Turning Problems into Solutions for the Green-Collar Economy

Here in the Coast Range of Western Oregon, signs of the economy of bygone days are imprinted on the landscape in a checkerboard mosaic of clear cuts and Douglas fir plantations. A once prosperous logging and mining town, Cottage Grove, like so many other Oregon towns, was founded on the promise of plenty from intensive resource extraction. Now Habitat for Humanity serves homeowners who worked for the timber industry and the last mill in the region tooled for old growth holds onto its inventory for some future windfall, yet deferred.

In Permaculture, we seek out problems and attempt to turn them into solutions. In Cottage Grove, as in so many parts of the world, the problem is lack of access to meaningful work and the means of self sufficiency. The solution lies partially in finding creative ways to channel people’s energy towards meaningful and income generating work that creates a resilient and sustainable culture. In western Oregon, this means bridging the gap between the unemployed logger, high school drop-out, and the Permaculture activist. People in economically disadvantaged situations are also looking for ways to live more sustainably, and in areas like Cottage Grove this demographic is necessary to include in any design of a new economy.

“We have come down through time,” the poet and author Wendell Berry says, “on the tireless horse-track of greed.” But despite this, as Bill Mollison puts it, “Though the problems of the world become increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” We have before us all the strategies and techniques necessary to build a sustainable society and restore the earth. As Van Jones points out in his inspiring book The Green Collar Economy, this will require a mobilization from the neighborhood to the international level and it will require that we make unconventional partnerships turning historical “enemies” into partners for change. This is why Aprovecho is excited to foster relationships among groups with seemingly disparate interests. As a sustainable living center in rural Oregon, we recognize that the demographic we have the opportunity to serve largely lacks access to fee for service sustainability workshops. The following projects represent our evolving strategy for engaging our local community in a meaningful way.

In part, Permaculture is about finding and stewarding relationships. By the nature of our work, we must be prepared to work with diverse stakeholders; from architects to excavators, from land owners to watershed councils, and of course the occasional educated skeptic. As permaculturalists, we are equipped to play the role of relationship builders for the green-collar economy. We can help facilitate the “great turning”. We can aid the transition away from decrepit problem industries and outdated methods into regenerative approaches to design and new green industries. Through creative collaboration we may involve individuals who have historically not had access to Permaculture trainings in the creation of a new and thriving green economy.

In the summer of 2009, Aprovecho began this work of relationship building at a county level in an attempt to train and inspire the next generation of workers for the future eco – economy. Working with partners in the local school district, the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), and the Lane Workforce Partnership Aprovecho served as a project site for a federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) grant. The scope of this grant was to provide paid summer work plus hands-on experiences that would give graduating high school students an advantage in emerging fields while inspiring them to continue a career in sustainable professions.

Over the summer, 8 young adults, ages 16-22, were paid through the grant to work on 4 projects at Aprovecho. We constructed a 10,000 gallon ferro-cement rainwater catchment tank, built a recirculating aquaponics system for raising tilapia in a solar greenhouse, installed a solar hot water system for our strawbale dormitory, and did finish carpentry and earthen plaster in our newly constructed Community Meeting Hall.

The students gained a large array of skills while Aprovecho’s property received an immense boost in educational capacity and self reliance. As a result of this grant project, the students now have experience in things 99% of adults do not. This unique collaboration demonstrates that these techniques are valuable elements of a new green economy.

Once school got back into session in Fall 2010, the WIA funds paid for the development of an in-classroom trade-skills program at Cottage Grove High school. Working with the all women’s engineering and technology class, Aprovecho taught two three week courses. The first session performed engineering tests, such as resistance to fire, water, and pressure, on various mock walls of conventional and alternative building materials. The class began with a visit to our site for a tour of our strawbale dormitory and community hall built of on-site wood and clay. Then the students went back to the classroom to construct models for testing. The class then utilized Oregon State University’s materials testing lab as a resource for testing the durability of alternative building materials (clay, sand, and straw in different compositions) as well as fiberglass insulation and sheet rock. On the final day, representatives from local government and school administration, parents, and the media gathered at the school to see students torch the sample walls with fire, impact them with bowling balls, and submit them to moisture. The results demonstrated the safety and stability of earthen plasters with blown-in cellulose or strawbale insulation. The fiberglass and sheetrock wall was shown to have less durability in almost every case. In the end, especially after burning the sheetrock and fiberglass wall and smelling the horrible fumes, the students said they would rather build with natural materials in their future homes.

The second course focused on rainwater systems engineering. The first half of the course focused on rainwater runoff and biofiltration. The students learned basic surveying and plant identification techniques, as well as the benefits of biological filtration. At the end of the module, the students installed a bioswale in the high school parking lot. The second part of the module focused on rainwater catchment. After calculating household use, the catchment potential of the high school building, and finally the whole paved area of Cottage Grove, each student constructed their own 55-gallon rain barrel. Students were introduced to the issues surrounding water use and reuse through designing and building simple solutions. This year, we hope to extend this program by bringing a few students into the design of raingardens and bioswales for Cottage Grove’s newly constructed Bohemia Park.

The U.S. Department of Labor honored South Lane School District for its exemplary summer work program. One of our student workers, John Williams, was invited to the Recovering America’s Youth Summit in Dallas, Texas last December to give a presentation on the projects at Aprovecho. “Without sounding corny, I see Aprovecho as a shining light of hope.” said John. “We don’t need everything that society tells us we need. We pretty much just need each other.”

The programs mentioned above are beginning to find a larger manifestation in schools around the county in the form of green trade-skills fundamentals classes. Aprovecho is getting involved in this at two levels. We are leading work-groups in the restoration of county wetlands, collecting seed for restoration projects, and planting roadside drainages to clean and absorb runoff and reduce water temperature flowing into streams. We are also working with the local school districts to develop a program that is rooted in training for sustainable vocations and brings the students into the community as builders and designers. As part of this program, we hope to involve students in the design and implementation of Permaculture projects in our area.

If all goes as planned this year, the first project affiliated with the trade skills curriculum will be the construction of a new road on Aprovecho’s property. The students will learn how to engineer a road for water harvesting, install bioswales for treatment of runoff, learn about different construction methods, and spend a day at the large equipment operator’s school outside of Eugene, Oregon. This project provides a great example of how we can bring a new and much-needed ecological perspective into conventional trades and careers.

This is the task of our generation: to aid in the transition out of the ecological and economic disaster wrought on the earth by an economy based on extraction of resources and concentration of wealth, to an economy based on regenerative practices with equity and justice for all. Harnessing the power of the new generation of workers can have powerful and lasting results. By acting as the mediators of projects and relationships in our communities, we can train the next generation of workers to ensure that the new economy is grounded in the ethics, principles, and practices of Permaculture.

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