ZCB US research trip: Stop 1 – Boston, Massachusetts

Home » ZCB US research trip: Stop 1 – Boston, Massachusetts

This is the second in a series of blogs on Paul’s trip to the USA to talk about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research with a range of grassroots groups. The first post, explaining the trip, can be read here.

Travelling by train can often offer us time to catch up on a number of the things we have been meaning to get around to doing, from background reading to sleeping. In my case it was a chance to watch the movie ‘Gas Land’. As proponents of fracking claim a wide range of positive outcomes from the US experience and as fracking is now being re-proposed for a number of sites across the UK, it seemed timely to explore an alternative view of the US experience. The story opens as filmmaker Josh Fox receives an unexpected offer of $100,000 for the natural gas drilling rights to his property in the Delaware River Basin, on the border of New York and Pennsylvania – fortunately he resists the urge to accept! Instead, he embarks on a cross-country journey to investigate the environmental and human impacts of agreeing such a deal. As the story unfolds, Fox discovers that fracking was exempted by the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 from the United States’ most basic environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

The movie had a number of surprises. I had not really grasped that the fracking fluids used in the process were actually a chemical cocktail consisting of 596 chemicals, including carcinogens and neurotoxins, diluted in somewhere between one and seven million gallons of water. Another aspect I had not yet realised was the sheer scale of the drilling required to deliver meaningful quantities of fuel. There are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S., and Fox estimates that 40 trillion gallons of water have been infused with chemicals for drilling, much of it left seeping or injected into the ground across the country. The US wider public remains unaware of the potential dangers of hydraulic fracturing, while state and local environmental agencies do not have the resources to fully investigate or regulate the industry. Anyone able to secure compensation from the gas companies must sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from bringing lawsuits or informing others of their experiences. Gas land was highly gripping, well worth watching and a great way to open a US research trip!

Following the shortest air flight from the UK, the stop-over in Boston was meant to allow me to get used to the four hour shift in the clocks and to prepare myself for the coast to coast train trip. However, a friend pointed me towards the Better Future Project based in nearby Cambridge. As their website carried the phrase “Envisioning and building a better world free from the burning of fossil fuels” I thought they would be well worth a visit.

Paul Allen meeting members of the Better Future Project in Boston

I quickly arranged a meeting with their Executive Director, Craig Altemose. We had a lot in common and time flew by very quickly. It turns out Better Future Project was founded a couple of years ago by a student leader, a community leader, and a faith leader to integrate their various activities into a powerful, unified movement. Having collaborated here and there, they decided there was a need for a new organisation that would work across silos to engage a range of stakeholders in this important work. They recognise that there are many, many reasons to move beyond fossil fuels – health, security, and justice foremost among them – and they seek out any and all partners who share their goals, even if they are motivated by a range of values. They provide support, structure, and staffing to students, mothers’ groups, churches and volunteer activists, offering the three main processes of empowering, connecting and activating. At the end of our discussions, after I had outlined the key findings of CAT’s of Zero Carbon Britain research, Craig suggested it might be mutually beneficial if I were to make a longer presentation to the state-wide volunteer group 350 Massachusetts that evening in a nearby church. I know from experience that organising a public talk early on in a visit attracts those who are interested in the rapid decarbonisation topic area, enabling me to build links and find out a lot more.

Paul Allen about to enter a public meeting in Boston

The group I presented to was highly focused and well organised, working on legislation to protect drinking water from hydraulic fracturing and to support ‘divestment’ of funds from fossil fuel futures. However most of their work to date seemed to have been built around working to stop the stuff they didn’t want rather than assembling a picture of the future they did want. But I soon learned this had actually given them a powerful appetite for developing a zero carbon 100% renewable model for their future. That very afternoon they had been exploring how they could develop the Massachusetts scenario from the 50 States – 50 Plans set of 100% renewable visions from The Solution Project, with whom I will be meeting in San Francisco later in the trip.

Key lessons from Boston:

  • Allocating a relatively small amount of resources to bringing together a range of groups seems to be working well, particularly in helping focus the energy of volunteers.

  • There is a growing appetite for a positive vision to help ‘envisage’ the world people want to see. Yet despite being on the doorstep of many universities including Harvard and M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), there seems to be little available for their home state. However ZCB certainly got the group excited about building a similar detailed vision for Massachusetts. The 50 States – 50 Plans Project offers a suitable framework that can be populated by more detailed local knowledge, crossed with some methodology from ZCB.

  • Once the meeting switched from trying to pass legislation to ban the bad, to ALSO building a picture of the positive future the group wanted, they clearly began to operate in a different way. Building a positive picture of what you want seems to change ‘how people think’.

  • There is still a large gap in politicians’ awareness of the need to lower emissions. The BFP (Better Future Project) is working to build relationships with candidates in advance of the upcoming state election, in an effort to ensure that the future governor will already know about the issues – and that the issues are discussed between candidates in the run-up to the election.

  • The BFP sees a carbon tax as a useful tool for lower emissions – but they emphasise it should be ‘revenue neutral’, meaning the funds will be released for other purposes rather than remaining in government coffers.

  • Similar to CAT, the BFP sees the value of arts for getting ideas across. Independent members of the group wrote a short theatrical piece to be performed outside the state capitol, comparing the carbon “bubble” to previous bubbles, namely dotcom and real estate. They also held a “funeral for our future” and marched into TransCanada’s office (the main company developing the Keystone pipeline) singing an original song: “Digging us a hole”.

  • Members of the group were clearly motivated by the ZCB model, and the chair of the meeting said, “I’ve worked in solar energy, and this is the most sophisticated vision of a zero carbon future that I’ve seen yet.”

CAT runs masters programmes in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment, Sustainability and Adaptation and Sustainable Architecture. Find out more at our open day.