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The new American Dream according to a 21st Century farmer

It’s difficult to pin a label on North Carolina’s Tim Toben. His understated appearance- the several times we met with him he was clad in jeans and sneakers- belies the power he wields, at least in this part of the country. A few of his past and current roles include: successful businessman, John Edwards’ environmental adviser, green real estate developer, organic farmer and eco-politician, and today he’s one of the south’s most active eco-revolutionaries.

In his diverse resume lies his strength. As a businessman, he’s developing one of North Carolina’s first green high-rise apartment buildings. Politically, he’s influencing state environmental policy as chairman of the North Carolina Energy Policy Council and member of the North Carolina Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change. And personally, he’s made his home a workshop of sustainable practices like wind, solar and organic farming.

His journey as an eco-activist really took shape about a decade ago. “About 10 years ago I had sold a company [KnowledgeBase Marketing] and had the option of investing the proceeds of that sale in stocks and bonds and things that were pretty uninteresting to me or in buying land.”

Today, his 350 acres in the Piedmont of North Carolina are not just his home, but the site of the Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute, an “educational farm and sustainability living center“. Here, a hybrid wind and solar system provide enough electricity for the farm, its biodiesel refinery and the “village” housing student interns and staff (see video Living like it’s 2050: Transition Farm in North Carolina).

A fishing trip with renowned green architect William McDonough (co-creator of the Cradle-to-Cradle design concept) inspired Toben to expand his sustainability experiments into real estate development. “I was a pretty strident anti-development guy at that time and I had just put 140 acres into a conservation easement and Bill said you know, if you believe that strongly in anti-development than you ought to become a developer and show folks how we think it should be done.”

Together, they- McDonough as architect and Toben as developer- launched Greenbridge, a green high-rise in downtown Chapel Hill (North Carolina) that heeds the anti-sprawl mandate of building up and not out. “We’ve got about 100 residences on about an acre and a quarter of land. So rather than have 300 acres or so consumed by a residential development out in the rural buffer where we need to be farming right now, we’ve got an acre and a quarter right in town where people can walk and bike to work, can walk and bike to their services and don’t even need to use vehicles” (see video A small town green high-rise).

Greenbridge has been endorsed by Al Gore, Senators Chris Dodd and Kay Hagan and North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue. When it opens in the spring of 2010, the 10-story building will feature green roofs, rainwater capture, solar thermal, natural day lighting and recycled and recyclable building materials. Already, it’s been named one of the country’s top 10 greenest housing developments by Natural Home Magazine.

We visited Tim Toben at his home farm, as well as the Greenbridge sales offices to talk about his visions for a more sustainable future.

faircompanies: You have a bigger goal than just building a green building or having a farm, what is that for you?

“I think about 5 years ago, I began really asking myself the question about this American Dream that we’ve grown up with. My parents really defined what my dream was going to be for me back in the fifties when I was born. They came out of the Depression and said, you know, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had these suburbs in the United States that would provide a two car garage and a single family home that might be some distance from where they worked and where they bought their groceries and where they went to school and for the fifties that seemed like a really good idea.

But now that we’re in the 21st Century we’ve begun to realize that there are some real flaws in that dream. So I began to ask myself, is it time to change the American Dream? Is it time to change my dream? And to sort of, I’ve got children now and I’ve got to sort of communicate to them what’s possible and what really makes sense.

Well it turns out as I look at the American Dream it’s turned out to be the world’s nightmare. I mean the American Dream is a dream that creates huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. It’s a dream that requires the transportation of food thousands of miles to an individual’s place. It’s a dream that pollutes the water and the soil.

I have a 4-year-old daughter. We go fishing every Sunday. We have a little farm pond and we go fishing and we usually catch a bass or a brim. We can’t cook a bass anymore because it’s got mercury in it. There’s not a fish in North Carolina in a freshwater stream that you can catch and cook because it’s full of mercury. So that’s a real loss to me. I grew up at a time when I went out with my dad and we caught fish and we would cook them on the grill at night and it was a great sort of tradition, we don’t have that tradition anymore and I think that’s a real loss.

The cost of a suburban life in America is that we create huge amounts of greenhouse gasses for the rest of the world, that we sort of, we plunder the world’s resources in order to realize our dream in America. And that’s really not a sustainable model and it’s not one we can be proud of. So as I formulate the dreams for my children as they begin to grow up we have to be thinking about the impact of our dreams on others.

What do you see as a solution to our problematic American Dream?

I think it’s basic questions. When you really break down the American Dream it’s questions about housing, it’s questions about energy, it’s questions about food and it’s questions about community. So on housing is it possible to build where infrastructure already exists? And to power buildings not with coal but the sun and the wind biofuels.

On energy, when we flip a switch or plug in our computers what are we really doing. In North Carolina, we’re primarily burning coal and not only does coal produce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury which produce our waters, but it’s also terribly inefficient. We’re basically, every pound of coal that we burn we only get a third of that in energy, two-thirds of that is wasted in heat along that transmission line so we’re burning this lump of coal in a very inefficient way and creating this toxic environment because of that.

So if we look at housing in the urban center, building up and not out, if we think about an energy model that really pulls the energy from the sun and the wind as opposed to fossil fuels, then we move to food.

In our tradition in America, we often buy our food from all of the world. Even in one of the cooperatives, we buy our wine from Chile and we buy our shrimp from Central America and we buy our strawberries from California. Each of those products come from thousands of miles away from where we eat them. In fact, we can make pretty good wine in North Carolina. We’ve got shrimp down at the coast. We can grow plenty of
strawberries and we do. So we have to be thinking about local food economy as well and this idea of locavores really becomes central to a futuristic theme.

And the interesting thing about all of these if you put all of these together is that you’re talking about community and how community differs today versus how it differed between 1950 and 2000 in America. When we moved into the suburbs, we separated, we moved apart. And in fact, in neighborhoods in the suburbs, it’s very common not to know who their neighbors are. In this model, you’re talking about a food system that’s local so you know your farm, you know your farmer, you know where your food came from, you begin to develop relationships with those people through farmers markets and through restaurants that serve those local foods.

You begin to buy products and services from the local communities so you really begin to understand who these people are, what motivates them, what their interests are and it creates a new sense of cooperation and nurturing that is very different from that period between 1950 and 2000. That really was a period of competition and division. So there’s some really wonderful benefits.

People think about a lot of this movement as making sacrifice and there are some of those sacrifices, but there’s really a lot of richness and beauty and coming together in this movement that I think is going to be very powerful moving forward.”

You mentioned people living in cities or farming, is it a step back to what Jefferson envisioned of an agrarian society?

“It’s not, it’s really honoring the greatness of the agrarian movement of the past. We’ve sort of perverted the agrarian movement with these factory
farms, with monoculture. Those are perversions with what were really the origins of that movement. What really works we’ve found is that you can do very intensive gardening in small spaces, create wonderful food supply that enriches the soil and builds soil instead of depleting it. It doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides.

It’s a cooperative kind of effort. The product, the sort of intensive kind of production that you can do through permaculture, organic type gardening, again it serves the community and it also builds the food supply and a soil richness in the way it was prior to industrialization.

I think agriculture has the potential to again bring community together as opposed to separate and it’s also in terms of animal production. There’s been a real perversion of that. We need to treat our animals better than we treat them now. We have 10 million hogs in North Carolina and only 8 million humans and some of those hogs are treated very, very badly. Some of the disease that we’re seeing, some of the vectors of disease that we’re seeing is a direct result of how we raise our animals.”

Swine flu?

“Absolutely. You know, swine flu. Hogs are a vector. Birds to hogs to humans is sort of the common vector for some of these flus. So when we have concentrations of animals then we have the spread of these diseases and the likelihood that they’re going to actually be moved into the human population. So we’ve got to be thinking about that.

We also have in these large hog populations, in North Carolina and some of the other big hog producing states, we have these. Basically the sludge from these creates a huge water problem so when we have floods these big hog lagoons that capture all of this sludge and go into our water systems and that’s a huge problem for us and one that we’re trying to address. But it’s again a by-product of this idea of factory farming and factory monoculture both with plants and animals that really don’t serve the human health and environmental health which have got to be figured in as costs to all of these products, these end products.”

It seems that there’s a bit of a tragedy of the commons taking place with people saying well I don’t know if I want to farm and I don’t know if I want to live in a city, those are my two options. Americans I think we’re used to saying I’m entitled.

“I think you raised a very important point which is sort of the abuse of the commons. We need to see major policy change in the United States to account for the cost to human health and the environment of some of these industrial practices. Corporations right now profit right now off of the air, the water and the soil that is part of the commons. We need to see some of those costs recognized and passed on to those corporations.

So that requires some major shifts and we’re starting to see, I think, with this new administration, we’re starting to see within the Environmental Protection Agency, we’re starting to see again a recognition of the value of the commons. And over time, we will see that value will be recognized in many forms. There will be a cost to pollute. The polluter will pay moving forward. And I think in terms of our health care system we’re beginning to see that there are significant costs to human health for some of the practices from the corporate world that again are going to have to be borne by corporations in order to recognize some of those health care costs.”

What about the changes for individuals, getting people to consume less and buy a smaller home or change the way to live like not live in a suburb.

“We’re going to have to start looking at hybrid models. We’re going to have to start looking at centers sort of towns that can serve the needs of the community without having to drive long distances to get to work. So there are going to be towns that have workplaces and services and food systems that are comprised within a small area. THere are also going to have to be towns that are powered in different ways than we currently power towns. There are progressive towns out there that are looking at these. There are movements to convert towns that aren’t operating in this way to this new model.

So I think there is a lot of very interesting thinking going on right now. And it actually creates a huge business opportunity for folks who are entrepreneurs. Small business folks are going to be the beneficiaries of this new movement. So we have to look creatively at these kinds of things and we do have to meet people halfway.

We also have to be clear about what the costs of various lifestyles are and that has been buried for a long time. I think the cost of how we live really hasn’t been recognized in the cost of the products that we consume.”

Will happiness be impacted by this? I think we’re used to thinking you know I’m going to get my big car, my big house.

“There have been lots of studies recently that correlate happiness with wealth. Happiness is not correlated with wealth. There’s no real direct correlation there. So what you have to look at is what are the drivers of happiness. I think it’s intuitive that community and cooperation are
more highly correlated with happiness than division and competition. Eating wonderful, local, healthy foods and the production of those local foods is going to be highly correlated with happiness than buying foods from long distances. Anybody that grows their own foods knows the taste differences between those foods and foods that you buy that come from long distances.

You can go into a grocery store and buy 6 different tomatoes and they all taste like slightly flavored water. When you grow your own tomatoes and you understand the sort of difference and sort of an earthy, peppery flavor versus a spicy… You know, these are tomatoes that will give a sandwich a very different taste and flavor. And you know the textures are different. Once you begin to become part of the local food movement you also realize there’s a richness in living that comes with that as well.

You know when you produce your own energy. Right now I have a wind turbine on my farm. When I’m in the shower in the morning and I open the window and the wind is blowing and I know that I’m making energy. That’s an awesome feeling. I mean, I’m not burning coal to power my farm. I’m
basically using the wind power of my farm to power the irrigation system and to make my biofuel.

So there’s a deepening and a richness in living that I think is much more highly correlated with happiness when you’re involved in these processes then when you’re just the helpless recipient of them and that’s empowering.”

What about for you? You’ve been a successful businessman and seen that sort of model and now you’re a farmer slash developer. Have you seen your happiness change?

“Absolutely. I’m a far happier person today being directly involved with my own food production, my family’s health and well-being, my energy production and being part of creating models out there that are alternatives. They’re not the only alternatives, but they’re alternatives to the stereotypical American Dream.

And yes, I have been the beneficiary of the sort of capitalist American movement when I had prior businesses, but I have to say I’m far happier
today being involved directly in my basic survival, my basic food production, my basic energy production and having my children be involved in that than I was creating wealth from the sort of standard capitalist model.

That’s not to say I still think that there’s a place for capitalism in this whole thing. I still think that there are enormous business opportunities in housing, energy, food production for the small entrepreneur and I think that’s very, very exciting. And I think there will be wealth created out of that. But I think more importantly there will be community created out of that. And there will be health created out of that. And there will be environmental sustainability created from that. And that is where the richness of life comes from. It’s not from the sort of you know amount of money in your bank account. It’s from these other things that really do drive well-being. And it’s something that you can be proud of.”

Yesterday, I was talking to kids on campus [University of North Carolina]. One of them was talking about giving back, but he wanted to make money first, to feel secure. Are we going to get away from that?

“What is security? What does that really mean? There’s lots of people that October a year ago thought that they were secure and the stock market
plummeted. There are people in 1929 that thought they were secure and the stock market plummeted. And their worlds that were built around that sense of security were destroyed.

So what is it that we can really count on in the creation of our own lifestyles. Community is something that we really want to build. That is something that can be there in good markets and bad markets. The creation of closeness and ties with family and friends, those are the things that are going to sustain us.

The ability to be able to provide for your family. Now that’s one of the things that is sort of an underlying, money is a secondary reinforcer. The primary reinforcer to money is that you can provide for your family. Well if you’ve got a garden, whether it’s your own or a community garden, and you’ve got food supply nearby you’re going to be able to supply that for your family. Energy is another sort of essential ingredient. We do need to be able to provide heating and cooling. We do need to be able to provide hospitals with the ability to do procedures and emergency services.

So the extent that we can create local economies that include food production, energy production and housing I think it creates a security that’s much more real than the kind of security that we grew up with that’s based on your stocks and your bonds.”

I think the American Dream is tied into happiness and I think if you change the ideal, hopefully the rest will follow.

“Let’s hope so. My big concern is that other countries aspire to the American Dream and that is disastrous. We need to learn from the errors of our
dreams and create new dreams and it’s time to create a new dream.”