On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was destroyed by an F5 tornado. Almost every building in town was leveled. Eleven were killed, dozens injured. Yet within days, the people of Greensburg had committed to rebuild their town, and to rebuild green. Today, Greensburg is the greenest town in the USA, and maybe the world. Much of their electricity now comes from wind. There’s some solar. There’s geothermal. And there’s highly efficient buildings. There are more LEED Platinum rated buildings in Greensburg per person, and per acre, than anywhere in the United States. All town buildings are now LEED Platinum. There are Platinum rated homes, a beautiful, LEED Platinum school for the children of Kiowa county, and Platinum-rated private businesses. People come from all over the world to see how a small farming community pulled together to rebuild and transform. When I visited this September with Randy Olson, we met two visitors from China’s leading teacher training university who were touring Greensburg’s new school to learn how they can develop green schools in China.
All this happened deep in the heart of Kansas, a red state with strong conservative values. The people of Greensburg are religious and mostly Republican. Most of them voted for President George W. Bush, twice, and were proud to pull the lever for him. I expect that, like many other Kansans, many of them don’t believe in global warming. And yet they rebuilt green.
Talking to the folks there I got the strong sense that they did it because they wanted to take charge of their future, that unless they created a vision of a better Greensburg the town might not be rebuilt at all – that people would move to nearby Pratt or distant Wichita, and Greensburg would become prairie again. They were willing to sacrifice in the short run to build for the long run. It would have been easy to take the insurance and FEMA money and build something fast and cheap, or just to move away. Some did. But most stayed, living in FEMA trailers or crowded together with relatives and neighbors whose farms escaped the tornado while they rebuilt. The children of Greensburg weren’t shipped to another town for school, but went to class in trailers for three years while their new school was built. Now they are learning in a beautiful new building that uses a fraction of the energy, water, and materials used before. A geothermal ground source heat pump draws energy from the prairie earth to heat and cool their classrooms. Cisterns collect rainwater to irrigate the gardens. A wind turbine spins near the new football field.
Climate change has become one of the most polarized and politically divisive issues in our country today. Opinion polls, such as the recent study from Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication show huge gaps between Democrats and Republicans. For example, 81% of Democrats agree that global warming is happening, but only 47% of Republicans; 68% of Democrats believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, but only 33% of Republicans. These huge gaps are important because they are not disagreements about what we should do about the risks of global warming. They are disagreements about the scientific facts. We now live in a nation where people’s political affiliation determines what they believe to be true about the physical world. Serious, respectful dialogue has broken down. The prospects for action seem dim.
And yet Greensburg rebuilt green. Make no mistake, the folks there still drive pickups, and you won’t see many Priuses. But Greensburg shows that we don’t have to sit by and do nothing while oil imports weaken our economy, while the climate changes, while jobs keep moving offshore. Greensburg shows that it’s possible to make the dramatic changes we need to cut our dependence on fossil fuels and our greenhouse gas pollution, and that when we do we’ll save money and live better. Perhaps it’s their pioneer spirit of self-reliance, or the conviction that we shouldn’t be dependent on foreign oil, or that it’s foolish to pay more for energy than we need to. Whatever the source, Greensburg is important because it shows that building green isn’t just for the affluent, isn’t just for liberals, isn’t a partisan issue, isn’t a choice between a healthy economy or a healthy environment. It’s about preserving the environment so we can have a healthy economy. It’s about creating jobs by building green. It’s about taking charge of our future. It’s about our children. It’s about what made this country great.
– John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan school.
Randy Olson is the writer/director of the feature films, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” He is also the author of, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” (Island Press, 2009). The music was kindly donated by his friend, country music legend John McEuen, the co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and recipient of three Grammy Awards, including this year for producing Steve Martin’s collection of original banjo tunes, “The Crow.”