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Beyond Biomass: Building Community Through Common Ground

By Dani Madrone

When I began my academic pursuit at the Evergreen State College, it was for two reasons. First, I had not discovered a fulfilling career. Second, I could get credit to go backpacking. I spent my first two quarters learning wilderness education, practicing backcountry medicine, roped to a team while traversing glaciers, and carrying my own weight within a small group of diverse people as we shared our perspectives on life. Miles into the wilderness, there is nothing to rely on but each other. When conflict erupts, despite the vast expanse around you, you must stay with your community. Nothing builds more character than facing a challenge that you can't run from.

Little did I know that an education that started with "leave no trace" in the wilderness would lead me to study the trace our society is leaving on an increasingly delicate planet. In my final year as a student, I am getting the most out of the experiential learning that Evergreen offers. Halfway through my education I developed a dream that, after graduate school, I would be researching renewable energy, discovering ways we can transition from burning fossil fuels. Now, still an undergraduate, I already have that opportunity. Through the biomass gasification study, I am delving deep into the world of renewable energy and discovering the complexity of interconnected social, ecological, and economic systems. Every question I can answer increases my knowledge, but also leads me to bigger questions and forces me to let go of certainty. The most pressing question I have discovered has nothing to do with energy, but how people approach controversy. In a country that fights wars over resources, how can I bring peace to my community through building consensus around shared resources?

Knowing that we are all stakeholders in the face of climate change, I value the community as a resource for perspective. Thinking alone is inadequate; a single viewpoint has limited knowledge and perspective. It is impossible for one person to catch all of the complex details, yet these details make the difference. I have been gathering information from the community by engaging dialogue and offering research and ideas to be challenged. Through this engagement, I have identified four topics of concern: carbon neutrality, forestry practices, human health impacts, and the alternatives. Can biomass fuel resources be managed in a way that balances the carbon cycle? Are we capable of restoring forests to healthy, diverse ecosystems? Once we have enough details, how do the trade-offs of biomass stack up against the trade-offs of all other options? How many details are enough?

Another perspective that I have gained through this community dialogue is the common ground. Human beings are a passionate species, with such a fantastic diversity of backgrounds and beliefs that it is impossible for us to agree on every issue. Yet we all have something in common, and this unifying quality will build a foundation of a respectful process. I ask that we all take the time to open communication with our acquaintances and opponents, ask each other questions, build awareness of our assumptions, and begin to trust one another. If there is one thing we can commonly contribute to the sustainability movement, it is the skill of communication. It is going to require the compassion of each and every one of us to face the challenges that threaten us all. I can tell you that we are capable of facing these challenges, because right now we have nothing better to do.

Dani Madrone is a senior at Evergreen with a focus in advanced chemistry, renewable energy systems, and community organizing. She is coordinator of the Clean Energy Committee, a student Sustainability Fellow, and mother of a three-year-old child.


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