by Paul K. Haeder & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & diverse group of concerned community leaders gathered on May 17 to hear an equally diverse group of presenters bring global issues of sustainability into a local context. The two events -- "Community Sustainability and Rising Energy Prices," at WSU-Spokane, and the evening sustainability forum at the Community Building, "Inland Region Eco-Enterprise" -- sounded alarms about our community's unsustainable ways but also raised some hope.

So what are the tipping points driving disparate groups and individuals to come together to discuss the emerging Inland Northwest problems created by rising oil prices?

& lt;ul & & lt;li & a potential recession in the U.S. economy & lt;/li & & lt;li & increasing numbers of uninsured and unemployed & lt;/li & tripling of the cost of natural gas and gasoline & lt;/li & & lt;li & cost of food doubling and cost of food transportation tripling & lt;/li & & lt;li & shrinking incomes and lack of affordable housing & lt;/li & & lt;/ul &

WSU economist Melissa Ahern, a key driver behind the forum, emphasizes that the event at Riverpoint -- sponsored in part by Avista, SIRTI, CH2MHill, the Center for Justice and WSU-Spokane -- is a follow-up to the Peak Oil conference (held at the Davenport Hotel on Oct. 4, 2005), when the likes of Matthew Simmons (author of Twilight in the Desert) painted a grim scenario about just how much oil is actually left and how difficult the rest of the oil will be to get at. That was a call to action, as was James Howard Kunstler's pugnacious message, delivered in Spokane just a week later last fall.

"I'm glad WSU is playing a role in this conversation about energy practices," says Brian Pitcher, chancellor of WSU-Spokane. "Many at WSU have been tracking these issues for many years, so it's not a new issue, but it's now becoming more mainstream."

The catalyst for this renewed interest in addressing the economic, environmental and cultural stressors is three-fold: A barrel of crude going for $70; U.S. gasoline prices hitting $3 a gallon; and natural gas inching up in price each week.

The one ingredient that punctuated the forum's doom-and-gloom scenario is the fact that we're using oil at a higher rate than it's being discovered and pumped out of the ground.

Back to the Land & r & "We are going to see a crisis in agriculture that will make the Dust Bowl era look like a picnic," predicts Jim Armstrong of the Spokane Conservation District.

At the forum, Armstrong discussed the painful complications created by increased farm fuel costs (which have doubled in the past 12 months) and fertilizer costs (which have doubled in the past nine months), but he emphasized that addiction to agricultural subsidies, a century of soft white winter wheat grown in the Palouse, and the excessive dependence on machinery-intensive farming are the systemic problems.

"The days of casual tractoring are over," he said as the audience laughed. He pushes the concept of no-till farming, a planting and harvesting system that returns nutrients to the earth and generates soil rich in organic life and moisture-holding properties. No-till advocates argue that the method produces larger yields than conventional tilling.

Agronomists worldwide know it takes 500 years to replace one inch of topsoil. Armstrong lambastes as unsustainable the current industrial farming practices of over-tilling (up to five separate machine-driven passes for one crop), the drenching of soils with herbicides and pesticides to the point where the earth is devoid of organic life and creating hardpan crusts that fail to hold water and create erosion. He decries the typical American's lack of knowledge about how food is grown and where: "The United States is a net importer of food. If farmers can't afford to grow [crops] because of fuel costs and can't make money at it, they will go out of business."

And when the farm goes, so does our food security.

At the evening sustainability event, moderator Eden BrightSpirit Hendrix emphasized what extension agents and organic farming activists recommend -- we need to support local growers and food producers. Hendrix has been running Fresh Abundance for less than two years and already has more than 400 members paying for goods, services, produce and other food originating locally and delivered to the home.

The challenges of moving food around was another tough topic tackled, this time by Pat Davidson of Peirone Produce, which has seen the cost per mile of running a truck go from 75 cents to the current $2.38.

"I'm very, very concerned," Davidson says of Peirone's ability to keep trucks on the road. The 61-year-old Spokane company employs 100 people. "We are facing reality now. If we can't move our trucks on the road, we can't supply food to our customers."

Davidson, like many studying sustainable agriculture, sees a big difference between today's produce markets and those of a quarter century ago when tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and hundreds of other fruits and vegetables weren't available year round. Now, we get our grapes from Chile from November to March; asparagus from Peru; navel oranges from Australia; melons from Guatemala and Costa Rica.

"Today, about 20 percent of everything we distribute comes from South and Central America," Davidson says.

This global cornucopia comes at a price, he says -- a labyrinthine, inbred transportation network reliant on huge fuel consumption.

Tomatoes from Israel and hydroponics from Canada belie deeply delusional thinking on the part of consumers, according to writers like Kunstler and Wendell Berry. Davidson sees Inland Northwest customers still willing to pay the price for bananas shipped from Costa Rica and Japanese consumers willing to shell out the exorbitant amounts for Washington-grown cherries flown to Tokyo. But the conservative produce man considers the volume of commodities crossing the ocean to be mind-boggling. He's stupefied that China operates the biggest container ship in the world, which sucks up 50,000 gallons of fuel a day, to ferry produce and goods to and from the mainland -- and that people approach him regularly to ask bizarre questions, such as, "Where in Washington are bananas grown?"

Community Health & r & Both forums evoke hope, though, by driving home to the attendees that dialogue needs to begin. Public education is needed to help the community at large understand the scope of the problems in four major sustainability and security areas: health care, the built environment, transportation and food production and distribution.

Some of the heady issues enmeshed in national and global politics that were broached -- such as the true U.S. inflationary rate of 7.5 percent versus the 5 percent reported by the government; or Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz's recent calculation that there's $500 billion to $1.5 billion in "hidden" costs for the war in Iraq; or the socio-psychological dynamics of human behavior responding shallowly to dire warnings of impending oil disaster -- are being re-contextualized as community issues.

"The word 'community' has come up many times in these presentations," said presenter Dan Baumgarten, director of Community-Minded Enterprises, a health-care solutions organization that has brought in more than $18 million from outside Spokane. "What we are hearing is that the problems associated with rising energy costs are collapsing us back to this idea of community." He argues that many have sacrificed community for the almighty dollar and subservience to the corporation.

Hence, Baumgarten's approach to tackling the peak oil issues is to differentiate between community of place and community of purpose, and to look at how macro-economies -- large corporations and federal agencies -- are failing our local needs.

By being part of a community of place, we identify with it as our home in the world, he says. We then develop into people who care about each other within this place; and we naturally begin caring intensely about the ecological systems, the ways of life and cultural narratives.

Baumgarten defines a community of purpose as people who have been trained to give up their sense of place and to care only about the well-being of its members -- i.e., corporations.

This easily segues into the Popsicle Index: the percentage of people in a community who believe that a child can safely go to the nearest place to buy a Popsicle and come home alone.

Bill Bender, a local neurologist who presented at the forum, might call his index the "tongue depressor measure" -- he's worried about the high rates of preventable diseases like adult onset diabetes. The wiry doctor also sounds the alarm about the impending economic hardship of the "long emergency," as noted by author Kunstler. However, Bender relates it to the pure waste and inefficiency of our medical system, which costs $6,000 per person per year. That's twice as much per person as the United Kingdom and Canada spend, and 2.5 times more than what the French shell out per capita. "We aren't doing any better than they are. We have half the results with twice the money spent."

Bender covered a wide variety of topics connected to the Spokane region's viability to keep paying for health care. One factoid he gave includes the percentage of total health care expenditure spent on our fattening and aging population: "It's the 80-20 rule. That is, 80 percent of all health care dollars are being spent on 20 percent of the population."

The natural progression of a community's health goes to the heart of New Urbanism as highlighted by Bob Scarfo, head of WSU's Interdisciplinary Design Institute, and Ryan Romaneski, with the development group ConoverBond: the creation of pedestrian-centered developments, areas that are close to downtown amenities, or higher density neighborhood centers that are serviced by mass transit and bicycle alternatives.

Scarfo quickly links energy, aging, health and water as four issues baby boomers exacerbated and will have to contend with now.

"Like Kunstler predicts, the party's over," Scarfo says. "The physical world will shrink." Communities will have to develop solutions on their own, he says.

Some see in-fill building and projects like Kendall Yards as part of a sustainable development solution. Romaneski, who works with Rob Brewster of Montvale Hotel and Catacombs restaurant fame, pulls no punches in criticizing the City of Spokane for putting up disincentives for developers working on projects in the downtown core. And then he sent an uppercut to the predominant development model in Spokane:

"For one reason or another, there has been bad development in Spokane... there's no incentive to create new, interesting, creative projects... no disincentives to stop sprawl."

Light rail is being promoted by former Spokane City Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes as an economic tool to encourage mixed-use and high-density development. Holmes cites the ugly realities of 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and 3.7 billion hours wasted nationwide in 2003 because of automobile congestion. For Spokane, that would be $32 million spent on congestion, factoring in both fuel and lost time. Now that fuel costs are rising and rising, a light rail system for Spokane may no longer be a pipedream, she says.

The capstone to the transportation matrix was presented by Eastern Washington University transportation planning expert Bill Kelley, a professor who studies the influence of price elasticity for gas. As the price goes up 10 percent, Kelley finds, 3 percent fewer trips occur.

So, imagining $6-a-gallon gas here in Spokane, we would see 480,000 daily car trips eliminated (currently, Spokanites make 2.5 million trips every day). For advocates of light rail, this is good news because 120,000 of those eliminated car trips will shift to other modes of transportation, Kelley posits.

Anyone thinking of a Cheney-Spokane-Liberty Lake-Post Falls-Coeur d'Alene bio-diesel-driven light rail system?

Paradigm Shifts & r & "I think this is one of the better forums on sustainability I've been to in Spokane," said Chuck Tingstad, renewable energy and green building consultant with Eco Depot and one of the co-sponsors of the Community Building event.

He also was surprised at the odd juxtaposition of Rich Hadley, president of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, next to Mike Petersen, head of the Lands Council, and Tim King, bio-diesel aficionado.

Chambers of commerce across the country still tout two unsustainable economic engines: creating sprawl and affirming population growth rates that can't be supported. So Tingstad was happily taken aback when Hadley announced, "Eco Depot is part of the solution for Spokane."

The head of the Chamber also listened intently while King, who has worked for years in forest management and agronomy with federal agencies, discussed his bio-fuel and farm waste gasification schemes.

King has purchased used oil seed crushing equipment from Canada that will have a 50-million-gallon-a-year capacity. King represents one of the alternative thinkers in the sustainable development movement that might help with the paradigm shift: He'd like to turn six million acres of Palouse winter white wheat -- a money-losing proposition for the past 15 years -- into canola fields that could be used for bio-diesel.

"How can we bring the established business community to see the value of bio-fuel?" King repeatedly asks wherever he speaks. "We need to put our farms into production. Farmers add to the economic base of Spokane."

Empty Seats & r & While Hadley tilted his head in recognition of architect Tom Angell's leadership in green design for homes and commercial buildings, some key stakeholders who should have been at these "Sustainability 101" colloquia were missing.

There was no sign of the Spokane County commissioners who ignore citizens who dare to question unchecked sprawl development.

Also absent was the Spokane city official who just a few weeks ago labeled as "ludicrous" the idea to close off Main Avenue from Division to Browne Street for a few hours on Wednesday and Saturday for a street-filled farmers' market, even after the Spokane City Council and fire and police chiefs approved of the plan.

And local real estate developers? Call the truancy officer on them as well, as, with a few exceptions, they stayed home, too. Maybe all those movers and shakers who should be thinking about "going back to the future" by attending forums like these are just fitting one of Carl Jung's paradigms: "Most people cannot stand too much reality."

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
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