Green not good enough? A talk with Tim Toben

mschultz@newsobserver.comAugust 11, 2013 

  • The rapture

    “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

    – Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

  • If You Go

    Several contributors to “Small Stories, Big Changes” will speak at 2 p.m. today, Aug. 11, at the Barn at Fearrington Village located between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill off U.S. 15-501 in Chatham County. Learn more about the book at If you miss this event, some of the authors will be reading and talking at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

Tim Toben says the anarchists had a point.

Not their methods – the bomb threats, the Silly String protest, the trashing of the lobby of the 10-story environmentally-innovative Greenbridge condominiums in downtown Chapel Hill.

But their belief that no “green” project in a capitalist, profit-driven system could help save the planet, Toben says, he now understands. The problem’s too big, and even the most award-winning eco architecture is a distraction from the larger changes society must make, some believe.

It’s a turnaround for the managing partner and public face of Greenbridge, until he and four partners lost millions when the project cost ballooned and the bank foreclosed. Toben, who invested $5.2 million, lost it all, including his family’s mountain homestead.

Now, two years later, he’s written his story in a chapter in a new book, “Small Stories Big Changes,” edited by Lyle Estill, of Piedmont Biofuels. The book lets 14 environmental activists tell their stories and inspire others to work for change.

“I feel this is a remarkably candid telling of his story,” Estill writes in a preface to Toben’s chapter. “As far as I know it has never been fully told like this.”

Today, Toben lives with his wife Megan and two children, ages 8 and 4, in a 1,600-square-foot house with cedar siding and a tin roof on 38 acres west of Carrboro the bank didn’t get. He plans to grow tea, fruits and medicinal herbs and build a tea house on an adjoining field.

His brow is a bit more furrowed than when he button-downed for the downtown boosters, but he smiles easily and often. On Tuesday he and Megan were having a goodbye lunch for a scruffy-goateed intern from Mobile, Ala., who had spent the summer living on the teaching farm Megan runs, Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute, learning to grow his own food.

“It is a beautiful, vast universe,” Toben said, “and these things which seem large at the moment like the foreclosure – which felt like a tidal wave coming over us – turn out to be very small and inconsequential. ... The last two years have been the best two years of my life.”

Q: How did the book chapter come about?

Toben: Lyle said he was doing a book on individual stories about sustainability. I was still a little bit wounded by the Greenbridge story and was not thrilled about doing the story, but also thought it was a catharsis opportunity. He gave us a short time. I put it off and put it off and wrote it one night. It was the night before it was due.

There’s a beautiful quote from Joseph Campbell. It goes something like we spend so much of our time on building things of outer value, things like Greenbridge, that we lose sight of building the things that create inner value or really give us the experience of the rapture of life. Since Greenbridge – and I lost all my money – I’ve really experienced the rapture of life in a much more full way.

Q: What is the rapture of life?

Toben: The experience of real meaning and real intimacy with the natural world and with the universe. There’s something to slowing down and having long conversations with people.

I sort of am in two worlds now. I had the old world where I had wealth and had wealthy friends. And then I have the new world which has a lot of friends who have nothing, no material possessions – I mean, really, maybe $200 in the bank. And I find when I look at it, most of my wealthy friends are miserable and most of my poor friends are rapturous. And it’s a curious thing to me.

I mean that sound that we just heard ...

Q: What about that sound? I didn’t recognize it.

Toben: There was a little towhee. You know, last night we have a reading group that meets every Monday night. We’re studying a book right called “Spiritual Ecology.” It’s 7:30 to 9:30. I noticed over the course of two hours people had to talk louder and louder. And I realized the cricket frogs and the bullfrogs and the crickets were starting to overtake us in the decibel level. And so we just decided to end and listen, and we just sort of evaporated into this symphony of natural sound.

You know these are things I didn’t have time to do when I was doing Greenbridge. I didn’t have time to do this when I was doing KnowledgeBase Marketing.

(Toben sold a database company KnowledgeBase Marketing for $175 million, estimating his personal take at $10 million, most of which is gone except for the land he and Megan live on and farm.)

Q: Most people cannot imagine ever having the wealth you had, much less losing it. That’s the hardest part for me to get past, that you had all these wealthy friends and you couldn’t get a few hundred thousand here and a few hundred thousand there (to raise the final $1.6 million cost overrun).

Toben: I know, I know. We tried everything. We tried friends. We probably talked to 20 different venture groups. No venture group at that time was doing commercial real estate loans. I mean commercial real estate was in the toilet.

The other thing, at this time it was pretty clear that the average cost (of Greenbridge) was $620,000 a unit. You certainly can’t make any profit on that. These venture guys want 18 percent to 30 percent internal rates of return.

Q: The enormity of the problem, global warming, climate change, most people feel it’s too big to do anything about. Why was it not overwhelming to you? Why did you decide to do something about it?

Toben: I had taken a trip to Iceland. There were climate scientists on the trip. The trip was probably 2004. They were nervous at that time that we were approaching the tipping point, but there was great hope if a green building revolution could occur quickly.

And I was convinced by them that green energy and green building could make a difference, and that what we needed were new models. So I anteed up basically. (Architect William) McDonough said, “You find a property in Chapel Hill and I’ll design it.” At that time I was pretty idealistic.

The picture was different than it is today, and the picture is pretty grim. The reality is that we’re in for major change. Our focus has to be adaptation now.

Q: What does that mean?

Toben: The focus has to be how we’re going to operate differently in a time when we’re not going to have all the conveniences that we’ve had for the last 100 years. Climate change is happening. The Pentagon has done its analysis and says there are going to be all sorts of conflicts over resources, there are going to be huge refugee migrations, and there will be all sorts of social breakdowns. We may not have the ability to get petroleum fuel to places in 20 years.

And so that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing now, which is really small, low-level community building activities that tap into the inner nature, the kindness of people, the old skills – we’re making medicine out of elderberries, we’re growing our own food. We’re doing things that don’t require a lot of resources as a way to think ahead.

Q: Back to Greenbridge, and the opposition and your understanding of the opposition. I didn’t get during all the coverage – and I wrote some of it – that the anarchists were talking about Greenbridge being a “distraction” from the bigger issue. (Most of the public debate was over gentrification, a claim Toben rebuts by saying the Northside neighborhood had lost many of its family-owned homes to student rentals long before Greenbridge.)

Toben: I think the message was very unclear. And the message was annoying to say the least. But in this study group I finally figured it out. It really is that in their view green building and green energy is a distraction from the bigger conversation and the great crisis of our time, which is the industrial growth economy. And if you are participating in that in any way you are feeding the beast.

Derrick Jensen (“Deep Green Resistance”) says GDP has become a deity of modern America. I mean we worship this thing. It is the thing that everyone from George Bush to Barack Obama bow down to: We need this 3 percent growth rate to be healthy as a society. The inverse relationship he identifies is as GDP grows, ecosystems decline. It’s pretty clear that that’s the case.

So to participate in any part of that industrial growth economy you are part of the industrial growth economy, and projects like Greenbridge are a distraction from that bigger problem, especially now.

Q: But there’s nothing harmful about Greenbridge, is there?

Toben: That’s true, and that’s why it’s a distraction. How many hundreds of Chandler concrete trucks had to roll on and out of that site to create that thing?

You can’t excuse yourself because (the building) has these amenities that may reduce the overall effect (on the environment), but so inconsequentially that the harm that you’ve done is having the people of Chapel Hill – this progressive enclave of the state of North Carolina – believe that we’re really making progress, that we’re really doing something that will have an impact, that will really change the momentum of the juggernaut that is before us.

And so what they believe has to happen is de-growth or no growth

Q: What is that?

Toben: It basically is that the economy stagnates and that we work less.

Q: And then people can’t afford food and they can’t get their medical care. We had that. It’s called recession.

Toben: That’s right, that’s right, and we’re so afraid of it because ....

Q: But we should be afraid of it.

Toben: No.

Q: Not everybody can grow their own vegetables.

Toben: Well, a lot more can than we think. There’s a wonderful film about Cuba pre and post the petroleum embargo. They started growing food in alleys, on rooftops and on their porches. And they started growing medicinal herbs. Things would look very different in a world that’s (brought on by) recession.

Q: How much of that do you actually believe, and how much are you just entertaining the thought, the possibility that maybe that makes sense?

Toben: I’m getting closer and closer to saying maybe that makes sense.

Q: You understand my question, though, because some folks will say this guy lost $5 million; his signature project, he’s in shock.

Toben: Of course. I totally get that.

Then I think about the lifestyle that I had before I made the money that I made in KnowledgeBase Marketing, even living in Carrboro on Waterside Drive. There’s this sort of pace of life where you’re working as hard as you can to get a house, buy a new car, the latest technological device. That is really the result of this consumption economy, that we need more stuff to be happy, and my point is you don’t need all that stuff to be happy.

Q: I get that. But people also want to be secure.

Toben: That’s a really good point. And that’s a point I’ve really felt viscerally here. Because I had a big bank account, I had stocks and I had insurance. And I was taught by my dad and my granddad that’s what you needed to have at my age – I’m 54 now – that you needed to create this security. I now see that that is not security.

What is security in the event there is a financial crisis and banks default on loans and the stock market plunges? Security for me now is that I can grow my own food, that I have friends that have certain skills and I have certain skills that I can offer them in terms of how to build things, how to fix things and how to have conversations about what is meaningful in life. I do still have this catastrophic health insurance in the event I have cancer like my dad did.

Q: Let me clarify. Is it an oversimplification to say the anarchists were right?

Toben: I think there’s a lot of truth to what they were saying. I do understand the extreme frustration that teens and 20-year-olds are feeling today, and I don’t think we’re going to solve these problems with five-degree turns of the dial. I think more radical thinking and more radical action is going to have to take place in order to adapt to the world we’ve created.

You know my daughter and I have gone to four “Moral Monday” protests. I’m encouraged by that. A lot of people who have never been part of civil disobedience activities are starting to step up and see things are moving in the wrong direction. I tried to do what I could in an industry and as an entrepreneur to do what I could, but I see now I was only moving it a degree or two.

(He pauses several seconds.)

I’ve got a 4-year-old child who may live to the year 2100. And I really would like for him to snorkel someday in a place where there’s still fish on a coral reef. And I would love for him one day to seen an African elephant in the wild. And I would love for him to even to be able to eat the fish from that pond.

But the likelihood now, given the trajectory that we’re on is that he won’t be able to do any of those things and that he will be living in a poisoned world that is devoid of many of the creatures that we have today.

I think it’s a big, big deal. Where I agree with the anarchists is that something much more significant than Greenbridge and what it represented has to occur.


Schultz: 919-932-2003

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