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Towns with Their Own Currency? Food as a National Security Concern?

March 2, 2010

Controversial ideas take center stage at NESEA’s “Public Forum” during BE10 Conference

BuildingEnergy 2010

BOSTON & GREENFIELD, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)– The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) has the oldest “green energy” conference in the region, but NESEA’s Building Energy Conference and Trade Show is perhaps best known for its legacy as a platform for spirited, unfiltered debate about current, controversial topics. Now in its 35th year, BuildingEnergy 2010 will be showcasing innovative thinking at this year’s “Public Forum”, which takes place on Tuesday, March 9, from 6PM to 8PM.

“The Public Forum is an opportunity to invite the public into the ‘NESEA lair’,” says John Abrams, moderator of the Public Forum and author of The Companies We Keep. “I don’t really know to what degree that works, but I do know that the forums have, of late, been kicking off the Building Energy conferences by tackling big issues – sometimes very controversial ones – in an open setting that fosters compelling conversation. My hope is that all attendees will leave with something new – a new idea, a new perspective, a new approach – and more fire-in-the-belly than they had when they came in and sat down.”

Jennifer Marrapese JD MA, interim executive director of NESEA agrees. “This is not the kind of event where people will hear a litany of all the things that are wrong – this session is about experts sharing what real people are doing to create change, connect with their neighbors and figure out a new way, at the grassroots level. It’s a great shot in the arm!”

Towns Printing Their Own Currency

Towns like Lenox, MA, Ithaca, NY and Burlington, VT are issuing their own legal tender as a way of emphasizing that money needs to stay within a town’s borders. In Lenox, residents are shopping for goods and services with what they call “Berkshares.”

“It used to be I could trade you 10 of my chickens in return for your help building my fence, and no one thought anything about it,” says Andrew Webster, a project manager at Coldham & Hartman Architects and the primary organizer of the Public Forum. “Within cities like Lenox or Ithaca, this legal tender accomplishes the same thing – you just don’t have to walk around with ten chickens under your arm.”

Webster adds, “But, seriously, this has an important purpose. Americans are sick of money leaving their communities. What does a big box store like Walmart give back to residents? The overwhelming majority of that money goes streaming into corporate coffers. Lenox’s use of “Berkshares” ensures that commerce (and the benefits of commerce) stay local, and that our natural resources are not abused in order to bring goods and services into town from hundreds – if not thousands – of miles away.”

Perhaps you’re wondering, “isn’t it against the law for an entity other than the US government to print legal tender?” It’s not as cut and dried as you might think.

Food as a National Security Concern

The idea that fossil fuel availability impacts our national security is not new. But do you realize food is also a major national security issue?

Sharon Astyk, writer of A Nation of Farmers and a Public Forum panelist, thinks we need to start paying attention to – and protecting – our food supply before it’s too late.

“My philosophy is ‘grow food everywhere’ and don’t depend on the fact that in the event of a national crisis you can continue to expect your food to be shipped in from miles away,” says Astyk. “We think it’s time to re-invent the Victory Garden, and grow food in whatever available public space we have. Why should we plant decorative trees on our public land when we can plant apple trees or walnut trees instead?”

Astyk continues, “More than one billion people suffer from chronic hunger, which means to address this problem we will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in all of human history. I hope that idea effectively brings home how large the question of our food security is – because I think most people in the developed world see food as largely trivial. Even movements towards better food tend to work under the assumption that someone (farmers) will take care of providing better, safer food for us, if we simply ‘create demand.’ Thus we set ourselves up as baby birds, mouths wide open, waiting for someone to provide our needs.”

Here are a few surprising statistics:

• The average distance a bite of food travels before we eat it is 1,500 miles (from Energy Use in the US Food System)
• After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy. A system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food for every calorie of fossil fuel it used has become one that requires 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food (NY Times Magazine, October 9, 2008)
• If residents of even a small state like Vermont substituted local production for only 10 percent of the food they import, it would result in $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 new jobs (Bill McKibbin, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future)

Other topics to be discussed at the Public Forum include:

Public Forum panelist Tina Clarke scrapped her promising career to become a Transition Town instructor. The international Transition Town movement is happening in hundreds of towns around the Globe, where people learn positive ways to create change and make progress around issues like sustainability. Her next local training session takes place on February 27-28, 2009 at the Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield, Massachusetts. TinaClarke@transitionnetwork.org

Panelist Linda Wiginton (Affordable Comfort) issues her Thousand Home Challenge, a pilot program to reduce home energy use by 70-90%.

According to Public Forum moderator John Abrams, “for the price of a good used car, any employee should be able to become an owner of a business” – he did it, hear how his innovative co-op model works.

Why downtown Detroit, beleaguered and desolate by anyone’s standards, could turn its economy around by growing food within its urban center.

How Co-op Power, a consumer-owned sustainable energy cooperative is building community owned green jobs and re-inventing the Amish Barn Raising. Co-op Power’s multi-racial, multi-class membership is bringing neighbors together at more than 50 homes across the region where, “You help others upgrade their homes by installing a solar hot water system or energy efficiency improvements, and everyone will come and help you upgrade your home.” Because of Co-op Power’s commitment to equity and justice, much of their green jobs business development work focuses on creating good jobs for people in limited resource communities and communities of color.

The Public Forum is free and open to the general public. For more information about The Public Forum at BuildingEnergy 2010, go to: http://www.nesea.org/buildingenergy/conferencecontent/

To register for the BuildingEnergy Conference and Trade Show, call 413.774.6051 or visit  http://www.nesea.org/buildingenergy/.

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