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Sustainable Missoula: Inspiring people and efforts that can scale

Climate Smart staff meeting in Missoula.

These are topsy turvy times for climate solvers, with exciting things happening now and on the horizon, and also so much not happening at the scale and pace it needs to. Climate action is one of the highest priorities for the Biden-Harris administration, as they make up for lost and wasted time, addressing the climate crisis with a systems-wide approach and via every federal department.

Yet here in Montana, the first half of the legislative session saw a mind-numbing onslaught of bills trying to move us backward, ignoring the realities of carbon pollution and the costs of inaction, blind and deaf to the opportunities a clean energy and regenerative economy will bring.

Amidst this dizzying current reality, we are searching for signals amidst the noise, and finding joy in the work of everyday people working hard to build a better planet. In this week’s column, we bring you a series of short features on multi-solvers who are taking an idea and working to scale it up.

From the Atlantic coast to the Montana forest, there’s something here for everyone, and we hope you’ll be inspired by the ways they’ve used their unique skill sets to connect local issues to broader systems change. Climate change is too often a narrative of insurmountable odds that no one person alone can overcome. While we certainly need structural change, often that change can be sparked by an individual’s idea or commitment to make a difference.

The projects below started at the local level but their impacts extend far beyond where they originated. Sometimes taking a step back and looking around us for hope and inspiration can reenergize us for the work ahead and remind us that we’re all in this together.

GreenWave

Bren Smith is a seaweed farmer in the Long Island Sound, along the coasts of Connecticut and New York. You read that correctly – he farms seaweed, also known as kelp. Kelp is a powerful climate solution, with the ability to restore ocean ecosystems, feed communities, sequester carbon, and replace fossil fuels in fertilizers and bioplastics.

After becoming discouraged with the unsustainability of cod farming and the vulnerability of oyster farming to hurricane storm surges, Bren started a new regenerative ocean farming venture aimed at growing and harvesting kelp – but he didn’t stop once his own farm was up and running. He took his individual experience and focused on creating systemic change, co-founding GreenWave, a nonprofit dedicated to training and supporting kelp farmers across the country and accelerating market demand for kelp products in our food, agricultural, and plastic industries.

To learn more about Bren and Greenwave’s work, as well as how kelp farming can be a climate, economic, and social justice solution, listen to How to Save a Planet’s two part feature on Bren and kelp farming. We highly recommend these two episodes and the podcast in general!

Sylvanaqua Farms

Chris and Annie Newman, the owners of Sylvanaqua Farms outside Washington DC, have a grand vision. Not only do they use climate-resilient and carbon-sequestering practices on their farm, but they are building a cooperative economic model aimed at genuine transformation of the food system: making small farms truly competitive, while addressing systemic racism, land access for new farmers, regional ecosystem health, and equitable access to healthy food, all at the same time.

Sylvanaqua Farms uses permaculture and other regenerative agricultural practices that are increasingly recognized as a way to reduce emissions from the food system – something scientists agree will be essential if we are to meet global greenhouse gas emissions targets. But for Chris and Annie, using these practices on their own land is not enough. They believe that by rethinking not just agricultural practices but economic ones too, this kind of climate-friendly agriculture can be viable anywhere – and can help revitalize communities, provide truly sustainable livelihoods, protect vital ecosystems, and address social inequities.

And right here in Western Montana, we’ve already got the building blocks for such a regional-scale, climate-resilient food system as well, with the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative and many other producers and advocates who are working to strengthen local agriculture.

Cement

Closer to home, a group of researchers at Montana State University are worried about a material that’s all around us: concrete. Concrete production makes up 8% of global carbon emissions, and it is resource intensive to make and requires copious amounts of water and sand.

Motivated to creatively address the problem, scientists at MSU are experimenting with fungi and bacteria to produce a concrete alternative. Not only would a fungi or bacteria based building material be less carbon intensive, but it could also be reusable and recyclable. When a concrete building is deconstructed, there’s little to no use for the concrete and so it goes into the landfill. The MSU lab could change all of that, and they’ve already successfully collaborated with industry partners to create a bacteria-based material to seal fractures in oil and gas wells, preventing the escape of methane into the atmosphere.

While many of us might not think about concrete everyday, there are a lot of brilliant, dedicated scientists committed to tackling the issue, and there is a massive potential to scale these creative solutions across the globe.

Biochar

Dave Atkins, a local retired forester and climate solutions advocate, is an evangelist for using wood to sequester carbon, and build structures and community. He’s a longtime proponent of how we in western Montana can accelerate low-carbon, green building, using cross-laminated timber and other products that can be harvested carefully and sustainably.

Even more exciting is Dave’s latest efforts to collaborate with others to develop locally produced biochar. Biochar is basically a charcoal product created by taking tree branches, forest slash, small trees from fire mitigation projects and other non-salable wood (think diseased, gnarled, ugly or leftover!) and combusting it in a low oxygen kiln. The product that remains holds carbon for centuries and because it holds moisture and nutrients, provides incredible benefits to soils. Biochar applied to agriculture lands or backyard gardens can significantly reduce the need for irrigation, critically important as our summers become increasingly hot and dry.

Locally producing and selling biochar can no doubt scale – and we’re looking forward to Dave and his colleagues leading the way. Want to be inspired about biochar and wood products? Check out this example from Colorado (where the biochar has an abundant market in helping to sustainably grow, you guessed it, weed). And of course biochar efforts complement the good work of beavers, whose dams hold water back so we’ve some in our streams late summer. And not all our yard and wood waste need go to biochar – we love how compost is now a thing, made possible by the fine and innovative folk at Soil Cycle and Missoula Compost Collection.

The vignettes above may seem like unrelated strands, but they all help to form the same piece of rope. At Climate Smart, we’ve embraced advice from our friend Dr. Rob Davies that all of us have a role in solving the climate crisis and need to be busy right now. The stories above are of people taking that to heart, making a difference in their own respective corners of the universe. And indeed, efforts that seek to innovate new technologies and practices, or drive down the costs of existing climate-tools, have a multiplier effect that extends far beyond the cities or country in which they were created.

Another way of thinking about it, also inspired by Rob Davies, is that we’re climbing a mountain. We may not be able to see the top, but we can see the next step. Even when it is daunting and challenging, we must grab all the resolve we can muster and take the next step. And the next and the next. As we climb, we are beacons for others who are also on the mountain – helping to light the way for those behind us and showing those in front of us that they are not alone.

One of us was pondering this recently, out wandering the snowy hillsides at the break of dawn. A lovely morning where the crusty snow was so frozen we could easily run up the hill enjoying every step. Until we punched through. Until the going got hard. So we reset our expectations, decided to laugh and enjoy the challenge and run on. Soon enough tracks merged, and the going got easier because someone else had created a path up, in the same direction we were already headed.

Cheesy, yes, but we are all in this together. The work we do now builds on the work of the past, and it lays the groundwork for the future. Together we can forge a trail up the mountain.

Caroline Lauer, Abby Huseth, Amy Cilimburg, and Mason Dow comprise the staff of Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Lot’s of events and ideas to celebrate earth day, week and month – stay tuned!

Now through March 21. Apply for a garden plot from Garden City Harvest! Garden City Harvest is taking new gardener applications! Each of the community gardens provides participants with a garden plot, tools, water, straw, compost, and educational resources to help them grow their own food. Apply by March 21 for the best chance of receiving a plot this spring! More info HERE or call 406-523-3663.

April 6. The First Step to Fixing Climate Change with scientist and climate communicator extraordinaire Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. Families for a Livable Climate virtual event. Noon – 1:00 PM.

Now through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule HERE. 2020 recordings are available HERE.

Through June 19 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.