Interview with Aaron Lehmner, Bay Localize: “resuscitating, re-thinking and stimulating” a green economy

1. With so much economic trouble in this country and world, how is Bay Localize doing on the financial front? Any advice to other groups?

Ironically, Bay Localize is actually doing quite despite the horrific landscape of the national and global economy. A growing number of funders are stepping up to the plate to support our work — which we think is an indication that economic localization and regional self-reliance are finally being taken seriously as viable solutions to our energy, climate, and economic crises. So I would advise other groups working in this arena to begin framing their work as a strategy that can address these interwoven challenges simultaneously.

2. What are your top three concerns?

Sustainability, social justice, and economic vitality. In recent decades we’ve become an increasingly globalized society, and along the way, we’ve sacrificed environmental health and community well-being for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Despite growing public awareness, our use of fossil fuels continues to rise — and as a consequence, our global climate is becoming increasingly unstable and potentially lethal. What’s more, we are now dangerously dependent on far-flung regions to supply us with fossil fuels to produce our manufactured goods, grow our food, and power our vehicles and buildings. A growing chorus of reputable energy analysts and geologists are now warning that our demand for fossil energy will soon outstrip supply.

To help prepare our region for the coming end of cheap oil — and the progressive decline in long-distance imports that will follow — we are developing flexible tools and models that area groups and municipal governments can implement in their own locales to bring the production of food, energy, and essential goods and services closer to home.

All Bay Area residents are affected by our over-reliance on fossil fuels. But our region’s poor are particularly exposed to the consequences of global warming and fossil fuel dependence. Many face increasing difficulty making ends meet and getting from here to there as energy costs rise. By being consigned mostly to low-lying areas, the poor are also the most vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise due to climate change. By advocating for policies and projects that build a regionally-focused economy, we believe we can help increase the livability of all Bay Area counties. And by shifting our energy use to renewables – thereby slashing fossil fuel burning for electricity and transportation – we believe we can improve the quality of life for low-income communities and people of color who suffer disproportionately from exposure to pollutants from nearby gas-fired power plants, petroleum refineries, and congested freeways.

3. What does “localize” mean? Localize from what to what?

Economic localization is the process by which a region, county, city, or even neighborhood frees itself from an overdependence on the global economy to a more self-reliant economy that invests in its own resources to provide for its needs. Most importantly, a more localized economy produces a significant portion of the goods, services, food, and energy it consumes from its own local endowment of financial, natural, and human capital. Economic localization brings production of goods and services closer to their point of consumption, reducing the need to rely on long supply chains and distant markets so that communities and regions can, for the most part, provision themselves. While it is certainly not possible to produce every kind of good and service locally, economic localization seeks to restore an efficient balance between local production and imports that reduces local economic vulnerability and minimizes the negative social and environmental externalities of inefficient trade.

4. Are you suggesting a major paradigm shift in values for the USA? If so, please describe this shift.

In some ways, aspiring to be thrifty, self-reliant, and conservative in one’s use of resources are quintessentially American traits that have a time-honored tradition in our nation’s history. It was only in the post-World War II period that these values were almost thoroughly cast aside in favor of a kind of live-for-today, me-first consumerism.

That said, we’ve strayed so far from being a self-reliant and sustainable economy – especially since the early 1970s when the US peaked in its own domestic oil production – that economic localization now amounts to a radical paradigm shift in our thinking. You can see in the debates that are going on nationally and internationally about “resuscitating” our collapsing economy that the only thinkable strategy is “stimulating” our economy in order to get the global consumer growth-fest back on track. No one in high office within the major industrialized economies is talking about learning to live sustainably or equitably in a steady-state or even a contracting economy — much less in one that relies less and less on the shipping of fossil fuel-based good half-way across the globe. But that’s the kind of shift we must begin to accept, prepare for, and shape to our own regional conditions if we ever hope to thrive within the post-petroleum economy that’s coming.

5. Is the “pending collapse” of the fossil fuel economy the main driver at Bay Localize?

It’s certainly one of the main drivers. Our growing dependence on declining fossil fuels coupled with mounting climate instability are converging to a crisis stage that imperils the long-term viability of the Bay Area’s economy, infrastructure, and natural environment. Fundamentally, we believe that vibrant local economies and healthy communities are the best guard against global insecurity, an essential part of achieving social equity, and a vital way to enrich our day-to-day lives. Localization can also decrease global greenhouse gas emissions by cutting the need for imports, and increase regional vitality by encouraging the recirculation of dollars within the local economy.

6. Do you see a unity of purpose and energy in the East Bay now, perhaps centered at the 14th Street building?

There’s certainly a lot of synergy among the many incredible organizations within our building: Urban Habitat, ICLEI, and the Institute for Social and Environmental Justice Education. Very nearby, we’re also in close working relationship with Communities for a Better Environment and TransForm (formerly the Transportation and Land Use Coalition). We’re working together on a number of fronts, and definitely see a convergence of purpose emerging.

7. How do you personally live the green life?

I have a long way to go — I still drive too often, eat too many processed foods, and take too many flights. But I keep a front-yard garden, commute daily by transit, stick to a vegetarian diet, recycle, compost, and take reusable bags and containers with me wherever I go.

8. What are the goals of the Rooftop Resources Project? What resources have you put into this effort? Who are your partners?

The goal of the Rooftop Resources Project is to demonstrate how cities can become more sustainable and less dependent on faraway power plants or industrial farms by using our urban rooftops to work for us producing fresh vegetables, catching rainwater, and reaping clean energy. Whereas most rooftops are unused space, we see incredible opportunity for these spaces to hold hydroponic gardens, plant communities, solar panels, and rainwater catchment systems. Such systems are popular solutions around the world — yet their viability is relatively unknown here in the US. We have been working with urban planners, structural engineers, and community groups to explore their many benefits and assess barriers to their development.

In a study we recently released called “Tapping the Potential of Urban Rooftops,” we found that hydroponic and intensive gardens planted on suitable buildings within the Eastlake neighborhood of Oakland could produce 124 metric tons of vegetables per year. This would meet the USDA’s annual recommended produce needs of 8,500 residents! Rooftop gardens also help meet environmental objectives like greater energy efficiency, cleaner air, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as well as yield social benefits like stronger community bonds and green-collar jobs.

For those exploring their own rooftop systems, Bay Localize just released the Use Your Roof Guidebook: Resources and Considerations for Rainwater Catchment, Living Roofs and Solar Power. The booklet draws from the groundbreaking research of Tapping the Potential of Urban Rooftops, as well as other research findings from the field, and offers guidelines for selecting an appropriate rooftop system and embarking on the design and implementation process.

Among our key partners, Bay Localize worked closely with Oakland Food Connection to develop a vegetable garden program at the EC Reems Academy of Technology and Art in east Oakland. The EC Reems principal and faculty wanted this kind of program for their school, but lacked the ground capacity for a garden.The kids helped to build out the garden and have learned powerful lessons about healthy, fresh food. Oakland Food Connection has taken the lead in documenting the project so that other schools can adapt the model to their own needs.

More recently, Bay Localize has partnered with Glide Memorial Church in San Fransisco on a project called Graze the Roof! Spearheaded by our former intern Maya Donelson, the program engages inner city youth and adults in sustainable, low cost rooftop food production from seed through harvest and works to eliminate inequalities and greenhouse gas emissions in our food system by encouraging people to become more self-sufficient and make healthier food choices for themselves and for the planet.

9. Are the oil companies helping your cause?

For some reason, they haven’t been the most enthusiastic supporters of our efforts. 🙂 One of our Steering Committee members, Nile Malloy, works for Communities for a Better Environment, which has been fighting Chevron over its plans to expand a major oil refinery in the City of Richmond. Such an expansion would place a greater environmental burden on a community that has fought hard for years to reduce pollution-related health risks, consumption of fossil fuels, and the effects of climate change.

Chevron’s Richmond refinery is the largest in Northern California and provides about 25 percent of all the region’s gasoline. The new equipment will allow it to process heavier crude and about 1,000 more barrels of gasoline a day. A 2007 report issued by Contra Costa County Health Services shows that Richmond has significantly higher rates of cancer and asthma hospitalizations than any other city in the county due to many polluting facilities in the region, including Chevron. Needless to say, we’d like to see our economy eliminate the “need” for such sacrifice zones by curtailing our need for fossil fuels in the first place — something that the oil industry is fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent.

10. Tell us about the Community Resilience Toolkit pilot?

As part of our Bay Area 2020 program, our Community Resilience Toolkit is designed to help communities assess their vulnerability to energy shocks, the climate crisis, and other emergencies, while setting goals to make their communities more stable and resilient and organizing community members around specific objectives. So far, we’ve piloted the Toolkit with the Social Equity Caucus and are in discussions about piloting it in partnership with Movement Generation. We plan to expand these activities in 2009-2010 with Toolkit trainings and other workshops for localization activists. Our Toolkit is set for re-release this summer, and will contain a set of modular resources for those interested in focusing on food, water, energy, transportation, or local economic development.

Bay Localize


Aaron co-founded Bay Localize and now develops its Local Resilience Network, publishes Bay Localize News, and helps coordinate its outreach, communications, and fundraising efforts. He also serves on the Steering Committee. Aaron holds an M.A. in Globalization and the Environment from Humboldt State University and a triple B.A. in Anthropology, Philosophy, and Environmental Studies from Iowa State University. He also worked for the Ella Baker Center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, Circle of Life, Earth Island Institute, Grassroots Globalization Network, ReThink Paper, and with the Student Environmental Action Coalition. His commentaries have been featured on AlterNet and NPR, in the Earth Island Journal, Sacramento News & Review, and the S.F. Bay Guardian. Aaron lives in Berkeley and is an avid gardener, hiker, and amateur astronomer.

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