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What The #OccupyTogether Encampments Can Teach Society About Sustainability

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Occupy Wall Street’s sustainability committee in conjunction with Time's Up! built bicycle generators to power the encampment.

CREDIT: Flickr / OWS Photo

The #OccupyTogether movements across the nation go beyond a typical protest dynamic by creating mini-democracies which provide a microcosm of the kind of world the 99 percenters hope to see. And sustainability has emerged as a clear focus in that vision.

Many occupations have created sustainability committees with the specific function of addressing the environmental impacts of their particular camp, and those committees are thinking up innovative ways to address the problems of waste and energy use.

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The Occupy DC movement recently installed solar panels to power their media tent’s operations hoping that the panels will eventually provide for all of the camp’s energy needs.

Glenn Hurrowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a member of the Occupy DC’s sustainability committee, worked on installing the solar panels for the camp.

He told Campus Progress that he became concerned after he read an article in The New York Times about how Occupy Wall Street was using gasoline-powered generators.

“It didn’t seem right that a movement trying to create a better world should be propping up big oil and poisoning the planet in their operations,” he said.

So Hurrowitz got together with some like-minded protesters and addressed the General Assembly, the daily meeting at the occupations. Together, the occupiers raised $1,375 through donations from a network of supporters to purchase the panels, which were installed next to the camp’s media tent near K Street in DC.

Occupy DC’s sustainability group is also planning to collect rainwater with barrels.

“The Occupy DC movement was able to get solar panels up and running within one week of conceiving of the idea, and it’s taken the White House more than a year to fulfill their pledge to go solar,” Hurrowitz said.

Occupy Wall Street have since moved away from its gasoline-powered generators and found more innovative ways to create or capture power, in turn inspiring occupations elsewhere with the many green projects proving successful in Zuccotti Park.

Partnering with Times Up!, an environmental non-profit based in New York, the Occupy Wall Street sustainability committee installed several bicycle generators which now produce enough energy to serve some of Zuccotti Park’s needs.

While the park isn’t entirely powered by the bikes, the sustainability working group hopes to achieve that goal in the future; they plan to bring a proposal to the General Assembly for increasing funds for bicycle generators to expand the project.

“Part of what has made [the economy] so intractable and so difficult to either reform or dismantle is that people are not self-sufficient,” said Patrick Robbins, who is part of the sustainability working group at Occupy Wall Street. “People do not have the means to take care of their basic needs … under the current system without being reliant on centralized energy grids [and] centralized plumbing, without partaking, simply by virtue of their existing, in this economy, in forces that are destroying our land base.”

The idea of self-reliance and sustainability is crucial to a movement based on occupying such spaces for indefinite periods of time. And such efforts are also core to the message of creating an alternative means to a national economic model that is inherently unsustainable.

For instance, a grey water recycling system at the park takes dirty water from the kitchen area and other sources and then filters it using wood chips and other materials. Occupiers use the end product to water the plants at Zuccotti Park. The filtration system was one of the first sustainability projects at Occupy Wall Street.

“That kind of got the group moving I think,” said Winnie Wong, who works with the New York sustainability group. “That was sort of the seed that moved the group to start having meetings, and how it all happened.”

Wong has been producing short films about the group’s sustainability efforts and disseminating them widely around the web.

“There’s almost no bureaucracy involved. The channels of communication are almost wide open,” Wong said about the process. “It’s just a very ‘DIY’ movement, especially with regards to the different projects.”

Michelle Obnabo, who also works with the Occupy Wall Street sustainability committee, told Campus Progress that the General Assembly is set to allocate funds for a bike share program for the occupiers to use.

Obnabo also facilitates pottery workshops for protesters to create pots, mugs, and plates for the shared kitchen. She uses the time to help create awareness about Styrofoam and plastic waste and encourage occupiers to use the re-useable items they create. Styrofoam is difficult to recycle and lethal to many small animals that can ingest it.

The sustainability group is also working with college campuses in New York to raise awareness about the bicycle generators hoping to elicit help in expanding the project as the encampment prepares for winter, Obnabo said.

Inspiration from Occupy Wall Street’s sustainability efforts can be seen in other occupations across the country. The Occupy Portland Video Collective detailed how they constructed their own bike generator in the short video posted above. Occupy Boston also installed a solar charger for cell phones. And many of the occupations across the country have composting systems, vegetable gardens, and recycle much of their waste.

The challenge of occupying sustainably—especially as the harsher winter months move in on Occupy camps—is one that will likely test the ingenuity and dedication of the 99 percenters, the alternative communities they’ve built, and the movement itself.

In a world threatened by melting arctic ice, rising ocean levels, soil loss, ecosystem collapse, species loss, and tar sands combustion, it’s this Occupy vision for how democracy should function and how consumption should be managed that provides a glimpse of hope for young people living on an increasingly unstable planet.

Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.

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