With the Plenty Project, Carbondale resident hunts for new American Dream
Post Independent Contributor
Picture it: The year is 2018. U.S. policymakers and electric utilities have embarked on a moonshot style mission to bring renewable energy sources online, and the use of fossil fuels nationally has dropped by 50 percent over five years.
Thanks to a glut of clean energy jobs, the economy is booming. The air is cleaner, and there’s a chance that with U.S. leadership the world’s industrialized nations may fend off the most catastrophic effects of global warming.
It’s a vision that’s at once outlandish, wildly optimistic, politically impossible and slightly subversive, and it’s right up Amelia Potvin’s alley.
Potvin, 26, is a Carbondale resident and a former staffer at the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), a nonprofit group promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Roaring Fork Valley.
In May, she launched The Plenty Project, a sweeping effort to gauge the changing status of the American Dream and explore the bright ideas for a sustainable economy springing up across the nation.
This summer, with the help of a seed grant from the clothing company Patagonia, Potvin has been on a “listening tour” across the U.S., criss-crossing the nation on Amtrak trains and visiting places as diverse as Williston, N.D., Omaha, Neb., and Huntington, W.Va., to ask people what makes a good life and a good economy.
“I’ve gotten in these great conversations where people tell me that quality of life at the community scale means that the least fortunate person is taken care of,” Potvin said. “Even Republican mayors have told me this, and it’s been great to hear from people in public service.”
When she conceived the idea for the Plenty Project, Potvin was working at CORE during the day and spending much of her spare time advocating for the protection of the Thompson Divide area south of Carbondale from natural gas drilling.
“I was starting to see a lot of connections between the Thompson Divide and the work I was doing with energy efficiency and renewable energy,” she said.
Frustrated by the oft-repeated notion that preserving the environment always requires tough economic trade-offs, Potvin wanted to explore energy solutions that fostered both human happiness and ecological health. She decided to go looking for those solutions in all corners of the country.
“She really looks to the future, and she’s trying to see what people are having a hard time with in their day-to-day that might get in the way of their investing in renewable energy,” said Tara Sheahan, co-founder of the nonprofit group Conscious Global Leadership, who helped Potvin develop The Plenty Project.
“My innate sense is that human beings are incredibly resourceful,” Potvin said. “It seems like we have the answers to live in a world that is not extractive, in either the environmental or human senses of the word.”
Aside from keeping a blog at ThePlentyProject.com, Potvin is also planning to host policy summits exploring what she calls “the next economy” and to make a film about what a post-fossil fuel future might look like.
She’ll be on the road until at least September, when she plans to end her travels at a grassroots activist conference hosted by Patagonia in northern California.
In the meantime, though, she’s interrogating scores of strangers about the slippery, aspirational notion of the American Dream. Potvin asks interview subjects to fill out postcards detailing their version of that dream, whether it’s changed over the time, and how it relates to environmental stewardship.
She mails the cards back to her interview subjects weeks later, presenting people with a letter from themselves about their core values.
“A lot of people have talked about how [the dream] is not about money, there’s also a sense from some people that they’ve switched from wanting certain amounts of stuff to wanting to be engaged in community,” Potvin said.
Once she returns to the relatively idyllic and environmentally conscious quarters of Carbondale this fall, Potvin hopes to use the town as a laboratory of sorts to test some of the ideas she’s discovered in her travels.
She noted that discussions are already afoot about how to meet all of Carbondale’s energy needs with renewable sources, putting the town well ahead of many U.S. communities its size.
“I think we are in an incredible place to experiment with some of these changes,” she said. “It’s important that we do it because of our proximity to gas drilling, and also our proximity to wealth and power in Aspen. If any place can do it, it’s Carbondale.”
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