There's a core theme running through "Growing a Better America," the new book by Mother Nature Network co-founder, tree farmer and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell: America will always continue to grow, but there's no reason why we can't be smart and sustainable about that growth.
"The growth is going to be what it's going to be," says Leavell, speaking from a rehearsal studio in New York City. "But what we can do is guide that growth and give people options."
"Growing a Better America" presents numerous examples of this smart growth, including planned communities, intelligent design for our homes, reducing carbon emissions and waste as ways of saving money, and using biomimicry to learn from nature.
"We did a lot of research, and I compliment my co-writer J. Marshall Craig on that," says Leavell. "We wanted to come up with a way we can guide our growth and grow with forethought and care for the environment."
The impetus for the book, says Leavell, came when he gave a speech about what he calls the invisible forest health crisis: "the loss of natural lands due to growth and development." As he writes in the book, his home state of Georgia is losing on average 54 acres of natural land per day, adding up to 19,000 acres a year. "I gave a statement in that speech: Are we going to grow rapid, rampant and reckless, or can we grow in a way that is smart, strong and sustainable?"
Using his experiences running a tree farm in Georgia with his wife, artist Rose Lane, and as a musician, touring with acts like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, Leavell has assembled a book with Craig that presents the many challenges we face, as well as solutions.
"We wanted to show people that there are ways to grow sustainably," says Leavell.
One of the primary examples in his book is the Georgia town of Serenbe, located 30 miles outside of Atlanta. Founded by restaurateur Steve Nygren, Serenbe was designed to create a green community that benefited both its residents and the environment. "Steve owned this property in the country, and he saw growth coming," says Leavell. "He asked, are we just going to have houses thrown up without a thought?" Instead, Nygren preserved 80 percent of the region as green space while creating an efficient, farm-to-table community that uses energy wisely and raises much of its own food. "The houses are EarthCraft standard. They're well insulated and have the best appliances that use the least amount of energy. The businesses are all walkable, and there are miles and miles of hiking trails. It's intelligently designed and a healthy lifestyle that encourages people to walk and enjoy and get into nature. It's a wonderful model."
The book also profiles numerous businesses, like another Georgia company, the industrial carpet maker, Interface, Inc. "Interface CEO Ray Anderson is a remarkable man," says Leavell. "He's made a commitment to himself and his company to have a zero carbon footprint by the year 2020." In the process, the company has already dramatically reduced its use of raw materials, electricity and water, and saved a lot of money in the process.
Examples like Anderson prove Leavell's point: "Going green actually makes money. It creates green in two ways. It saves natural resources and it puts money in our pockets."
He says many businesses in the U.S. are "making really sincere efforts to be aware of the environment and lower their footprints. Many of them are setting the standard. But we need more businesses and manufacturers to join this effort. If you look at what these companies are doing, you can do it, too."
Leavell calls himself a patriot, saying his book reflects his love of America. "I'm so proud to be an American. Our country has led in so many ways." But in his travels around the world, he sees things we should be doing more of: solar, wind energy, high-speed rail and more. "These are remarkable things we should be doing here."
What's the take-away of "Growing a Better America"? "It's a critical juncture," says Leavell. "Now is the time. If we address the issues we're facing now, I think we can grow in a good way, and in a careful way." Yes, there are challenges, but there are also viable solutions, and they aren't political. "The environment doesn't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat," he says. "It's one environment. It's up to us to care for it and up to us to neglect, abuse and ruin it. We have to do this in an American way, not a partisan way."