Right Here, Right Now: Sustainability from the Ground Floor

photos: USFS Region 5 CC and Pug50 CC (my mix)

Tackling the looming specter of unsustainable economics in an effective way is SIMPLE, if you got the gist of Professor Stephen Healy’s presentation ‘Building a Green Economy” in the Blue Lounge last Wednesday.

Healy’s was one of four ‘Teach-In’ lectures at Worcester State University’s 5th Annual Sustainability Fair, but his was definitely more than a lecture. There was a great turn-out, a lot of people and a lot of students taking notes for assignments. But that’s not all Healy had in mind.

Healy has a new book; Take Back the Economy, Any Time, Any Place coming out in 2013. Asa Needles, who introduced Dr. Healy said the book is about “rethinking what we mean by economics” and the ‘Teach-In’ turned into an exercise in point.

Before it was over the audience got a taste of the idea by becoming participants, ever so briefly, in how a working model of sustainable economics happens, as in: right here, right now.

In his introduction Healy talked about Worcester’s manufacturing history, of “de-industrialization and abandonment” and one result of that being 1,200 brownfield sites. These are old industrial sites that are no longer in use whose soil is likely somewhat contaminated.

Healy talked about the people of Worcester on the “economic margins” being excluded from the traditional processes of economic development, yet having these consequences which they are not responsible for to deal with, and he said that the prospect of sustainable development really only makes sense if they are involved at the core of the process.

As an example he showed “Eat Your Landscape”, a TED talks presentation by Pam Warhurst about a fantastic transformation in Todmorden England where the whole community became involved, growing food in every conceivable public place, commencing with the demise of decorative flower beds and being so thorough as to include artfully designed edible raised beds on town cemetery plots. There’s a lot more to it; how much further it goes is worth seeing.

In the video Warhust made one thing clear: “we’re not asking for anyone’s permission, we’re just doing it” . . . “we’re not doing it because we’re bored, we’re doing it because we want to start a revolution.” She also explained that using the “language of food” cuts across social barriers to “the sort of shifts in behavior we need to live within the resources we have” and “to stop us thinking like disempowered victims and . . . start taking responsibility for our own futures.” By “the power of small actions” she pointed out, “we’re starting to believe in ourselves.” So who can participate in this kind of economic development? Simply put, a la Warhurst: “If ya eat, you’re in.”

After the video Healy’s audience was asked to split into groups and discuss how what was in that video could be used or adapted to make a difference in Worcester and what concrete actions toward that end could be taken now. Then members of the audience raised questions and points from their discussions.

The issue of growing food in potentially contaminated soil was brought up, or “how do we transpose this idea to a post-industrial city like Worcester?” as Healy rephrased it. He deferred on that to his colleague from SAGE and Stone Soup, Asa Needles, who’s quite familiar with ‘Toxic Soil Busters’, the youth-run worker cooperative that does free lead testing in Worcester.

Needles detailed various means of dealing with contaminated soil and processes by which funding can be sought and acquired to remedy the soil situation in Worcester. It’s conceivable that some of these types of funding could create local employment, business and university research opportunities.

Needles mentioned the process by which plants can be used to filter toxins out of the soil and then disposed of as hazardous waste (phytoremediation) and how raised beds and below-ground barriers make growing food on questionable ground possible. If it works on penthouse rooftops in New York City, it will work in Worcester’s brownfield ground. If using phytoremediation means you can’t eat what you grow on brownfield sites in Worcester for a while, maybe you can use those crops for fuel. Michigan State University has been involved in research looking into whether phytoremediation can double as biofuel production.

As Healy presented it, Warhurst’s ‘language of food’ communicates a more democratically-driven and sustainable type of economic development that as a model can be adapted to and replicated in the city of Worcester; and other northern post-industrial cities; and in other types of and more dynamic projects in other venues and “sectors”. He cited Evergreen Cooperatives, through which Cleveland Clinic, one of the biggest and best hospitals in the world, pretty much gets “all of its food, energy and laundry needs met locally.”

In his introduction Healy confessed to having an “ulterior motivation” in participating in the Sustainability Fair; to promote the 2nd Annual Solidarity and Greening Economy Conference  at Clark University next week. He also got it across that participation in this sort of ‘bottom-up’ economic development is what people do in a “functioning democracy”.


Healy’s new book Take Back the Economy, Any Time, Any Place, co-authored with Katherine Gibson and Jenny Cameron, will be published by University of Minnesota Press in 2013.

The Second Annual Solidarity Economy Conference
Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610
9am-4pm on Saturday October 13
(513) 593-2619 | info@WorcesterSAGEalliance

Eat Your Landscape, Pam Warhurst –


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