by Brooke Huffman
Larry Geri isn’t your stereotypical, fatalistic, the-world-is-going-to-end environmentalist. In fact, most environmentalists aren’t. Even in the face of big challenges, he remains optimistic.
Geri is a faculty member in Evergreen’s Master of Public Administration program. Along with former visiting faculty member David McNabb, he’s also the co-author of the book Energy Policy in the U.S.: Politics, Challenges, and Prospects for Change (Public Administration and Public Policy).
Geri said the book’s main idea is that “civilization would not be possible without the use of vast quantities of energy. So as we have become better capable of harnessing a variety of energy sources we have been able to sustain our increasingly complicated civilization.” This high-energy lifestyle runs on fossil fuels, “so we are trying to figure out how to maintain our civilization while transitioning to new energy sources, and that is a long and difficult process.”
This process does not simply mean using less energy. Geri said the key to sustaining this civilization begins with policy change and transitioning to clean forms of energy. “We basically need to prioritize—not necessarily using less—but making choices that move the system in a different direction…to find energy sources that are simply less polluting—with photovoltaic (PV) solar and wind becoming very viable alternatives as their costs drop rapidly.”
America and the world in general “have been making amazing strides in terms of our transition to less carbon-intensive electrical energy systems,” said Geri. “Solar panels, solar production of electricity, and wind production of electricity are just surging. But transport has made much slower progress. And that’s an issue because in this state nearly half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transport.”
According to Geri, this transition is an improvement, but it is not enough. The real impact can only be seen once “we have either state-by-state, or preferably nationwide, policies like a carbon tax or cap and trade.” He said that by putting a price on carbon, companies will have “an incentive to think about carbon automatically when they are deciding what to build, where to build, and what energy sources to use.”
Larry Geri the More Observations from the Full Interview
- Why Evergreen?
It was a good fit between what I could bring, what the students needed and what the institution needed. I had a lot of experience as a public administrator and policy analyst and knew a lot about the federal government and a little bit about state government. Here, I could really focus on becoming a better teacher and in the process, figure out how to become a better researcher, which I was able to do.
- Is Evergreen doing anything to encourage sustainability and combat energy issues?
Oh, absolutely! Scott Morgan, our sustainability coordinator, is working really hard to keep the campus on track to meet its sustainability objectives. This is difficult to do. Once you get the low-hanging fruit then you have to acknowledge the fact that any campus, any institution has to answer some fundamental questions about where they are located and how they are constructed. Dealing with those makes it tough to make progress and we’re sort of struggling with that. People have to drive to campus and that is a fundamental problem from the sustainability perspective. I know the vice presidents and our leadership team are very aware of issues around sustainability and are working to keep the campus moving forward
- What can Evergreen do better?
The single thing that we could probably do better is figuring out transportation by getting students, faculty and staff from where they live out to campus in a way that is more sustainable. The bus system is helpful, but we just cannot do enough of it. Somehow we need to figure out how to do that better. It might cost us a little, but we are going to have to get creative to figure it out so people can take more collective forms of transportation.
We have this amazing location that is in the middle of the forest and we need to figure out how to get people out here and back to where they come from without burning so much fuel.
- What can be done on an individual level?
That’s the fundamental question. Individual-level efforts are important but they are not nearly enough—people can drive less, they can travel less, but the problem with that is that less is a very bad frame in the American culture. We’ve got to figure out how to collectively change policies and change underlying paradigms so we can have an effective American civilization, without using so much of the fossil fuel energy that is completely damaging the biosphere. This is a long-term process. We have to get the whole political system on board and that is taking longer than it should.
- What are the biggest barriers to progress toward cleaner air, combating climate change, or other energy issues?
The political impasse we have in the U.S. and the very high level of antagonism we have between the two political parties is making it really hard to get the kind of fundamental policy changes we need. We have one major political party that is frankly beholden to the fossil-fuel sources, between coal and oil. They are going to put up a big fight when it comes to transitioning away from our reliance on those two fuels.
The other piece is that people in the U.S. have become accustomed to a very high-energy lifestyle and that is going to be very hard to sustain. When we think about the notion of a carbon budget and you see that Europeans basically emit half as much as we do on a yearly basis and China—which is a big chunk of the world— emits about a quarter as much as we do. Somehow we have to figure out how to get the results we want, the energy services we want from a much lower carbon budget and that is going to take public investment and hard choices and we haven’t really shown that we are willing to do those things yet.
- How can we make the transition?
The system is set up so that forces of conservatism (meaning the fossil fuel industries) may have enormous clout on both sides of the political aisle. So those groups are really critical for arguing the case for making a transition, and in particular that the transition is not in fact going to wreck the economy. The argument that gets a lot of traction with the American people is that this is going to be very costly; it is going to wreck our economy and we already had this big recession that we recovered from and now we are going to wreck it again. The data suggest that is hardly true…as we have been using less carbon-based fuels and it hasn’t affected the economy in the least. Those organizations need to continue to make that argument in a strong way and keep up the fight so we can make that transition and that in fact, the economy and society as a whole will be better off, not worse off.
- What has contributed to the energy consumption in the United States?
We were very fortunate in one sense, in that we had vast natural resources, we had huge oil deposits, we had vast coal deposits, we had a lot of natural gas and we had an economy that was set up to enable the easy exploitation of those, which was aided by public policy. We made plenty of decisions that made it, at each step, pretty easy for us to consume more rather than less. Once you get in that habit, it becomes a little harder to change that. Those vast quantities of resources we have are both a blessing and a curse when you think about trying to change the system.
- Are you currently doing any research?
Last summer I worked with a local group that did a survey in Thurston County of what people thought about climate issues and that was quite fascinating. The goal was to figure out what kinds of policies, locally, people would support that would enable the county to lessen its carbon footprint. That is very challenging at the local level, but we have got some useful data that local people, local advocates, are using to try to work with county government and city governments to move their choices.
The other thing I am working on has to do with the choices people make around travelling. I have been fascinated with the travel industry and the notion that the biggest single industry globally has to do with travel and international flights in particular and are driving something like one percent of all global emissions. And [the industry] is set to continue growing quite substantially over the next several decades. It’s a fundamental question about whether we can view that trend and also make progress on climate change. I am very curious about what that means. Either we have got to figure out how to travel and emit fewer emissions, or we are going to have to travel less.
But, personally, it would be a tremendous problem for me, and for many of my friends that travel internationally now, as a matter of course. And so, if you say to people, “Oh you can’t travel anymore,” how would they react? I think it would have lots of negative impacts. So I am quite curious as to what it would mean if people started making the choices to travel less. And would they even be able to do it? I think it puts people in a very interesting dilemma: you decide to do less of something and how do you react to that? What’s the feeling of loss that you get when you make that choice? I am going to explore that and do a couple of experiments to see what people tell me about how they feel about it.
- During your TEDx talk from 2014 titled, “Reframing your energy life,” you said, “We need to reconnect with each other and the natural world.” Why do you think reconnection is important and how does the lack of connection influence climate change or other energy issues?
Part of the issue has to do with our unthinking set of choices often around energy. People are getting better at this but I think they really need to be aware that their choices have an impact on very sensitive environmental systems. People make choices on where to live, where to vacation, where to go to school, and each of those basically has an impact on what their carbon footprint is. I think that once people start to think about how they relate to the natural world in a more fundamental way, it can permeate their way of thinking about who they are. It can change their choices like: what car to drive, where to live and what kind of job to have.
I think that people have to wrestle with the implications of this. If you can really open yourself to see what is happening to the planet, it can have an impact on the kinds of choices that you make and the kinds of political action that you get involved with, because it is going to take continued, concerted political action to change the way that our political system at all different levels approaches this issue—and it is going to take pressure to move the policy in the kind of direction we need to have it going.
- Overall, how should this issue be approached?
I think that the critical thing is not to approach it with a sense of fatalism. The last time I taught a program around climate change and energy, I was quite disturbed that as we had students read about this, many of them started to feel quite fatalistic and negative about the magnitude of the challenge and whether or not the choices they made could make a difference. It forced me to rethink how to teach this and how to approach it.
Despite the negative trends, I am a relative optimist and I think that we are going to be able to figure this out and move the system in the kind of direction we need to. I hope that people approach this not from a negative perspective, but a more positive one. Yes, the trends don’t look good, but I think we can figure this out and we shouldn’t be paralyzed by the fear of the scale of challenges.
Alumnus Represents Olympia at Worldwide Climate Summit
Stephen Buxbaum, an Evergreen graduate twice over (’79, MPA ’88), is now a faculty member with expertise in political economy, community development, and planning. He is also the former mayor of Olympia who—like 477 mayors representing more than 400 million people worldwide—signed the Compact of Mayors during his tenure: an agreement to make very specific, concrete commitments about reducing greenhouse gas production in the home municipalities of each signer.
In the wake of the Paris bombings, the mayor of Paris personally invited Buxbaum to join other Compact members in participating in the December 2015 Paris Climate Summit for Local Leaders. Buxbaum immediately agreed.
“Cities are the political unit that directly manages the infrastructure that’s needed in order to sustain our big population centers: water systems, sewer systems, and industrial infrastructure. It’s that infrastructure that needs to be redesigned and reoriented to meet the demands of our population centers that [are currently dependent upon] fossil fuel. So, it is cities that are really going to have to figure this out.”
During the Summit, Buxbaum spoke with Marie Pascale, a mayor from a delta region in Cameroon. They discussed the risks her small village faces in the wake of climate change, including the possibility that her home region could be displaced by rising sea levels.
“I don’t think that people in this country really understand or have a good sense of what other countries are facing, what the majority of people on the planet are facing,” said Buxbaum.
Despite the challenges, Buxbaum sees hope, starting with personal choices. “What we eat, where we source our food, how we move around; all of these things are under our individual control,” he said.
“We also have to start more aggressively moving towards alternative energy systems with the understanding that it’s not just going to be like flipping a switch, it’s something that has to take place over time.”
Stephen Buxbaum Text of Full Interview
- What were your insights from the Climate Summit and your time in Paris?
What was amazing to me is how big a deal climate change is for the rest of the world. It’s my belief that the United States is significantly insulated from the urgency that is both being felt and experienced by the majority of the planet over this issue. Nation-states in particular are poorly suited to come to terms with the challenges that we are going to be facing over the next couple hundred years. If I had to have one single insight it’s how huge of an issue and how important climate change is for most of the countries on the planet.
To elaborate on that a little bit, I think the issue is poorly framed. We keep using this warm and fuzzy term “climate change” for something that is probably more appropriately framed and characterized as the “the lethal overheating of planet earth.” If we were to frame this issue in a way that was more commensurate with the consequences that humans are likely to face, I think people in this country might catch on a little bit more directly about why this is such an important issue.
- Do you think there is a way to shift the idea of climate change?
I don’t know that we can say that it’s a conscious effort on anyone’s part. There are huge consequences from something that most scientists have determined to be definitely happening with a clear accounting of consequences based on data. Some of those consequences have to do with the impacts of sea-level rise. Some have to do with the change in weather patterns. And some have to do with the availability of potable drinking water for very large population centers in India and other parts of the world, changes in how food production will meet or not meet the needs of populations around the globe. All of these things add up to global insecurity and it’s a big deal. So, why aren’t we talking about it much more?
- What role do cities play in climate change?
I have started coming to the opinion that nation-states come and go, but cities as political entities will endure. Cities are the political unit that directly manages the infrastructure that’s needed in order to sustain our big population centers—water systems, sewer systems, industrial infrastructure—all that is directly maintained by city governments. Since cities bear the most direct consequences of displacement and destabilization, it’s also in the best interest of cities to mobilize and figure out solutions.
- How did you decide to go to the Summit?
The thing that attracted me going to the Summit last December was a project I had started being involved in, in 2014. It was called the Compact of Mayors, and it was a collection of mayors from around the planet who had agreed to make very specific, concrete commitments about reducing greenhouse gas production in their municipalities. The point of doing this was so that cities around the planet could deliver to the Paris Climate Summit a significant commitment for greenhouse gas reduction, in a way that nation-states have failed to do in the last 21 council parties. That was a big deal. Although, back in 2014 when I was first engaged in this, my primary motive was to work with staff and come up with strategies within the city of Olympia for meaningful changes in how we manage our infrastructure and also invest in infrastructure in ways that will reduce greenhouse gas production. We had been doing really meaningful things for a while and this was a matter of just chronicling those things. So, I was primarily interested in that.
I was able to make a commitment; actually it was completed on November 4, 2015, when we formally joined the Compact of Mayors, and that was a big deal. We were able to certify our commitment to the White House and meet President Obama’s request to have at least 100 cities in this country sign onto the Compact of Mayors. I think we were number 60 or something at that point. Then on November 13, the terrorist attacks happened…and the Mayor of Paris reached out to every mayor that had been active in the Compact of Mayors and expressed her concern that people were not going to come to Paris; that the summit was in jeopardy. And, she made a direct invitation and a compelling case to me to consider going.
Later, the same day that I got the invitation from the Mayor of Paris, I got word from the U.S. State Department that they would fully credential my trip if I was willing to go. This would give me full access to all parts of the summit, including the blue zone where the negotiations were happening. I decided that this was a worthwhile statement for the city of Olympia to make. Even though we were going to be probably one of the smallest cities participating in what was called the Local Leaders Summit, which was just, in some ways, sort of a sideshow to the summit itself, which was of course all about negotiations between nation-states. However, the Leadership Summit was nonetheless something that was attractive and meaningful for me because it was mayors from all around the planet who were getting together and not only working on clarifying and sharpening our commitments from a city level, but also as an opportunity to hear from each other and directly relate to each other in terms of what challenges and opportunities we are facing.
- What efforts can be made at an individual level?
Well, everyone needs to get engaged with this issue, and at an individual level is extremely meaningful. One of the biggest changes that needs to be made is a change in behavior. I think we oftentimes frame these issues as something that we need to just focus on the really big, bad guys like coal. We do need to focus on those things, but hopefully in some way that doesn’t fully demonize but speaks to the need of leaving coal and other fossil fuels in the ground. That is one of the things we have to do as a planet in order to address climate change.
In addition to those issues though, how we live is a big part of the problem. Simple things like considering how we are heating our houses, which is probably one of the easiest, most accessible means of reducing greenhouse gas production—just by getting people to be more efficient in how they heat their houses. Things like weatherizing your house or thinking about what their fuel source is or where the energy is coming from that they are using to heat a house. That is a big deal. What we eat, where we source our food, how we move around; all of these things are under our individual control. And we are not going to be successful in addressing climate change unless we start changing our behavior. That is in part what we can do at a local level, and at an individual level.
- What efforts can be made at a municipal and county level?
Thinking about how we invest in infrastructure is critical. One of the things I am proud of the City of Olympia doing while I was in office was replacing every single city light with an LED fixture, that made a difference, and will continue to make a difference in energy savings. Another thing we did while I was Mayor of Olympia is change out all of our water meters into automatic meters so that we could better control and track how water was used, and prevent leakages and breaks, but also increase efficiency and how our water system operates.
Although people don’t think about this very often, every time we turn on a water faucet in our house we are also turning on an electric meter. That water has to be pumped from somewhere. Making connections for people about how water is used, how energy is used, and educating people are important for cities and counties to do and it is also important for us to think about efficiencies in infrastructure.
Those are two examples, the other thing I think is extremely important is making sure we don’t continue to subsidize and support fossil-fuel industries. We should resist investing in any infrastructure that promotes the transport or use of fossil fuels. That means coal trains and oil trains. [Cities and counties in this state should] resist any investment for continued use of our transportation systems for moving around oil and coal.
In my own background, I am proud to be one of the founding members of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance that opposed coal and oil trains in this state. What we absolutely must make sure we do is keep coal in the ground, even if we are reducing how much we are burning in this country, shipping it overseas to China is a double hit on this country. Not only does it mean we are going to release more carbon in the atmosphere, but we are also going to have the acid component of it rain down on the Puget Sound and destroy our fisheries industries. It doesn’t make sense for us to support the transport of fossil fuel.
- How can we introduce new energy systems?
It is going to take time for us to bring new energy systems online in a way that they are going to help us fight climate change. Right now we have several methods for producing energy more or less layered on top of each other. In some ways we still use wood for heating, and then there are petroleum products, and then there are the alternative energy sources. These different technologies are all being used at the same time. We have to start more aggressively moving towards alternative energy systems with the understanding that it’s not just going to be like flipping a switch, it’s something that has to take place over time. For alternative energy systems I wish people would really approach this issue in a pragmatic and practical way and ask, “What can I most effectively do to reduce the impacts of fossil fuel use?” I’m more interested in consciousness-raising than promoting any one single alternative energy system.
- What do you see as the biggest barriers?
Behavior, understanding and awareness. If we continue to just live in denial and think that somehow the coercive forces of the supposed market system are going to save us from this challenge, we are headed for disaster. We need…new ways of doing things, and we need new social systems. The blind pursuit of profits at a corporate level is a failed way of meeting the distributive needs of our planet and we need to redirect our energy in terms of social systems towards inventing ways of distributing the world’s wealth for the common good instead of for the profit of just a few. This is, in many ways, [as much] an issue of equity as it is an issue of survival related to climate.
- What are the biggest opportunities?
We have a great opportunity of fostering a healthy sustainable economy where we do have a more equitable means of distributing wealth. If we can consciously meet the challenges of climate change, we are going to be better off. In order to successfully and consciously approach the issue of climate change, we are going to have to work together in a highly collaborative, supportive way that doesn’t focus on the needs of a few, but focuses more deliberately on the needs of whole communities.
- Is there anything from your time as an Evergreen undergrad or a faculty member that informed your insights from Paris?
Evergreen has had tremendous influence on everything I have been and am doing. From my early, formative experiences, participating in Introduction to Political Economy in the late 1970s to having the privilege of teaching in the Master of Public Administration program where I get to continue to be a part of Evergreen’s learning community. Those things have been extremely meaningful for me.
- Other than the Intro to Political Economy, are there any other classes programs that particularly stand out?
All of the time I spent as an undergraduate was helpful for me. I highly value my liberal arts experience at the college. It was just as important for me to learn about the transcendentalist period in this country, working with David Marr and Rudy Martin, as it was to learn about Political Economy. I constantly am drawing from those learning experiences through what I do today. Certainly my work in American studies informed and helped me consciously engage politically in my own community.
- Do you think that Evergreen is currently doing anything to encourage sustainability and combat energy issues?
Well, our students are amazing. I think we continue to attract some of the brightest and most creative people from not only Washington State, but elsewhere. That gives me hope in terms of having a center for creative energy around these issues. If you look at the kinds of organizations that have sprung from the Evergreen experience, including Climate Solutions, which is a small organization founded in downtown Olympia 17 years ago. That is a great example of an organization that in part, happened because Evergreen was here. But there are certainly many other examples.
- What do you want people to take away from this magazine?
You can individually make a difference. I think what I would add to that is, if you care about your children and your grandchildren, you will get engaged about climate change. Our grandchildren really will be bearing the full burden of what we are doing to our planet today.
- What is the first step on an individual level?
Get educated, be conscious of the problem, and become aware of how we are living. If we each individually start paying attention to what we are doing and how we live, we will gain insight into what we actually believe, because what is happening now is a contradiction. We constantly hear people say one thing and act in a completely different way. Study what you do. That is the best way to gain insight into what you actually believe.
From the First Frame to the Last Words
The Emperor of Time, written and directed by Drew Christie ’07, made its world premiere in the Short Film Program at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. In addition to The Emperor of Time, Drew contributed animated sequences to the feature length documentary NUTS!, which also premiered at Sundance 2016. The festival, held January 21–31 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Sundance, Utah is one of the world’s premiere places to debut new independent films.
The Emperor of Time tells the story of eccentric photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the man who settled a bet and in doing so, accidentally invented motion pictures. Richard Evans (Star Trek, Gunsmoke, Bonanza) stars as Muybridge. The film is narrated by Muybridge’s son, voiced by Hugh Ross (The Assassination of Jesse James).
Christie said, “We were so excited to bring The Emperor of Time to Sundance. This is a very unique film, one that I have been thinking about for six years and working on for the past year. It’s the first live action film I’ve made in a very long time.”
One of the few people who had seen The Emperor of Time before its premiere is auteur filmmaker Guy Maddin. He called the film “a wondrously accomplished delight.”
Previous films by Christie include Song of the Spindle (Sundance 2012), Allergy to Originality (Sundance 2014), and many Op-Docs for The New York Times. Christie lives in Langley, Washington.
Just as The Evergreen Magazine went to press, the Spotify music streaming, podcast, and video service announced that Christie will direct and animate a new digital series for Spotify called Drawn & Recorded. The series will be narrated by Grammy and Oscar winner T Bone Burnett.
Poet wins prize
Tammy Robacker ’93, former Poet Laureate of Tacoma (2011–12), won the 2015 Keystone Chapbook Prize for her poetry manuscript, R.
The chapbook R is a body of work dedicated to the memory of Robacker’s father, who she lost to cancer in 2004. The poems address some of the difficulties of that experience and loss, and the bittersweet father-daughter relationship that existed between the two.
Robacker published her first collection of poetry, The Vicissitudes, in 2009 (Pearle Publications). Tammy’s poetry has appeared in Arsenic Lobster, Menacing Hedge, Chiron Review, VoiceCatcher, Duende, So to Speak, Crab Creek Review, WomenArts, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. Her second poetry book Villain Songs is forthcoming with ELJ Publications in Fall 2016.
Robacker resides in Oregon and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.