorhomes), next to which was a small farm/homestead. A group of around 50 people were sat in front of an old barn in the nightime air, having an evening gathering with food and drink, to explore whether, and how, to give Transition Austin a renewed push.
In front of the barn was a microphone illuminated with a spotlight on one of the buildings. It meant that when I went up to speak, I could hardly see the audience. I talked a bit about the challenges groups face in reviving themselves, and some insights from other places, as well as how important it is to avoid some of the pitfalls that can keep Transition rooted in the ‘alternative’ community, rather than stepping across and being truly inclusive. We had lots of questions, and great discussion and conversation. And a rather nice bottle of local IPA craft beer.
That was that really then. Back to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s early flight to San Francisco. At the airport, waiting for the plane, I picked up a copy of USA Today. A glance through its pages presented, somehow, for me, the kind of mental split I have observed in most of the places I visited, in the culture here. The kind of split you see when standing on the edge of a tipping point.
There was an article about a study in the journal Nature predicting record heat waves in the US by the middle of the century, for New York by 2047 and 2048 for Los Angeles and Denver. It quoted lead author Camilo Mora as saying “what’s shocking is how soon this is going to happen”.
It also carried an article about permafrost melting in Alaska, and the impacts it is having on peoples’ homes and the regional infrastructure, such as roads, which are buckling as the permafrost melts. Roads are having to be rebuilt with a layer of polystyrene foam beneath the tarmac to prevent buckling.
It included this sentence:
"Alaska’s temperatures are rising twice as fast as those in the lower 48, prompting more sea ice to disappear in summer. While this may eventually open the North-West passage to sought-after tourism, oil exploration and trade, it also spells trouble as wildfires increase, roads buckle and tribal villages sink into the sea”.
Makes it sounds like that’s somehow a tough decision, like there’s an upside to what is, in effect, a catastrophe. On the opposite page was an article called That Outer Space Sparkle is More Than Stardust which reported new research suggesting that Jupiter and Saturn could contain large amounts of diamonds, joining Neptune and Uranus, which have long been thought to be diamond-rich. It ended by quoting Scott Edgington of NASA as saying that to find out for sure:
“We would have to go and drill for them. Who knows? Maybe this will give DeBeers the opportunity to send missions to Saturn to go find diamonds”.
The article also featured “an artist’s rendering showing a robot ship mining Saturn for diamonds in the distant future”.
For heaven's sake. My favourite story though was the short piece stating that October 14th is National Chocolate-Covered Insect Day, and that the Audubon Butterfly Garden in New Orleans will be setting up a chocolate fountain this Saturday. I hope you will also be marking this important national occasion in your own dignified way.
It also contained an article headlined ‘Kochs claim no role in efforts to derail health law’, in which the Koch brothers, prolific funders of climate scepticism and efforts to block any restrictions on fossil fuel use, stated that they hadn’t in any way influenced the current situation in the US, where a small minority of right-wing Republicans have caused a government shutdown which began on the day I arrived in the US (I am assured there is no connection). President Obama’s meagre attempts to introduce some fairness into the appalling injustice of the healthcare system here is being presented as the cause.
So the impacts of climate change are becoming clearer, through melting permafrost, record temperatures, forest fires and so on, those funding the denial and misinformation are becoming clearer, the wealth inequalities are widening, but the real danger is that people say “well it’s too late now to do anything”. That leap from “there’s no problem” to “it’s too late to do anything” is deeply dangerous. If this trip, and all these meetings and talks can do anything, it is hopefully to inject the possibility that there is still a window to do something, and it needs the leadership of the people, because it isn’t coming from anywhere else. That there is another way that can actually meet our needs as human beings, as well as the needs of the biosphere, and in such a way that we end up in a better place. That feels like a desperately-needed message.
To return to my opening thoughts on ugly Irish houses inspired by Dallas. As we drove through Texas, one of the many advertising hoardings alongside the road was for a business called WeBuyUglyHomes.com. Their website states:
“We buy ugly homes every day – and we’d like to buy yours – regardless of how ugly it is ... frankly we couldn’t care less how ugly your house is”.
From my brief travels through the area, they have plenty to choose from. While up until recently, the key exports from the region may have been ugly houses, big hats, oil and bars with waitresses in bikinis, things are changing fast. There is a real sense of purpose around resilience and sustainability, a sense that the future rests in a different mindset, in an unflinching look into the future, in engaging the passion young people feel about the future. One student I spoke to at Rice University told me how he had studied engineering there, a course designed to bring people into the oil industry, but he was committed to seeking a future in renewable energy. “That’s the future” he said. Indeed it is.