Sustainability=Survival at 'Occupy' Protest

Occupy Wall Street Community
The Sustainability area at the "Occupy Wall Street Community" in Zucotti park in New York City. Source: Photograph by Donald Traill/AP

By Tom Randall

A cardboard sign reading “Sustainability” marks a sliver of New York’s Zuccotti Park, world headquarters of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The section started out as a nice gesture -- much like sustainability initiatives at the very companies who protesters are targeting. After six weeks of protests and winter closing in, sustainability has become occupiers’ high-stakes attempt to cope with competition for limited strategic resources -- also not unlike the corporate movement.

Protesters initially built one-off “sustainable” projects, such as a dishwater filter for hydrating the park's plants. They set up recycling bins, and started to compost.

As weeks passed, the park turned from a protest site to a semi-permanent community of several hundred people. If it weren't smack in the middle of some of the priciest real estate on the planet, you might mistake it for a homeless encampment. Food security, trash disposal, access to water, sanitation, Internet and maintaining social order all became central to the viability of the effort.

Peak oil, the point at which the planet's petroleum resources begin to dwindle, was reached for Zuccotti Park when New York firefighters removed about a dozen gasoline cans and six generators from the tightly packed tent city. That meant no heat, no electricity for computers and cell phones, and no lights for the kitchen, library, lawyers and medics.

Protesters make due with what they have. Twice a week, sustainability meetings are held in the glass-enclosed courtyard of the Deutsche Bank building. This week participants discuss recycling and compost: they need volunteers to stand at each of the dozen stations to make sure people sort their trash properly. They're switching to compostable plates and cups and will meet with a local farm service to discuss the options: recycled paper versus bioplastic and which brands decompose the quickest.

Representatives from other groups chime in. Someone from the design initiative hands out pamphlets of fonts and icons that can be used for Occupy signs and printed materials. The sanitation group is evaluating the effectiveness of a less caustic vinegar-citrus-peroxide mix to replace bleach for major cleanups. The food committee wants input on how to vet a butcher who emailed that he has a bunch of freshly slaughtered rabbits he would like to donate. The sustainability group discusses whether they should accept the bunnies or thank him and move on. They ultimately punt the decision back to the kitchen staff.

The bureaucracy of the leaderless movement is mind-boggling. But so is the board-room rigor with which meetings are run.

Outside the courtyard, it's cold. At 10 p.m. in a 45-degree chill, a half dozen people stand in line to operate the new local utility that was brought in after the generators were removed -- a stationary bicycle connected to a makeshift generator. It puts out just enough electricity to power a light bulb, 60 to 100 watts.

And so goes this sustainable occupation. By focusing on sustainability, they find new people are interested in contributing: farmers, carpenters, teachers, electricians. A bike-building shop is donating custom stands for the generators. A nursery is building a permanent rainwater collection system. Local shops donate tap water to volunteers who haul buckets. Local farms deliver food to the volunteer kitchen.

Many eat healthier than late-night take out ordered in the towers of finance that surround them. A recent dinner menu included salmon and beans, root vegetables, vegetables puree and fresh apples. Leftover food is delivered by volunteer couriers riding donated bicycles to local compost drop-offs.

There's even a fitness group in the works, with plans for a spin class once they have enough bike generators in place. But the bicycles won't be enough to combat Occupy's most rapidly diminishing resource: heat. For now, says a volunteer in the renewable energy group, the best long-term strategy is "warm clothes and beer."

((For more on the Occupy protests, see Bloomberg Businessweek's blog, the Wealth Debate.))


-0- Nov/03/2011 17:23 GMT
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE