Columnnist David Eisenberg reflects on advocating environmentalism.
Last spring Students at Evergreen for Ecological Design (SEED) invited me to give a lecture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The next morning the event organizers took me out for breakfast at the local farmer’s market, where I noticed a winged pig weathervane atop the building. The students told me that a city councilperson had long tried to get the city to create a farmer’s market, only to see his proposals defeated year after year. After one such defeat, he reportedly said that Olympia would have a farmer’s market “when pigs fly!” So, a few years later, when the council finally approved the market, the flying pig became its symbol.
As we discussed the difficulty of creating positive change through partisan politics, I found myself looking at the flying pig and had one of those “aha!” moments. I said that what we needed was a new political party—the Flying Pigs—the party that does what every-one agrees needs to be done but will only happen when pigs fly! We had a lively conversation, envisioning a party of ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, a party free to choose the best ideas from across the political spectrum; free to choose the best people; free to believe in, exercise, and demonstrate the kind of deep values and principles upon which this country was founded.
We discussed what the cabinet of a Flying Pigs administration might look like: Amory Lovins as secretary of energy, Wes Jackson or Wendell Berry leading the Department of Agriculture, Winona LaDuke as secretary of the interior (isn’t it way past time that we had a Native American in that position?). Ralph Nader was the obvious choice for attorney general, perhaps Hazel Henderson at commerce, and David Orr would be secretary of education. We imagined a government that remembered the importance of the commons—the land, air, water, ecosystems, and the people—the natural sources of our true wealth and health.
Last year I also saw a presentation by Randy Udall, who runs the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), an Aspen, Colorado, nonprofit that focuses on energy issues and policies. He showed a pie chart of U.S. petroleum reserves, which had a powerful effect on me. The chart showed that up to 1950, Americans consumed roughly one-sixth of the total estimated amount of oil that we have ever had in this country. About two-thirds of the pie represented the estimated percentage that we will have consumed between 1950 and 2025. What remained was about one-sixth of the total—for every American citizen who will live in this country from 2025 on.
In 2025 my grandson Joe will be twenty-seven years old, the same age his father is today. If I’m still around, I'll be seventy-six. That oil-guzzling generation is my generation, the baby boomers. My name is David Eisenberg, and I’m addicted to fossil fuels...
We are the problem: our lives, our cars, our homes, our businesses, our habits, our ways of thinking. But we have the capacity to be the solution, and that is the path many of us have been seeking—the first step is waking up and admitting we have a problem. Our culture has become extremely commercialized, and our economy is heavily invested in keeping us asleep. Waking up is a political act.
There are a few more items of significance in Randy's pie chart. A considerable percentage of the remaining sixth of our oil reserves in 2025 will be the lowest-quality, least accessible reserves, requiring more than a barrel’s worth of energy to extract, transport, process, and distribute. So from an energy standpoint, there is no reason to ever pump that oil out of the ground.
More important, that petroleum has greater value than just fueling our vehicles or heating our homes. We’ve also developed an industrial agriculture sys-tem that is awesomely dependent on petroleum for its existence (as are we). As a direct result of industrial approa-ches to farming, massive quantities of petrochemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to maintain crop production. Virtually all of the farm machinery and transportation and some of the food processing depends on petroleum. And then there are the plastics industry, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and much more.
Before you cry out in despair, understand that Randy’s statistics were about U.S. reserves, not world reserves. Americans are theoretically in somewhat better shape in terms of global reserves, assuming we can continue to claim 25 percent of the world’s energy, even though we’re less than 5 percent of its population. Energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative fuels, and lower-energy organic agriculture should all be national security matters of the highest order.
Wake up and smell the bacon
I didn’t share this information to frighten or depress you but rather to help us all focus on what we are all called to do today—to wake up and become citizen leaders, advocates for our children’s grandchildren and ourselves. Ah, but this is impossible, you’re thinking—far too big a set of problems for ordinary individuals to overcome …
Which brings us back to the Flying Pigs Party. Perhaps, if we can believe for just a moment that we can do the impossible, in that moment we’ll see that the only reason we can’t change the world is that we think we can’t. I can see a path toward the world I want to help create for Joe when he’s twenty-seven. And I’m not alone. Below the surface—under the radar of the mainstream, market-driven myopia of the media—is a huge wave of growing awareness of these issues. We all share that gnawing feeling that something is deeply wrong with what we’re doing, and we all have the desire to do something about it. There is something in the air (and it isn’t just climate change or small particulates) that leads me to think that the Flying Pigs Party is an idea whose time has come.
David Eisenberg is the founder and director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Arizona, an organization that supports the development and use of sustainable approaches to meeting human and ecological needs through appropriate use of technology. He is co-author of The Straw Bale House (Chelsea Green, 1994) and has led straw bale workshops throughout the world. David consults on design and construction details and code issues, as well as research and testing projects for straw bale construction.