Silverback John Schaeffer … you’ve met him before … is telling his story on a 3-episode podcast called The Inheritance Project that is now live on Spotify. Here’s the link: https://open.spotify.com/show/6wre1ujHPtckLsTEIC4KKX?si=Ncm_hP88T3ORmuM94_PwEw .
A few years ago, I gave my own version of the history of the modern environmental movement.
The Caldron … The Evolution of Real Goods
[John Schaeffer is now retired and living his own version of The Good Life. The photos used to illustrate this article depict the fruits of lifelong labors to champion the cause of planet Earth. The has NOT been updated to reflect the current status of Real Goods or the environmental business. It is as originally written and published. SB SM}
Al Gore accepts the Nobel Prize for raising consciousness about global warming with his film An Inconvenient Truth. The New Oxford English Dictionary declares “locavore” its Word of the Year. Community groups nationwide meet to discuss strategies for coping with Peak Oil. Wal-Mart announces plans to expand their efforts to “green” their operation.
Paradigm shifts? Sea changes? Overnight sensations? Not really.
New ideas go through stages on the path to acceptance. First, they are ignored, then ridiculed, then resisted, then finally accepted as obvious. Smoking, for example. After decades of being the definition of cool, someone, somewhere surfaced the idea that smoking was bad for the public health. That notion was ignored for at least a decade. Then, a few tumblers began to fall. Advertising cigarettes on television was banned and the Surgeon General mandated warning labels. Remember the Everett Koop jokes? Even as the evidence mounted the Marlboro Man or Virginia Slims lady peered down from their billboards asking “So what’s more important, being healthy or being cool?” Resistance came as cover-ups, lobbying, and lawsuits. Now, cigarette companies pay for ads that begin “Of course, we all know that smoking is not good for your health, but …”
The gestation period for ideas can span many decades before they are finally accepted as obvious.
Wal-Mart was founded in 1962, the same year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. This was the first book that suggested/documented the fact that modern science, specifically chemicals, were as capable of harming us as helping us. Wal-Mart has gone from start-up to the nation’s largest employer is the same as their acceptance of the wisdom of going organic.
It takes that long for an idea to gain traction. The life-cycle for ideas is much longer than it is for businesses.
A few years after Silent Spring was published (and, ironically, Rachel Carson succumbed to cancer), man stepped foot on the moon. Seeing the first photos of the blue and green orb of earth from outer space, British scientist James Lovelock said “It’s alive.” For many years neither he, nor anyone else knew quite what he meant by that statement, but gradually the notion coalesced into the Gaia Theory by which we recognize, even if we can’t fully articulate it, the interconnectedness of everything on the planet.
That same image of earth from space found its way onto the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication put together by Stewart Brand and a freewheeling bunch of publishing neophytes in Berkeley, California. Their goal was to provide “access to tools” to a generation of kids raised in the splendid isolation of suburban America.
One of the kids within the orb of the Whole Earth Catalog was John Schaeffer. He was doing the same things as most of the kids at Berkeley at the time–smoking dope, howling about the Vietnam War, even some studying (in his case anthropology). He celebrated the first Earth Day, survived the draft lottery, hitchhiked around Mexico, worked odd jobs, and escaped whenever he could to the redwoods to the north.
Across the country a parallel universe existed. In Maine the Nearings were teaching people how to live The Good Life. On Cape Cod John Todd and the New Alchemists were developing what would become the Living Machine, and some brash intellectuals at MIT, Dana and Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers, were using the new tool of the computer to create models that predicted that we would deplete certain natural resources such as oil in a very finite period of time. Their book, The Limits to Growth, was immediately ignored, ridiculed, then attacked so vociferously that it was obvious that a nerve had been struck. Not surprisingly, the people attacking the book tended to be the same people who making comfortable fortunes by extracting and selling those same resources.
And the Nobel Prize goes to … Al Gore. No, no, no … how about Lovelock or the Nearings, or Stewart Brand, or the Meadowses, or Todd, or, from “across the pond” Fritz Schumacher who was exploring the wisdom of small-scale economics in the forerunner of all things “locavore” in Small is Beautiful. The point is, the ideas that are now gaining mainstream traction now all came bubbling out of the caldron that boiled over in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It takes that long.
John Schaeffer was one of the folks stirring the caldron with a paddle. Had John Schaeffer followed the proven path he would have gone to law school, earned a pile of money, run for public office, and perhaps have been John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 election. Instead he did something infinitely more courageous, and ultimately more influential. He went back to the land.
As a member of the Rainbow Commune in Mendocino County Schaeffer unlearned what a lifetime growing up in the suburbs had taught him. He learned about things like food and shelter and water and electricity, commodities he had taken for granted growing up in L.A. Always entrepreneurial, he began, contemplating a business that would provide the materials essential to an independent life. As he drove the hills of Mendocino in a Volkswagen Bug that had a redwood stump for a front seat he came up with the name of the products he would sell. These would be the “real goods.”
In addition to the photo of earth from space that proved life-altering for Lovelock and Brand, other lasting things came out of the NASA space program. There was Tang, the instant breakfast drink, freeze-dried foods, and panels impregnated with silicon wafers that used simple technology to convert sunlight to electricity … solar panels.
Meanwhile, back at the Rainbow Commune Schaeffer discovered that while you can take the boy out of the suburbs, but you can’t completely take the suburbs out of the boy. As much as he embraced life on the commune, he thought it would be improved through a few creature comforts. While some communards felt that living without modern amenities was essential to the experience, Schaeffer found no conflict in including electrical power as part of the self-reliant lifestyle. He found a source for some appliances that could be operated with direct, as opposed to alternating, current. He could connect these to the battery from his VW Bug, and … voila … instant Saturday Night Live!
It was a decidedly inelegant solution, but it worked. Not only was in inconvenient, but it relied on the use of fossil fuels and as everyone had learned in the wake of the first Arab Fuel Embargo, oil was part of the environmental problem, not the solution. History has not recorded the first person who married a solar panel to a storage battery, but the union made possible an independent, non-polluting lifestyle that looks to the future while tipping its hat to the past.
The first Real Goods store opened in Willits, California in 1978. Several months later the company sold its first system. At the time there really was no “solar industry.” There were no stores or industry associations or installers. The only practitioners were hermits, hippies, or dope farmers needing to live “off-the-grid,” a term which refers not to the electric grid, but rather the grid on a topographical map. The phrase was first used during the Vietnam War to describe illegal operants who took refuge in neighboring countries, and who were, therefore, “off the grid” of the Vietnam map.
The business grew quickly, but haltingly. By 1982 there were 3 stores, but by 1985 there were none. In 1986 Schaeffer reformulated as a mail order business, operating out of his garage. The idea of solar produced an image of a single lightbulb dangling from an exposed wire, with hippies squatting around it, basking in dimness. The idea of solar energy was entering its “ridicule” stage. At the same time the idea of “organic” brought to mind the visual image of shriveled, unappetizing produce shoved off in a corner.
Real Goods grew but in fits and starts. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day provided a boost, as did–ironically–the First Gulf War when the Real Goods catalog depicted a split image of troops entering the bay of a C3 cargo transport and a picture of a beautiful solar home.
But the biggest factor fueling Real Goods’s growth, which by now was synonymous with that of the fledgling solar industry, was its own ability to shout. In 1990 (1990!) the company declared war on global warming with its “Billion Pound Goal” to eliminate a billion pounds of CO2 production. The next year the company declared a National Off-the-Grid Day, a cheeky promotion that evolved into the National Tour of Solar Homes, an annual event that continues today under the auspices of the American Solar Energy Society.
Now growth was more sustained. Accolades came the company’s way–the Inc. Top 100, the SBA “Person of the Year,” and the Rodale Award as the most environmental company for 3 years in a row. The company made several successful direct public offerings of its stock and used the funds to build a “place in the sun,” the Solar Living Center. At last there was a place where people could see the ideas at work–green building materials, ecological landscaping, renewable energy.
Build it and they did come, over 200,000 each year. They come to look, to learn, to listen, and to play. More than 10,000 show up on a single weekend each August to celebrate SolFest, the largest gathering of the solar clan. They come to gawk at the huge 132 kW array, to hear the rabble-rousing speakers, and to learn from the experts about the many sides of solar living. They also come to dance, because that is a key component of solar living.
The solar business has matured alongside Real Goods. That a comfortable, non-polluting lifestyle … let’s call it “the good life” … is possible is no longer in question. What comes next, as we go “beyond the limits to growth” is that this lifestyle will become inevitable. The people are getting the message as the demand for solar has outstripped the supply worldwide for the last several years. Real Goods now installs solar on more than a thousand homes in California alone each year.
The caldron is at full boil.
For the last few years the solar business has struggled to keep up with the burgeoning demand for panels. Investment capital is finally flowing to meet the demand which will continue to surge in coming years. In the thirty years since the idea of “real goods” was spawned no new oil reserves have been discovered, no solution for nuclear waste has been found. The solution was, is, and will continue to be the sun.