Prove your humanity

Pittsburgh is leading the way to a more sustainable future. That’s the argument Patricia DeMarco makes in her new book, Pathways to Our Sustainable Future: A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. DeMarco uses the city’s grassroots environmental successes and commitment to sustainable building and energy use to get at themes of transformation. This week, Kara Holsopple spoke with her about the book and why she chose Pittsburgh as the backdrop.                             

Kara Holsopple: Why use Pittsburgh as an example for a global perspective on sustainability.

Patty DeMarco: Pittsburgh is at the juncture of the transition from the fossil economy to the renewable and sustainable economy. We’re actually down in the trenches making it happen. And to look at a particular place, in a particular time, and actually talk in-depth about the conflicts, the areas of intersection, where new things are emerging….it’s a very exciting perspective.

Author Patricia DeMarco

KH: The book is in three sections, and the first is, “Connecting With the Living Earth.” So how do people get back in touch with nature and why did you start with that concept?

PD: I started with the concept of the Living Earth because that is our life support system. If we don’t have fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species on this planet of which we are one part, we do not have a living system. What we require for our daily existence is priceless. And so when you connect people with nature, you’re sending them back to their inherent self. People may remember going fishing with their grandpa or they may remember going for walks in the woods with their dad or mother. And when you can help people remember that the living Earth is really where we live, then it’s easier to say wouldn’t it be too sad if we lose this.

KH: It sounds a little bit like Rachel Carson to me. I know you’re a scholar of Rachel Carson, the biologist and author of Silent Spring,  and there are a lot of Carson quotes in the book. And I was left with the impression that in some ways you’re asking, ‘What would Rachel Carson do?’

PD: Well not quite that intuitively but really she was one of the first and most eloquent exponents of a biocentric ethic rather than a human centered ethic. The concept that every living thing has the right to exist was central to her work, and that has become a much more appreciated concept. There have been people from all over the world, especially the People’s Congress from Cochabomba in 2010 where the indigenous people came forward with the universal rights of Mother Earth which they brought to the Paris climate meetings in 2015.

LISTEN: “Author Uses Pittsburgh as Model for Sustainable Future”

KH: You write the facts and technology alone won’t get people to act on climate change, but that it will also take empathy. What do you mean by that?

PD: I don’t think we have a technology problem in facing either climate change or global pollution from man-made materials. We really are facing an ethical challenge. Our life support system is dependent on the living Earth being a functioning system.

If we follow a path which we know now is compromising that capability, and we also know that there are things we can do right now that will improve the situation, choosing not to is an ethical decision, not a technical decision. Those of us who are causing the problems the most are not experiencing the worst of it just yet. 

KH: When you talk about the transition from fossil fuels to renewables and the pollution, it makes a lot of people defensive — especially in this region because many people depend on those industries for their livelihoods. Where’s the empathy for them?

PD: There is a great deal of empathy for them. And one of the things that I’ve been most excited about is finding in this transition space that people can find a new way forward that takes account of reinvesting in communities that are not going to be pursuing the fossil fuel industry.

I’ll give you an example. The United Mine Workers demonstrated by the thousands with their sound truck, and their uniform shirts and signs. We had a couple of hundred environmental activists in counterpoint. And I stood on the corner and talked to the mine workers. What they were concerned about were very pragmatic practical things: If there are no people in the coal mining industry, who’s going to pay for my pension? Who’s going to pay for my benefits? What happens to the long, proud tradition of five generations of people? Is that just thrown away?

And in the Clean Power Plan, there were proposals for reinvesting in communities that were being disinvested by mining; there were programs for training in new skill development; there were programs for protecting pensions and benefits.

They never made it out of committee for debate. So it wasn’t that they weren’t contemplated, they were not acted upon.  There are more good paying jobs in the renewable energy industries right now than there are in all of fossil industries. That’s without promotion from the government. That’s happening because it makes sense.

“Progress happens in the cracks in the system that isn’t working, and people find innovative ways forward that work for them.”

KH: When you talk about Pittsburgh, I think people think about Pittsburgh the city — this sort of blue Democratic bubble. And then there are all these outlying communities, municipalities, small towns that are part of the Pittsburgh region but not necessarily part of this thinking or feel included in this.

PD: It’s spreading out though. I talk about the whole community supported agriculture process which connects many of those communities back into the city by bringing food back and forth. People are looking more and more at adapting these kinds of principles in outlying areas. And even since I finished writing this book, there’s been a lot of forward motion in that direction. One of the things that frustrates me is that a book is a little snapshot of a particular point of time, and everything keeps moving forward.

But, for example, there are communities within an hour’s drive of Pittsburgh that are re-imagining their future. My borough is putting up a net zero energy borough building and that would have never happened 10 years ago.

And because we’re in Pittsburgh, you can model what happens when you do decide you’re going to do a sustainable process. The Hill District was at one time a cultural arts center of the city and it was cut off by road expansion and expressways that made it easier for cars to get in and out of the city. And it is a traditionally black neighborhood, and it really had fallen into disinvestment and depopulation.

Out of that has come  an interest in people wanting to help each other and really pull together a community of caring. The Ujamaa Collective  — 17 women decided this isn’t good for us, we’re going to invest in our own community, and started their own micro investment circle. They have a whole enterprise that has blown out of that. And a 15 acre organic farm that feeds lots of people. This kind of thing happened out of sheer force of will and determination and harnessing the resources they could get and drawing people toward it.

None of these were centrally planned, top down. These are things that happen when you’re having a revolution. Progress happens in the cracks in the system that isn’t working, and people find innovative ways forward that work for them. And so that is gradually filtering out-and-out.


Patricia DeMarco is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University in Pittsburgh. She is also a former executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association and director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University. Photo (top): Jon Dawson