Dave Gardner: Interview with an Activist, Part 1
Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting Dave Gardner, a man dedicated to creating a greener society, a place where people are more responsible for our resources. He walks against the winds of consumerism, and he asks questions that cause many discomfort given the anti-environmental dogma many of us have grown up hearing. I first met him at the Meadowgrass Music Festival in La Foret, where I stopped to talk to him at his booth.
Several months later, I got the chance to interview Dave at his home. I entered his residence, took off my shoes as I normally do when entering a house, and while Dave made me a mocha latte, we chatted about his environmental vision, how he arrived there, and what we need to understand in order to create a sustainable and healthy existence for future generations. His 2011 documentary, Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth, his YouTube videos, and his work in starting up the Colorado Springs Community Radio Station KCMJ all piqued my interest, and I wondered what made his revolutionary mind work, why he’d taken up these causes, and what really awakened him to the impact the consumerist lifestyle is having on our planet.
Because Dave had so much to share, I’ve decided to break the interview into two parts. The second part will be released next week.
Deen: This is Lindsay Deen with US Represented, and I’m here with Dave Gardner. He’s put together some amazing videos about growth, how our culture continues to work on this model of growth, a documentary called Growthbusters, as well, and a community radio station here in Colorado Springs.
Gardner: Never a shortage of good causes.
Deen: Yeah. So, Dave, what inspired you to really start looking into all these different issues.
Gardner: I think maybe the perfect storm of a couple of things happening. One would be midlife crisis, I would say. I had spent a good chunk of my adult life chasing the American Dream, trying to be a good provider for my kids, and I was sort of getting tired of that and recognizing how hollow that dream was. About the same time, I was becoming disenchanted with my home town of Colorado Springs. I had moved away when I got out of high school because I was tired of shoveling snow, and I moved back, finally, after 20 years in Dallas, Texas, I moved back in ’93 with my family.
It was a quality of life decision we made, which was get out of the rat race in Dallas, where you spend your life in your car, people shoot each other on the freeways, and you hear gunfire at night. It was just becoming a rude, uncomfortable place. It wasn’t pleasant. And we moved back to my hometown to enjoy a little slower, quieter life and be near the mountains.
During the ’90s, I watched what we moved back for slipping away. And I was frustrated by the fact that we, in Colorado Springs, we knew why we were here, but we were willingly, maybe grudgingly, but willingly trading it away because we felt like, “Well, a city has to grow or it’s dying.” Somehow we had come to believe prosperity comes from growth. So, well, we’d all love to be able to get a parking spot at the trailhead in the morning, but we gotta grow. Otherwise, there’s no jobs, apparently, is what they tell us.
And I knew you couldn’t do that forever, that it’s not sustainable, and that there had to be another, more contemporary prosperity model for us to be following, so I started to look into that even while I was already being a pretty active local citizen in local politics, advocating for us to stop chasing growth because it was clearly not providing the prosperity we believed it was providing. So there was plenty of evidence for that.
So, there was that, my frustration with the city trading away everything we love chasing growth, and it was the fact that I was tired of basically having a career that was designed just to make money, and I was ready to do something more meaningful with my life. That was the perfect time to become a starving artist. And I’m starving, but I’m having a ball.
Deen: Well, there’s something about being an artist, I think, that is fulfilling in more ways than just comfort. It’s something that’s deep in your soul.
Gardner: Yeah. It was really kind of interesting, the personal journey that I went through in getting out of basically producing spin films for big companies. I did a film for Enron, I did films for chemical companies that were trying to manage their reputation after they poisoned groundwater, I did films for multilevel marketing companies, and I never really gave it a second thought because I wanted the dollars. I wanted to be a good provider. And I learned some valuable skills.
But I don’t think my kids would be proud of me today for being a spin master for the fracking industry. And now, my kids are. My kids are proud of what I do now. Even though I’m certainly not rich, and I’m not even making a comfortable living, I’m doing meaningful work that really matters, which is exposing the lies of the fracking industry, and exposing the lies of the whole myth of prosperity from growth, which is going to kill our planet if we don’t get over that. It’s important work, it’s very fulfilling, and I’m pretty happy to be doing it.
Deen: It’s fascinating that you came from “working for the bad guys,” as it were, over to the side of light.
Gardner: I was practically the video department of Hill & Knowlton’s Dallas office. Hill & Knowlton is the big PR agency that did all of that tobacco misinformation campaign that kept our country, for years and years, from actually spreading the news that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. I learned from the best in the business about how to spin, and now, I’m glad I have that skill because I can spot it, from a mile away and in my sleep, but I can also turn it around and use it for good, too, hopefully.
Deen: It’s definitely a Jedi story.
Gardner: With apologies to my good friends at Hill & Knowlton, who used to invite me to the company picnic every summer, who were really good people. They were asleep, just like I was back then.
Deen: Well, I think that’s the thing. It’s like we all walk through our lives and we don’t consider really the impact our lifestyle actually has on the rest of our planet and the other people who are living in it. What really got you present to that?
Gardner: You know, it really was a step-by-step thing. It was like I mentioned. I was initially just bugged that it took me 25 minutes to drive from one end of the city to another instead of the 12 minutes when I first moved back here. It just personally bothered me. And that’s what got me started to paying attention to growth, the costs of growth, the impacts of growth, and why we do that. It took a few years of me constantly digging and reading and informing myself to suddenly wake up to what I should have known all along.
I read The Population Bomb in the late ’60s. And that’s why I only had two kids. I did not want to contribute to overpopulation. But then I went to sleep—for two decades, pretty much, very close to two decades. I recycled, you know, I was just sort of a basic, barely phone-it-in greenie, barely. It just wasn’t on my radar screen.
Suddenly, when I really started paying attention to these growth issues and researching it, I discovered: One, that in the MIT Study, The Limits to Growth, which was published in 1972, in which the business as usual scenario, if we just kept on going as we were, that we would grow our way into a collapse sometime in the first half of this century. Things would start to go bad because resources would start to become scarce, climate challenges would accelerate, and those kind of things.
But that wasn’t on my radar screen back in the early ’70s, and it got onto my radar screen when I started doing all this research. Not only are we fouling up the commute and the traffic, and the air quality in Colorado Springs, but this kind of behavior on a global scale—it’s happening everywhere—is basically driving our civilization off a cliff. That took me a little while to connect the dots, I guess you could say.
Deen: Yeah. So really, your awakening, or your second awakening, was born out of research and analysis, and really looking at the data and thinking, “What is going on?”
Gardner: Yeah, but that’s an interesting way to put it because what I’ve learned in the last decade of being an activist for sustainability, I’ve learned that the data and the facts aren’t what usually turn people. I’ve got some kind of character flaw, genetic mutation, or something, that made it so that the facts got my attention. That’s all it took.
Someone didn’t have to come and make some kind of emotional appeal for it to make a difference to me, but now, I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that just putting the facts in front of people doesn’t really change things. It’s pretty easy to go out on the Internet today and find some psuedofacts that will support whatever your worldview is, and you pretty well stick with your worldview, the facts be damned.
Deen: We all live from our own contexts, and changing that or even making a difference in someone’s point of view or worldview—it can be rough, especially without emotional appeals.
Gardner: But I’m living proof that for some people, it can happen. I think, in some ways, I hope, it might make me a better communicator about this because I was everything that I’m trying to help people not be today. I lived it. I was producing these spin films for companies that were fouling the environment, and they were obsessed with growth at any cost. The first year that I moved back to Colorado Springs, I know I flew back to Dallas 24 times in one year. I had a ridiculous carbon footprint.
I was flying all over the country, all over the world, and I never gave it a second thought. I was just counting the money in my checking account at the end of every month. And, I had a nice house. I used that to measure my self-worth, and I thought, “I’m a success.” Look at this big house. Three-car garage. I must know what I’m doing. So, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I kind of understand what a lot of people are still doing, but I’m trying to ring some alarm bells and help them discover, one, that it’s just going to kill our planet and our poor kids are going to have nothing to work with, but two, it’s really not even delivering what we want. It’s not really even making us happy. We’ve become slaves to the system. We work through lunch, we go to work early, we work late, we are available, 24-7, constantly reading our text messages and our email, and just go, go, go.
And the fact is, and it’s kind of a cliché, but no one on their death bed ever wished they spent more time at the office. If you think about it, well, what would you be wishing for when you’re on your death bed? The things you think about are actually the things that matter in your life. They’re the relationships. You’ll wish you’d spent more time just looking into the eyes of your wife or your husband, really knowing your kids, playing with your kids, sitting on the porch and enjoying the sunshine in the afternoon, taking a hike or a walk in the park rather than checking your text messages and hiring somebody to go tape your kid’s soccer game since you’re missing it because you’re making a dollar.
Deen: Yes. While you were exploring all these different ideas and the reality of what growth is really costing, what did you end up discovering, especially about Colorado Springs?
Gardner: Well, I think especially in the case of Colorado Springs, what I found was that there is a little bit of a good and evil thing going on. It always makes a good story, and as a filmmaker, I’m always looking for a great story, but I had already discovered it before I had even decided to make a film about this. And the Growthbusters documentary does feature Colorado Springs rather prominently. Our little town stars in things that wouldn’t necessarily make us proud.
What made Colorado Springs the star is that it’s a particularly prime example of what I call Growth Pushers. Colorado Springs is run by Growth Pushers or “Growth Profiteers,” you could say. There are people in town who make millions of dollars when the town grows. And I’m not even going to call those people evil. They are the “evil” force in the good and evil drama in the film, but I understand. They’re just normal people. In fact, one of my dad’s best friends ended up becoming a multi-multi-millionaire as a real estate developer here in town. And I know he’s a good guy.
But, once you start making millions by developing real-estate, you just sort of get hooked on that. You get an expensive house, an expensive lifestyle, and you have to keep that going, and the business model is to externalize as much of the cost of your business as possible. It’s particularly easy for real-estate developers to do that because of this mythology that we have going about growth.
Everybody believes that if a town is growing, it’s thriving, it’s bustling, it’s prosperous, and we don’t really, nobody really, hires an accountant to do the math to see if there’s really a profitable bottom line after you take into account all of the costs. That rarely happens. We just believe it. We just have this sense that, well, yeah, of course a town is better if it’s growing. It’s more successful. The developers capitalize on that, and that’s how they get public policy that pays for a lot of their business expenses.
A perfect example in the Springs is utility tap fees for when a new sub-division springs up on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs Utilities did a study several years ago now about what it costs to hook up utilities to each new house. What’s the infrastructure that it takes? It’s fairly complicated because it’s not just the cost of running wires from the street and pipes from the street.
You have to have capacity. You have to have generating capacity, water rights, water treatment capacity, and then you have to have the ability to move all that to those houses. And they determined that the tap fees that we charge when a new house is built covered less than half the cost.
And yet the City Council, who operates as the Board of Directors of the utility—we have a municipally-owned utility—they could not bring themselves to instruct the utility to adjust those tap fees to fully recover those costs. Why? Because they were afraid that would slow, way slow down, the real-estate development, the home-building, the growth, of the city. So, who pays for that? Well, every citizen pays and makes up the difference for those artificially low tap fees. And we do it gladly because most of us don’t even know about it. But those of us who do think, “Well, we gotta grow, for some reason.”
I’m here to tell you it’s a myth, and that’s just one example of why it’s a myth because, guess what? There’s a huge cost right there that you don’t ever figure. And the cost of building and equipping police stations and fire stations, and the cost of widening I-25 to accommodate more and more people in town, and the cost of acquiring more parklands so you don’t have to pick a number when you want to go for a hike. And those are just a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of the costs of growth that are never truly accounted for.
We feel like we don’t need to do the accounting because we know growth is good. It’s gonna make our town prosperous, and yet when we had phenomenal growth during the ’90s when I had first moved here, I was watching.
Phenomenal growth. And yet we never reduced taxes. You would think if growth was bringing prosperity that the city would be able to reduce taxes. The city would be able to reduce how much it charges you for a parking ticket. But none of that happened. No. Taxes went up, and at the same time, we developed this huge infrastructure backlog. We’ve got this big stormwater problem here in town today. Why? Because we did not require the developers to fully take care of the stormwater infrastructure that was needed by the real estate development that they were engaged in. And that was one more way we kind of hid the cost of growth from ourselves.
We were afraid to assess fully the costs that those developments should have paid because we thought that the homebuilding would slow down because houses would be too expensive, and we wouldn’t grow. Well, if that’s true, if it doesn’t make economic sense for somebody to pay that much for a house, or if it doesn’t make economic sense for a developer to create a subdivision if they have to fully pay the costs of stormwater infrastructure and utility tap fees, then you have to ask yourself, “Why does it make economic sense for the city, or all of the citizens, to then pitch in and do that?”
We do it because we have this belief, this faith, in growth everlasting, and the prosperity, and those are exactly the reasons we don’t get the prosperity.
Deen: We’re so busy paying for things that we thought were going to make a difference, but they didn’t really make that difference.
Gardner: One of the guys I interviewed for the Growthbusters movie, Eben Fodor, is a really great community development consultant in Oregon who’s done some of the best work studying the costs of growth, the impacts of growth. He did a great interview, and he wrote a great book called Better, Not Bigger. If you want to dig a little bit, there is really good evidence out there that cities do not come out ahead as they grow.
There’s a really famous study, one of the land trusts did a study to determine whether cities made more of a profit from having rows of houses versus having vacant farmland. And most people who run the cities think, “Oh, we want rows of houses because those are taxpayers. We’re going to get sales tax from the building of those houses, and when those people go shopping, we’re going to get sales taxes, we’re going to get property taxes. . . .” But the truth is, the cost of serving them almost across the board, across the country, ends up being more than the tax revenue that you get.
So it’s actually financially better for a city to be full of vacant farmland than it is to be full of houses.
Gardner: That’s the fact. But the belief is, we need more taxpayers, more shoppers.
Deen: We need more people. Because at least they’re putting something into the coffers, so that it can look like there’s money being made.
Gardner: And every now and then, somebody like me will make enough noise down at city hall, and they say, “Well, maybe we should look into this.” So they’ll direct someone to do a little study. But more often than not, what happens is—I think this may be in every city across America, maybe, but I know it’s happening in the Springs—there’s at least one economist who does almost all of the studies. And the real-estate developers end up paying for almost all of the studies, or the home builders. So, big surprise what the results are.
Have I depressed you enough?
Deen: I don’t really find it all that depressing, actually, because I think its something that our entire country is facing right now. Colorado Springs is a complete example of what’s going on everywhere. That’s why I like being here, that’s why I like living here because we’re really in the heart and mind of America. We are on that cusp, and we’ve got every element that’s arrayed like this throughout the entire country, so what happens here is a reflection of what’s going on nationally.
Gardner: And that’s why it was so easy for me to turn the documentary that originally was going to really be focused on Colorado Springs into what ended up being a real global film. In the film I jumped back and forth between what’s going on here in town and what’s going on around the world. Colorado Springs is just the poster child for the growth mania that is happening around the world.
Deen: And we’re actually really lucky here in the Springs because our air is pretty clean. Some cities, it’s not like this at all, especially with this many people. Because we are very spread out, at least we don’t get the effects on our lungs and bodies as badly.
Gardner: That’s true. But it’s not perfect, either. Our ground-level ozone has been getting worse year by year, and we never used to have ozone alerts, and we never used to have to watch that, and now that is becoming more and more a fact of life, but you won’t see that on the front page of the Gazette.
Deen: Or on any Fox News story. Maybe MSNBC every now and then.
Gardner: But people will say, “Ah, well, that’s the price of growth.” It’s similar to the decision that someone in L.A. makes. If you live in L.A., the air you’re breathing is killing you. But there are plenty of people who gladly or willingly live in L.A. because they want to make the money, so they put up with that.
In a way, that is a symptom that we see throughout the world, and I would equate that to this whole “job creation” mania we have. You know, you can get away with anything if its in the name of job creation. That job creation is more American than apple pie and hot dogs and baseball. Fracking. That’s the justification for fracking. That’s job-killing, if you actually regulate this industry to the point that it needs to be so that you have even marginal assurance of clean air and clean water. That’s going to kill jobs. You don’t want to do that.
Well, with that line of reasoning, we could say, let’s all smoke so that we have plenty of tobacco workers employed. Let’s all insulate our houses with asbestos so those asbestos workers can be employed. Let’s burn down the house so the firemen will have jobs.
Deen: Yeah. I agree. It’s that strange faulty logic, but it’s so ingrained in our psyches and in our culture.
Gardner: And it’s easy for it to stay that way because so many of us are just sleepwalking through life because we’re slaves to that system. Work work work like a dog. Come home. Flop on the couch and watch American Idol. Take a pill, go to sleep, and then start all over again.
So I’m really thankful that I’m not living that life. I don’t have a lot of money—I can’t just go buy something because I want it, and I can’t really afford to hop on a plane and fly to Cabo once or twice a year for a vacation, and sometimes that bugs me a little bit. But, at the same time, flying to Cabo has a huge carbon footprint, and buying new things is tough on the declining resources in the world, so shop at Goodwill.
Earning less money sort of frees you and opens you up to start doing things that are much more in the best interests of your kids.
Deen: Like really being there for them.
At this point, we paused and switched topics to discuss the community radio station Dave has organized. There’s more to come from Dave Gardner, as I’ll continue with the second part of the interview next week.
As I transcribed his words, the construct of our common American madness, that thing that keeps us pushing to posh it up and make a buck, became quite clear. The dilemma: how can we change the direction of an entire culture built on good consumerism?
Education is the first step. We can’t do anything unless we’re informed about local issues and what’s going on in our area. Then, organization, movement, discussion, action. Maybe we need to create a conversation with the power structure where we, the People, can question whether we want our towns to be run like a Monopoly board game. The monopoly man never has the best interests of the commonwealth at heart, and that needs to be addressed for the good of our society and culture.
What it really takes, though, is people who are willing to live and model a more sustainable lifestyle. And maybe that’s where we all need to start.