Energy Co-op, Sabbath Sustainability, Localvores in Vermont…

In the face of climate change, energy scarcity, and other urgent challenges of our time, what steps are you taking to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? We want to hear about your innovative projects, forward-thinking initiatives, and the “other arrangements” you are making in your daily lives. Send your submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to (In addition, quite a few readers of the article that inspired this series contributed to a lively online conversation.)

Community-Scale Energy
A year and a half ago I quit my job to build a consumer-owned cooperative that would create community-owned energy resources. I saved up $12,000, kissed my paycheck goodbye, and set out on a journey. It was the best career move I ever made.

Since then I’ve been working with great colleagues, over 100 volunteers, a great board of directors, an awesome group of 250 members, and 3,000 dedicated supporters. Together we’ve developed a co-operative that both increases local access to existing clean-energy products and creates new sources. When people join Co-op Power, they tap into our network of contractors who install systems ranging from solar hot water to solar electric to wind to geothermal to small hydro. Low-income members can get volunteer installers and lower equipment costs to make these systems even more affordable.

In addition to negotiating great discounts through bulk purchasing, we also pool our members’ equity to invest in community-scale clean energy businesses. We’ve developed an innovative capital model that combines member equity with grants, investments, and loans to raise millions of dollars to build some of the energy resources we need in our communities. After two years of community planning, we decided to build a 10-million-gallon-a-year biodiesel plant, using $125,000 of our members’ equity as the seed capital for the $6.5 million plant. Already, we deliver biodiesel from other sources for home heating in our network, which covers more than one hundred towns in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Co-op Power is also learning how to talk about extremely controversial issues — like where to site biomass and wind facilities — in a respectful and community-building manner. We’re learning how to build consensus, how to think about community ownership of the things we depend on, and how to work together.

Best of all, we aren’t alone in our vision for a healthier community. There’s a group of people creating a new local discount store in Greenfield. There’s a group of people creating a new food cooperative in Northampton to support the growth of a local food system. There’s a group creating new media outlets. I’m part of a bubbling community of activists and artists ready to invent itself again and again.

We’re pretty sure no one thing that we do will solve our energy crisis or weave us a strong new way of life. But we’re also pretty sure that if we keep doing what we’re doing, all these small things will help us move in the right direction. There is going to be something a bit more human about life without cheap oil. I’m looking forward to it.
Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

Practice a Sabbath Pattern
Today, pursuing traditional religious concerns — love of neighbor and love of Creation — requires a global understanding of environmental challenges. It also requires a set of strategies for involving congregations in local solutions as well as policy advocacy.

People of faith recognize that relationships — with humans, with nature, and with God — have been fractured by our attempts to dominate, to resist limits, to hoard, and to idolize material possessions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of the most important ideas for keeping relationships in balance is the Sabbath. Leviticus 25 calls for the land to be given a complete rest every seventh year. It is a timeless concept, but letting a field or natural system “rest” is a hard thing for our industrial society to do. We relentlessly press nature to get all that we can from it until its ability to be fruitful is depleted. The arrangements of our daily lives quickly become unjust and unsustainable if not counteracted by practices that are informed by a broader vision of a sustainable life for all of Creation.

The Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns (INEC) is a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. For more than a decade, INEC has worked with people of faith to help them understand their vital role in building just and sustainable communities. We work both to advocate for policy changes and to help congregations model the broader systemic changes they seek. Our food program is focused on forging partnerships that make fresh local produce — as well as food education — more available to low-income people in the community and on providing congregations with the knowledge necessary to eat locally and seasonally. INEC seeks to help all participants better understand the ethical issues in food production and distribution, as well as the need for sound food policies.

One of INEC’s affiliated programs — Oregon Interfaith Power and Light (OIPL) — helps congregations become better stewards of energy. The carbon footprint of one church may be small, but its energy practices can have an impact well outside the sanctuary doors. Ultimately, members of a congregation — and even their neighbors — may be inspired to alter their own energy practices.

Through efforts such as these, congregations can become centers for learning new ways of living sustainably, of practicing a Sabbath pattern for food and energy, and of working toward a better future, where everyone has enough and the natural world thrives.
Portland, Oregon

Grown in Vermont
I never go to meetings — my husband does — so I found out after the fact that he’d signed us up for the Localvore Challenge last August. Our community would attempt to eat locally produced food for an entire week, in order to understand the mess we’d be in without fossil fuels and to help build a local food system. The rule was that all foods had to be grown in Vermont or within a hundred-mile radius of Brattleboro, our town.

Many communities in Vermont were sponsoring such challenges. You could commit at many levels: eat local for a day or week, or eat one local food at each meal.

Our area has a flourishing farmers’ market and many dairies and orchards, but what quickly became obvious was that the infrastructure needed to support a region eating locally was not in place. Where to get oats, where to get oil?

A person named Slug, with dark red dreadlocks and a cherubic face, was locating food sources. He was buying fifty-pound sacks of flour and twenty-five-pound sacks of dried beans, divvying them up into “starter kits” for the rest of us.

In the end, 160 people accepted the challenge, an event sponsored by a local group called Post Oil Solutions. Fifty paid twenty dollars for a starter kit. Sixty showed up for the kickoff, a Saturday morning buckwheat pancake breakfast. The flour was from Basin Farm, eggs from Fair Winds Farm, maple syrup from Deer Ridge Farm. To solve the problem of yeast, someone took on the task of making sourdough starter. Someone else made yogurt.

The next evening, twenty people gathered for the first of the nightly potlucks that Slug scheduled. There was carrot salad, potato salad, mashed potatoes, steamed greens, cucumbers with goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, black bean soup.

Denied my habit of snacking on processed foods, I had lost three pounds by the end of the second day. Cooking became necessary, and our favorite recipes had to be altered. What could we substitute for rice? Fresh salsa was easy, but what about chips? Why were there no nuts in Vermont? Were we getting essential nutrients?

All week we shopped farm stands and farmers’ markets. We cultured kefir and yogurt from local milk. We bought Vermont cheese. We picked blueberries and peaches. My family rose to the challenge, with tomato pizza and ratatouille and venison stew, corn on the cob and apple rhubarb crisp. We learned to make pesto with yogurt and butter. We didn’t eat salt. We were regulars at the potlucks, where Slug reminded us, “We are creating demand. We are acting as a local community to transform the economic and political topography of the region to make it more sustainable.”

Looking back, it seems that the most important part of the challenge was doing it together. We met dozens of new people, including growers, and were invited into the homes of strangers. All around us, people were coming together, working together, breaking bread together, and sharing recipes and good sources for local food. We had a blast, and have thought differently about the way we eat ever since.

In addition to initiating the Localvore Challenge, Post Oil Solutions started a community garden last May (we have a plot), held canning and gardening workshops, supported a “buy local” campaign, hosted a student essay contest for “beyond petroleum” ideas, and initiated a winter farmers’ market. My family has signed up for the Winter Localvore Challenge, a week in January. We are looking forward to sharing our rutabaga pie and turnip soup.
Brattleboro, Vermont

Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction and a collection of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, and Eisenberg Award, among others. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was a New York Times Notable Book. The author has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm near Savannah. Red Lanterns, Ray’s second book of poetry, is forthcoming in Spring 2021.