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Up on the Rooftop, Ideas Pause

Posted Dec 06 2009 3:36am

So I was standing there on the grass which I never really finished push-reel-mowing back in October (and, by the way, I'm now thinking of not giving up on that). I looked up at the men on my roof ripping asphalt shingles and tossing them onto blue tarps that are over my garden, which now surrounds three sides of my house. I decided it would be best to hunker down in my office and work on writing assignments so that I wouldn't see what was going on, but, curiosity getting the better of me, I slipped out when the crew broke for lunch and snapped this photo of the main part of my vegetable garden

It had taken me about two months to get to this point. It started with knowledge that a hale storm had damaged many roofs in my neighborhood. I remembered, vaguely, my younger daughter turning some shingles she "found" into an art project. I should have questioned things then, but chose denial (which, by the way, is not always a bad strategy--my assessment of denial is that it does make about 60 percent of things go away. The other 40%, however, do get worse, unfortunately. So the to-do list is shorter, but more extreme. You decide.)

Then, my neighbor wanted a "cool roof" (which is a roof light in color intended to reflect more heat and thereby be more energy-efficient), which caused a whole brouhaha in the 'hood because I am one of the 60 million people in the United States who live in a neighborhood with a long list of covenants. Anyway, at least we did the research and it turns out that light roofs on our type of houses in our climate would streak and become unsightly with algae within two years, so the neighborhood board rejected it.

The materials are just not there yet in performance capability, and frankly, that is a real problem ( or, shall we say, opportunity for innovative businesses to address--Ray Anderson could do it--yes, I finished his excellent new book and marked up almost every page--Ray says, about the eco-turnaround of Interface--"If we can do it, anybody can. And if anybody can, everybody can.").

I am not an advocate of blindly recommending eco-options with no concern to aesthetics, cost, performance, or other qualities that are part of a thorough decision-making process. I vote with my dollar for things that work, and I challenge Big or Small Business to create them. (Here is a brand new article by Jared Diamond about how Big Business can save the earth.)

However, this opened the door to question all our non-environmentally-friendly restrictions--from solar just on the back side of the house to not allowing porous pavement in the driveway to no clothelines to that $2000 we spend every year to plant chemical-laden annuals at the front entrance, and more. The neighborhood association board prepared and sent out a survey, and almost half the neighbors responded (a shockingly high response, if you ask me, especially considering that this was over the long Thanksgiving holiday).

Anyway, so it turns out, no surprise, that the majority of my neighbors want to keep the restrictions we have. I had suggested at least researching these issues, but when my attempts to start a Sustainability Advisory Group in my neighborhood did not result in a groundswell of support, I stepped away since I am not a believer of "planting tomatoes in April" but rather in May, when the ground is ready for them, and so it is with groups going green. The time must be ripe, or else it's all uphill, filled with acrimonious for-and-against arguments often based on emotion and preconceptions rather than research and reason. I believe this eco-stuff is the fun stuff, not the stuff to be fighting over. At least that's the kind of environment in which I'm choosing to participate.

What was a surprise, however, was that a full 35% of my neighbors did support change. This is about 34% more than I would have predicted! Also, 60% want the neighborhood board to take an active role in encouraging more recycling efforts (about 32% of my neighbors participate in the curbside recycling program currently, and my Sustainability Commission efforts in 2010 will involve setting up electronics and other additional recycling events and systems).

So, back to the roof. I tried to get the asphalt shingles recycled. I thought that, at least, would be good. Some ungodly number of tons of shingles are torn off and sent to landfills every year. The ones that are recycled are turned into numerous materials, including an aggregate that can be used to fill potholes. I pitched my city on the idea of using the aggregate made from the very roofs of our citizens to fill the potholes around town. A nice closed loop sustainability story. My sustainability liaison at City Hall loved it, even suggesting the City encourage recycling the shingles when issuing roof replacement permits, and we also agreed it might qualify for innovation points on the Atlanta Regional Commission Green Community Certification checklist (we are ending the year with over 100 points towards the 175 points needed for the bronze level, by the way, and I anticipate us achieving that by mid-2010).

But then I went crazy finding a recycler. After much research that involved the top eco-people in the state, here was the clincher email
Unfortunately, there are currently no takers for old shingles because there's a glut due to hail storms. Both the C.W. Matthews Co. and Dykes Construction & Paving have used shingles in their asphalt in the past. They're now over-supplied and road paving is down due to the economy. The State Dept. of Transportation mandates that only 100 lbs of shingles may be used in 2,000 lbs of asphalt. To the best of my knowledge there are no commercial boilers in GA permitted to combust old shingles. Regrettably the only option is a landfill.

So, off to the landfill it all went.

I felt sick about this, really sick. I reached out to my friend, Judy, who works at arguably one of the most sustainable places in the United States , if not the world, and she told me that sometimes no matter how hard we try, it just doesn't work out and all we can do is our best for today.

And so, as I stood there watching the crew teeter on the top of my roof and I thought about how risky that was, I realized how risky it was, as well, to ask questions. To involve neighbors when it would be easier and far more private to just abide by the status quo. And to commit to a joy-based journey, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound when the pursuit involves a path of change.

Then, just a couple nights ago, I brought my kids to City Hall to see a presentation by students from the Georgia Tech School of Architecture about their vision for redevelopment of our city center. I wanted my children to see that school projects could have real-world implications. Most of our city leaders were at the meeting, listening intently. Here is the presentation . If you haven't seen the United States obesity data as it has changed over the last twenty years, that alone is worth a look.

My daughters both sat in the front row, even though I was eight rows back, and they took copious notes that we discussed at dinner afterwards. When we realized that parts of our city could very well be completely different in 20 years, and how my kids will be able to show their children the changes in which they were personally involved, my older daughter said, "Mom, we have to take lots of pictures so they can see what it was like."

The reality of impending change had truly hit her. The likelihood that future generations would be affected by our actions today seemed suddenly tangible. For me, visions of roads that connected and a vibrant local business scene (where now there are mostly vacant storefronts) and extensive urban agriculture danced in my head like sugarplums all night.

As we were driving down the main road that leads to my neighborhood (with all its new dark roofs), we passed
* Solar-powered speed signs now on the side of the road
* Crosswalk signs where there weren't ones before

* LED lights in more than half the traffic lights

* FlexFuel police cars

* A new (albeit, short) bike lane

* And an abundant school garden (which was started in mid-September) where children just harvested and made a delicious kale salad when most of them had never even tasted kale before.

My older daughter was watching the data displayed in my Prius. (And, by the way, complete strangers come up to me and say things like, "How do you like that car?" When I say I do, they reply, "You know it takes more energy to make that car than it does to make a Hummer?" and then they walk away. Listen, I know it's not perfect, but I love the feedback data that helps me teach my kids. I love that I am growing a garden in a box in the hatchback. I love that it doesn't idle. I love that I get 50 gallons to the mile, and it costs me $40 a month in gas. I love that it's bright red, not some bland maroon like that horrid minivan I used to drive.)

She said, "How does the battery in this car recharge?"

I answered, "It regenerates when you break."


And then I added, "Sort of like people."

And that got me thinking. It's time to break. To regenerate. It's time to read and ride my bike and bake cookies and internalize everything that has happened this year, here on our FoodShed Planet. It's time to prepare for the risks I know I need to take in 2010 in order to stand on the metaphorical roof and shout out with joy about the boundless potential and power of the creative spirit to change the world, even just a little bit.

I'm not sure if, up on the rooftop, reindeers paws really alight, but I like to believe they do. I do know, for sure, that up on my rooftop, ideas paused and caused me to stop and think and consider my actions. And now I need to assess the coming risks of a brand new year, and see how I can best step firmly forward.

And so I offer my wish to you: May your harvests of happiness, peace and progress toward a more sustainable future, close to home and around the world, be abundant this holiday season. And may you find sure footing on your own rooftop of possibility.

See you on January 3.
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