Learning the Lessons of Love and Loss, Hope and Sacrifice

Beulah McKenzie and Helen Elder McKenzie.

Sometime around 1890, in Perth, Scotland, my ancestors made the difficult, possibly desperate, definitely courageous decision to send half of their children to America. Away would go three adult sons – a blacksmith, a tailor and a soon-to-be farmer – and two sisters. The youngest, Helen, just 16 years old, was suffering from what was thought to be consumption.

They hoped to find a better life in America, and that young Helen would be cured of her illness by the healthful sea air. Thankfully, by the time she arrived in America, she was indeed cured. She loved the ocean voyage, while her siblings lay abed, suffering severe seasickness.

Arriving on the shores of North America, they traveled by ship through the St. Lawrence Seaway until they arrived in Duluth, Minnesota. They took up residence in Hunter’s Park, known by its inhabitants as Oatmeal Hill because of the large number of Scottish folk who settled there.

The family lived in Duluth for some years before spreading out across the state to start their own lives – marriages, births and deaths. New life took hold in this new place and news was shared via letters, taking a month or more to travel back and forth between America and Scotland. I have some of those letters.

So why am I thinking of my great-grandmother, Helen Elder, at this time?

The Carbon Footprint of Travel

It’s vacation time and I’m hearing from a lot of folks who are planning to fly to visit family members who live in other states or other countries.

Unfortunately, flying is one of the more climate-destructive things that middle and upper-class Americans and Europeans do. I’ve flown numerous times in the past. Most people I know have flown somewhere. So I’m not speaking as a purist here. My hands are not any cleaner than yours, but going forward, I’m going to try to do better.

Because regardless of the reasons – or excuses – we give for why we fly, it doesn’t change the fact that flying is bad for the atmosphere and the climate, and no amount of carbon offsetting will undo the damage. We’ve more than doubled our air travel between 2000 and 2015 and that’s the wrong direction.

The Climate Impact

Aircraft burn huge amounts of fossil fuel, much of it high in the atmosphere where it has different impacts than near the ground. Aircraft emissions warm the atmosphere 1.9 times more than carbon dioxide alone. Here’s what airplanes are emitting:

  • CO2: One round trip flight from New York to London generates as much CO2 as 3 months of driving a small car.
  • Nitrogen oxides and ozone: Increased ozone in the upper atmosphere warms the planet more than ozone at lower altitudes.
  • Contrails: The thin cloud trails left behind by airplanes also have a warming effect, especially at night.
  • Sulfate and soot: These two emissions have opposing effects – warming and cooling. Their accumulation in the upper atmosphere enhances cloud formations.
  • Water vapor: Yes, water is a greenhouse gas! Water vapor released in the lower atmosphere comes down as rain within a week or two, but water released in the upper atmosphere builds up.

Progress – On the Way, Not Here Yet

The air travel industry is working on reducing emissions from planes. It’s also looking at alternative fuels. But this is still in the future; a future we may not have. In the game of life, we’re already in overtime. The Earth is telling us loud and clear, via feedback loops of massive hurricanes, violent storms, heat waves, droughts, fires, that enough is enough. We need to take this feedback seriously. We need to take (in)action right now.

And that’s why I’m thinking of Helen.

Love in a Time of Climate Change

When she got on that ship some 130 years ago, Helen left all she loved behind, expecting that she would never see her mother and father and siblings again. And she never did. How hard that must have been for everyone. I’m sure many tears were shed and hearts broken, at least for awhile.

That’s the story of most American families who arrived here over the course of several hundred years: Love and loss, sacrifice and hope.

But we don’t make those sacrifices today. We fly to visit our loved ones and in doing so we contribute to a loss so much larger than we are willing to admit: the loss of clean air, a livable climate, and ultimately, our children’s future.

In a time of climate change, we need to stop discretionary flying until we have vastly better technology to enable low-carbon, long-distance travel. It’s as simple as that.

In a time of climate change, we need to reframe the decision not to fly as one of the ways we show our love for our children and grandchildren. We love them enough to do everything we can to give them a future.

In a time of climate change, we treasure so highly the beautiful places around the world that we don’t destroy them by flying there. In the process, we may discover by staying closer to home, that there are treasures enough right here.

I am not saying this is easy. I’m not saying we will be perfect, or that I will be perfect. What I’m saying is I’m going to try – I’m going to commit.

In a time of climate change, we need to relearn what our ancestors knew: that love comes with loss and hope comes with sacrifice. And we’re lucky, those of us living in the world today. We can count our blessings. Unlike our ancestors, we can pick up the phone and call.

Posted in Climate Change/Science, Energy, Transportation | Tagged | Leave a comment

A 2-Step Plan to Kick Fossil Fuels

A Life-Changing Talk Leads to an Energy Plan

Like many people, I want to do what I can to live more sustainably and to reduce my carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels. But once you get past the obvious stuff (changing light bulbs, adding insulation), the next step – and the one after that – is not always clear.

That’s what I wanted to know when I attended a seminar at the U of M called “Energy from Renewables: Confronting Global Collapse” in October 2016.

That event changed my life. Here’s why.

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What Wisdom and Values Will We Need in a Challenging Future?

 

Tsunami of Love by artist Anne Mimi Sammis

What Will the Future Need from Us?

 

This weekend I was invited to be part of an elder circle where a group of very impressive “seniors,” with an imposing array of experiences under their belts, was asked to reflect on the question:

What lived experiences, wisdom [and values] do you feel need to be part of what may be a very difficult birthing of an emerging global reality? “

I was so intrigued by this question that I brought a version of it to the core team of my Transition group (where everyone in the room that evening happened to be over 50). We had a rich conversation. See the values and the life experience we believe older folks can bring forward to meet the challenges ahead.

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Posted in Climate Change/Science, Psychology of change | 2 Comments

GrowthBuster Movie Screening with the Filmmaker!

Join Me for a Movie Night

I am excited to say that this month’s movie screening for Transition Longfellow’s movie night will be “GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth” and the filmmaker Dave Gardner is going to be joining us!

Friday, April 13, 7 pm at Walker Community Church, 3104 16th Avenue S.

“GrowthBusters” doesn’t dwell on the hot, hard facts of climate change, peak energy, and biodiversity loss. Instead, Gardner asks vital questions about human psychology:

  • Why is a roaring economy more important to us than human survival on this beautiful and finite planet?
  • What cultural barriers prevent us from acting rationally when we know the damaging effects we are having on  people and places – even our own people and our own places?
  • What are the beliefs and behaviors we must leave behind, and what values do we need to embrace in order for our children and grandchildren to survive and thrive?

I’m excited to have the filmmaker with us because understanding the “problem” of economic growth is both obvious and really hard to get your head around. In a culture steeped in capitalism, with government, businesses and the media focused almost exclusively on growth (consumption, consumerism, GDP, productivity, efficiency, progress), are we even capable of seeing growth as the problem? Can we imagine a future where growth is not the goal? Where sufficiency replaces more-more-more?

Where we truly LOVE our children and our neighbor and our world so much that we actually choose to change? And how do we change? What would a sustainable future look like?

Let’s have the conversation. Join me on Friday the 13th, 7 pm at Walker Community Church.

Posted in Groups/Events, Psychology of change, Transition economy | Tagged | Leave a comment

Efficiency Won’t Cut It. We Have to Power Down.

The Sacred Cow of Energy Efficiency is Really a Trojan Horse

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Canadian journalist writing on energy topics, published an insightful article last month on “The Curse of Energy Efficiency.” I’m going to give you a synopsis and then talk about how we can overcome the problem he identified.

If you follow Xcel, the Department of Commerce, the state legislaturereally, anyone working on energyyou know that efficiency is the key to deep reductions in energy use. According to Nikiforuk, the International Energy Agency said energy efficiency could achieve 49% of the greenhouse gas reductions we need by 2030.

And it’s certainly true that we’ve made huge strides in energy efficiency in almost every type of electrified product. Computers are more efficient. Cars and planes are more efficient. Kitchen appliances are 75% more efficient than they were in the 1990s! We should be saving lots of energy, and be well on our way to lowering our carbon footprint.

But we’re not.

The truth is, increases in energy efficiency encourage more use. Stanley Jevons, a coal economist, noted years ago that efficiencies in technology encouraged industry to apply that technology to more and more activities. Jevon’s observation is called the Jevon’s Paradox. For example:

  • A more efficient steam engine encouraged the proliferation of steam engines for other purposes, requiring even more coal.
  • Improved fuel efficiency of airplanes resulted in cheaper fares and more people flying. Flying is now responsible for 4.9% of manmade climate change.
  • Papermaking is 3 times more efficient (energy wise) than it was in 1965, so we now create 22% more documents880 billion of them a year (just in the U.S.)!
  • The LED light bulb is 70 to 80% more energy efficient, but that didn’t lower lighting costs; it led to LEDs being used in more applications and people and municipalities added more lights. So many more lights, in fact, that National Geographic reported that “the amount of artificial light coming from Earth’s surface at night has increased in radiance and extent by 2% every year for the past four years—driven by the rapid adoption of bright LEDs and development.” This is having serious disruptive consequences for both wildlife and for humans, interrupting sleep-wake patterns. It also impacts plant growth, plant flowering, and insect pollination. It’s a very big problem indeed.

Economists admit that energy efficiencies could wipe out between 20 and 50% of energy savings. Alone, energy efficiency is not going to result in the kind of energy and carbonreduction we need to address a changing climate.

We Need to Power Down

Powering down is one of the core themes of the Transition movement. We need to use less fossil fuel power. Sure, be efficient when you use power – just flat out use less.

You can start by eliminating electricity-using products for functions that could be accomplished without electricity. Switch out an electric toothbrush for a regular one, a manual can opener for electric, air drying for hair drying and clothes drying.

Those little changes are only going to go so far. Then you’ve got to start using your imagination – and your courage. You’ve got to imagine what it would be like to live differently and then have the courage to buck the status quo. How could you give it a try?

  • What if your sleep-wake schedule more closely fit daylight/night-time?
  • What if you used light only where you needed it? Or carried your light with you from room to room?
  • What if you took technology breaks?
  • What if you had game nights and puzzle brunches instead of going out to the movies, or window shopping?
  • What if… what if?

How Will We Power Down This Summer?

We made our biggest commitments to power reduction when we moved to the city, switched to mass transit, and installed solar panels, but I know we’ve fallen down on some of our energy reduction efforts. We haven’t seen a $5 power bill for awhile. We need to recommit.

  1. We’re going to do more solar cooking. We love the results and we’d like to be more adventurous, particularly with baking.
  2. We’re going to go back to living life unplugged. We’ll plug it in only when in use.
  3. We use the computer too much. Way too much! Not only is that unhealthy for us physically and psychologically; it contributes to our habits of over-consumption and online purchasing. We really, really need to:
    1. Institute a computer sabbath,  one day a week when we don’t go online.
    2. Commit to shutting down at 7 pm.
    3. Stop a moment to choose the least energy-intensive technology. Our old desktop computer is not very efficient but we want to keep it out of the landfill as long as possible. Rather than using it to do all of our computer-related activities, we could make a point of doing some of those tasks on less energy-intensive devices. For example, checking Facebook on my solar-chargable phone. A tablet can also be solar charged, and would allow for more typing-intensive activities. We’re going to start a new habit of solar charging all batteries and technologies every day.

Encouraging Powerdown in Community

I can think of a few things I could do relatively quickly in my community life to try to implement changes outside my home.

  1. The first is small: it’s the light in the alley right outside my house. My old neighbor paid to have an EXTRA light in the alley. We now have new neighbors and I bet they don’t know they are paying extra. I’m going to ask them to discontinue that light.
  2. While I’m thinking of lights, I could talk to my city council member during his community open hours about reducing the overall number of street lights. We need to start weighing these damaging health effects into the equation.
  3. And then I’m going to ask the organizer of one of my monthly meetings if they can offer an online meeting option every month. Some of these meetings – attended by hundreds of people – are really far away and there is no mass transit option. We’d save a lot of gas and time for a lot of people if it could be simulcast.

What are some steps you can take to begin to power down?

 

 

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Being Part of a Transition Group

Beginning the Transition Journey

When my husband and I sat down at a coffee shop in 2010 to talk with two other people about starting a Transition group, I would not have imagined all of the things I would learn and do over the next 7 years. Transition Longfellow has been an expansive experience.

I tell people Transition is a way of thinking and a direction, as well as a local and global grassroots movement. That sounds pretty high falutin. What does it really mean?

Transition Gives Us Back our Self Determination

Every day we make innumerable decisions that individually and collectively have an impact on our world. Our culture pushes us to make those decisions based on what we “want” and  what we “deserve.” And our consumer society is set up to short-circuit our decision-making process by making some things easy (turn up the thermostat), convenient (get in the car), and distractingly addictive (Facebook). It makes other (often better) things quite difficult (carpooling) or expensive (solar).

When you dig deeper into the issues Transition looks at – food resilience, cutting carbon, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels – it changes the way you look at your everday decisions. You ask yourself different questions: “What is the carbon footprint or the collective impact of of this decision? Could I do this another way? Do I really need to do this at all?”

You make decisions in a new way.

Transition Provides Direction

One of the first activities Transition groups do is engage their community in a visioning process to identify what a healthy, sustainable future would look like in their area. What  direction do we need and want to go? The answer to that question will be different in different places. It may be water issues in New Mexico and seed sovereignty in India. I heard from a student, who had visited a Transition group in Bolivia, say that improving male-female relationships and overcoming the damaging effects of machismo was one of the first things the group she visited chose to tackle.

In my neighborhood it could be improving mass transit, getting safer bike lanes, helping to get more homes weatherized and insulated, increasing the number of solar installations on rooftops or getting more people signed up for solar gardens, helping people grow more food, or helping people identify and prepare for the effects of climate change.

In my mind, I see all of those “good things” as part of a big river flowing in the direction of a sustainable, healthy future. There are many streams of effort feeding that river and everyone can be part of it. In fact, millions of people are taking hundreds of millions of actions. Even when some governments or some businesses put up a damn to try to divert us, this is one great big roiling river. We are not alone.

Transition Provides a Structure for Personal Exploration

My husband and my involvement in Transition Longfellow has inspired us to try so many new things: from dropping a car, to finding a new home for 1,079 possessions,  creating an edible landscape and learning to preserve our own foods. We’re more interesting people because of it – and we’re also more skilled.

Last fall I got to meet Brianna Harrington and learned about her project, the 15/30 Challenge. I’m so impressed by her efforts to raise awareness of the tragic wastefulness of fast fashion. From the massive diversion of water to grow fiber, to the childhoods and health lost in sweatshops, to the dumping of used clothes on African nations, ruining their clothing industry and impoverishing their culture. Cheap clothes – fast fashion – for us has had devastated effects across the globe. I hope to take her challenge soon – once I learn how to use Instagram to share my efforts :).

Transition Builds the Local Community and Economy

We have met many, many neighbors. Although I’d lived here 23 years, it wasn’t until we started a Transition group that I knew more than a handful of neighbors. I’ve met at least 150 new people and made dozens of real friends. Some of these people became my support system as I took on the task of providing home care for my dying mother. They cared for me as I cared for her.

As we move further into climate change and feel more of its effects on our health and safety, these relationships within commuity will become even more important.

We have found role models all across the metro area who are doing things to reduce their use of fossil fuels and live a more sustainable life. Lee Olson taught us to grow sprouts. Annette taught us to make jam. Bruce and Aggie inspire us to grow big with their huge garden. And our new friend Lisa is helping us think about preparedness.

We have found businesses to take us in the right direction. Ralph Jacobson from Innovative Power Systems and Bruce Stahlberg from Affordable Energy Solutions have helped us reduce our home energy use. The folks at Gandhi Mahal restaurant have demonstrated how a restaurant can source its food hyper-locally, growing its own veggies and fish IN THE CITY! The Tiny Diner has become a hub for learning and growing by offering food-related classes.

That river of Transition needs businesses of all sizes and business professionals in all fields to stop and ask the questions:

  • “What is the carbon footprint or the collective impact of this decision?”
  • “Could we do this another way”
  • “Do we really need to do this at all?”

And when they do, Transition can make those actions visible so we can all support and learn from those efforts. So we can see that we are, in fact, all in this together.

Posted in mini challenges, Psychology of change, Transition economy, Transition Info | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We Choose to Live With Roommates

What the Realtor Doesn’t Know

A few of the 24 garden beds

We were approached last spring by a realtor who was hoping we wanted to sell our house. I’m always thinking, “Maybe we’d like to have a smaller house on 5 acres. Maybe I’d like to plant a small orchard, grow a larger garden. Maybe my real future is in hazelnuts and sour cherries ….”

So I said yes, he could give me an estimate of the value of my house on today’s market. I warned him our house wasn’t typical; and as I expected, he was unsure whether our veggie gardens, fruit trees, edible landscape, solar PV and solar hot air had value.

When he called back to give us a figure, using comps that were in no way comparable, he tried to sell us on the idea by saying we could finally get our own place (we have one) and stop living with roommates.

I know he just doesn’t get it.

We  live with roommates for a lot of good reasons.

  • There is an affordable housing shortage in our community and we can provide some truly affordable space.
  • We earn some extra income, which we use to make repairs and upgrades to this 97-year-old house.
  • It cuts our carbon footprint in half – and yes, that factored into our decision making! You can’t shrink your house but you can share it.
  • It increases security for all of us. We live in a city and I love it, but there is crime. With four people living and often working at home, there is someone here a lot of the time.
  • It keeps my husband and I in touch with younger folks. It’s amazing how age-segregated our society is! I want to stay connected with what younger people are thinking and doing. Our roommates are usually younger and the good ones bring friends with them.
  • When we rent to international students, we learn about others cultures and we try new foods, like those scrumptious Colombian cheesy rolls. Yum!

While not a big factor in our decision-making, there are other benefits as well.

  • We own a lot of stuff cuz, uh, we’re “old.” By sharing kitchen ware, towels, appliances, electronics, camping gear, etc., our roommates don’t need to buy it and we’ve reduced the pressure of consumerism.
  • We live in a bungalow community of mostly small, single-family homes. When we increase the number of people living here, we increase density, which is a factor in getting better bus frequency and in attracting more local businesses!

Sometimes we don’t have the best roommates. Sometimes they aren’t that friendly or they have unfortunate habits (I’m sure we do, too). But with all of these benefits and the many ways house sharing supports our values, it’s really worth it to keep trying to find folks who are a good fit.

Few decisions we make will have this big an impact.

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Would It Make Financial Sense to Drop A Car?

What is Car Ownership Really Costing Us?

NERD ALERT – Looking at the numbers

One of the things I love about the Longfellow neighborhood – and a big reason I wanted to live here – was its close proximity to everything. That made it possible, in 2010, for my husband and I make the decision to become a one-car household. In the past 7 years we’ve found that to be a pretty easy lifestyle change, with only an occasional inconvenience. In fact, it’s been so easy that I’ve begun to wonder if we’re ready to go even further and give up car ownership altogether.

The Dollars and Cents of Transportation (Including Carbon)

According to AAA, in 2017 the average auto driver spent $706 a month to own and operate their vehicle for an average of 15,000 miles. Think about it: that’s almost as much as the rent on an efficiency apartment in Minneapolis! And that figure doesn’t include the cost of car payments – or the cost of its associated carbon footprint.

So what does transportation cost my two-person family? I took a look at NerdWallet’s Car Cost Calculator and then factored in the rest of our transportation costs.

  • Gas: Our car gets about 25 mpg in the city. We drive 6,000 to 7,000 miles a year so we used about 280 gallons of gas @ $2.30/gallon = $644/yr. Let’s account for the full cost of that gas by looking at the amount of CO2 we produced. Burning a gallon of E10 gas produces 18.9 pounds of CO2 so our 280 gallons produced 5,292 pounds of carbon, or 2.6 tons. If we carbon-tax ourselves at, let’s say $40 per ton, we’d pay an extra $104/yr.
  • Insurance for two: about $1,200/yr
  • Maintenance and repairs: If the past 6 months are typical, it would be about $200 a month or $2,400 /yr
  • Car Payment: Zero, our car is 12 years old.
  • Parking: $20/month or $240/yr
  • Taxes: $45/yr

Car Ownership = $5,381/yr

We also use mass transit. We spend $80 a month ($960/yr) to take the bus and light rail, which saves us, at minimum, $120 a month in parking ($1,440/yr) and the absolute nightmare of driving downtown. We hopped on the bus to get to the Ordway last month and saved parking and a whole lot of hassle fighting traffic with all the sports events occurring that night!

Taking the bus shaves 30% off my husbad’s work-related carbon footprint, according to Transit Screen. Taking the light rail shaves another 30%. Driving fewer miles keeps our insurance lower, too.

Total Transit Cost Per Year: $6,341/yr

What if we dropped our other car and …

  • Took the Bus: Bought one all-you-can-ride monthly bus card and one stored-value card for when we need to travel together ($103/month or $1,236/yr)
  • Biked more: Peter could ride his bike to work to save money from May-October, while finally getting in some exercise. His employer offers a secure bike garage at his building so he would pay nothing. (If his employer didn’t have the locker option, he could rent a bike locker from Metro Transit.) (-$120/yr)
  • Used Hour Car Sharing Service: $8.50 an hour and 100 miles free (no charge for gas or miles) with $55/yr fee (x 2). We’d need to bus to the closest car sharing hub about 2 miles away.  If I used a car 3 days a week for maybe 8 hours that would be $292/month or $3,504/yr. Hour Car provides insurance so we’d save (-$1,200). Hour Car pays for the gas, too, so we wouldn’t spend -$644. If I still drove the same number of miles, I’d still have the same carbon footprint ($104 carbon tax) and I’d still be paying to park ($240/yr).
  • Rented a car for vacation: We could borrow a friend’s car for a few days or we could rent an Hour Car for $75 a day for the weekend, or rent a car at the airport for $350 a week. Last year we took a 2-week trip and traveled by train and bus. If we had to plan separately for transportation, it would make us more aware of the true cost of our trip.

Transit Cost Without Car Ownership: $5,074/yr -$5,194

Cost for Convenience: around $1,147-$1,267

That’s not as much of a difference as I expected. And if we took a 2-week vacation and paid to rent a car, it would be half that savings. But it’s possible that making this change would result in more changes. That we’d look for opportunities to carpool, or we’d drive even less.

We’ve talked it over and we’re going to try a month-long no-car challenge to see how it goes.

 

 

 

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Energy Workshop is a Call to Action

I attended a day-long seminar at the engineering school at the U of M back in October: “Energy from Renewables: Confronting Global Collapse.” It was a mix of hope and despair. Lots of good information, much of it new to me. And a clear message that our timeline for action is really, really short. Various speakers offered guidance on steps we need to take right now, and glimpses of amazing technologies that we can only hope will be perfected and rolled out in the near future.

After attending that seminar, any talk about 2050 is no longer credible to me. We do not have that long to make a significant change. According to folks at The Solutions Project, we need to shift to 80% renewables by 2030. So tell me what we can do today and by 2020 and by 2025.

Energy Seminar Lights a Fire

Action 1: Work immediately on energy efficiency in every possible way. Dig into your energy bills. Cut!

Action 2: Reduce your carbon footprint immediately. If you drive more than 8,000 miles a year, lease an electric car. Some things may need to fly, but you and I are not among them.

Sculpture in Sebastapol

Action 3: Electrify your life. Shift everything you can to electric and shift your electricity to solar or other renewables. If you can afford rooftop solar, do it now (and with batteries). If you can’t but want it, see if you can do a bulk buy deal with some neighbors to get the price down. If you can’t do that, buy into a community solar garden even if it doesn’t save you money.

Stop thinking that money is your return on investment. A livable climate is the only return that counts right now. Invest in life.

Action 4: Think twice about rice. That food is responsible for 46% of all crop-related greenhouse gas emissions. Eat local, reduce meat consumption, support responsible farmers. Know that when raised right, grazing animals are good for the land. (Think about it, they evolved together and this country used to be home to millions of buffalo.)

Action 5: If you own land, reforest and food forest. Gardeners, do not buy peat.

Action 6: Practice hospitality now, in a variety of ways, so you will be prepared to practice it in earnest in the not too distant future. Greenland has lost a trillion tons of ice in four years and ice melt is accelerating, as is sea level rise. Your Florida relatives may soon be living with you.

Our business schools are a training ground for climate denial, which prevents action from occurring and regulations from being adopted. Our business schools need to be confronted and transformed.

The media has been a tool in the hands of deniers. They need to be held accountable. In 1996, the Minnesota News Council DID hold one of them accountable for turning to a famous climate denier for “balance” in a news story. The News Council no longer exists, but you and I are still here. We must raise a ruckus to shine a light on false stories, false premises, false “fairness.”

“When it comes to the environment, the invisible hand never picks up the check.” — Kim Stanley Robinson

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