by Nikhil SwaminathanNikhil Swaminathan
April 12, 2010
From Good Cities
Could the threat of a peaking oil supply lead to a hyperlocal revolution? A group of Portlanders thinks so.
Normally, when you need compost for your garden, you drive to the nearest Home Depot and pick up a couple of bags. It seems straightforward enough, but for some back-to-basics Portlanders, that would be a foolish way to accomplish such an errand. Instead, they log onto an online social network called Bright Neighbor to locate someone in their neighborhood who might have some compost on offer. If everything works out, they will walk their wheelbarrow down the street and return with it piled high with fertilizer. At what cost? It could be free. Or it might cost a few tomatoes from their garden. Or a complimentary kayaking lesson.
Bright Neighbor began in early 2008 as a “virtual commune,” allowing Portland, Oregon, residents to connect with their neighbors to set up ride shares, learn about community events, and barter goods and services—anything from astrological readings to chicken feed to household items. Its mission was never quite so simple, however. According to Tod Sloan, a Bright Neighbor member and a faculty member in the Department of Counseling Psychology at Lewis & Clark College, the site is facilitating the teaching of “real skills that are still intact in much of the world that we’re having to relearn, such as gardening and sharing tools.”
But why would those of us in the developed world need the skills obviated by modern conveniences? In February, a group of British businessmen led by the Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson sounded the alarm for peak oil—the point at which the world’s oil supply will begin dwindling, bringing about economic calamities like soaring energy and food prices. If we take seriously the forecasts that it will occur in 2015, then our reliance on those modern conveniences needs to be rethought.
“We needed an all-in-one system that educated people, that taught them living skills, that is a resurgence of what people used to know how to do—which is everything from growing food to trying to build the idealism of a Beaver Cleaver world,” says Randy White, Bright Neighbor’s founder. “Peak oil will either lead to a complete social breakdown or the mother of all local opportunities.”
The effects of peak oil remain to be seen, and the predicted economic shocks may never come. If they do, however, the Bright Neighbor community will be ready.
A little over a year since its launch, the site has 5,000 members, who discover it via word of mouth or from the several write-ups it has garnered in The Oregonian, Portland’s Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper. Tamara Staton, a 35-year-old language tutor who lives in the Cathedral Park neighborhood, discovered Bright Neighbor in late January when her husband read an article about Worm Island, the group’s new community-supported-agriculture venture based on worm farming. Staton, a self-professed Craigslist junkie, says that Bright Neighbor offers “a deeper option for connection,” a computerized version of knocking on your neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar.
“I think people at this point seem to still be testing the waters, putting in their profile but not engaging as much,” says Jonathan (who asked that his last name not be used), a 33-year-old who just returned to Portland after a year of traveling. “There doesn’t seem to be the critical mass of users who are ready to barter.” There are other shortcomings to the system: For instance, users can affiliate with multiple neighborhoods, making it difficult to tell who is actually your neighbor, and the site lacks a robust mapping feature, making it difficult for users to see where they are in relation to other members.
White admits that he hasn’t yet seen the surge in membership that he wanted. Regardless, he is busy extending the Bright Neighbor brand. He has begun setting up community-wide rallies, where skills such as tree pruning are taught. Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, bought one of the first $250 shares in the Worm Island CSA. Meanwhile, with BrightNeighbor.tv, White has produced a series of web videos that feature sustainable-minded local businesses and offer how-tos on creating home-based ecosystems.
If early interest is any indication, one of Bright Neighbor’s more promising ventures will be in the carbon-offsets business, using what White calls “an open accounting system.” A business looking to neutralize its footprint can buy fruit- or nut-bearing trees through Bright Neighbor, which plants them in the “food forest” (or yard) of a Portland resident. A picture of each tree will be displayed on the Bright Neighbor website with the logo of the business that sponsored it. Tom Dwyer Automotive Services, a local carbon-neutral shop, has bought 40 soon-to-be planted trees. The shop already offsets its carbon usage through an accredited foundation, but its outreach coordinator, Charles Letherwood notes that if White’s system becomes more official, “that would be probably the basis of our offset system.” White is also in talks with the Portland Trail Blazers to offset its carbon footprint from the operation of the Rose Garden Arena and its fans’ travel to and from games.
"Peak oil will either lead to a complete social breakdown or the mother of all local opportunities."
From its sports teams to its people, Portland’s progressive bona fides are the city’s primary calling card. A major city of 600,000 with a community-based, neighborhoody feel of Portland is the ideal venue for the Bright Neighbor social experiment, says Damin Tarlow, the director of asset management at the sustainable development company Gerding Edlen, another potential future participant in Bright Neighbor’s carbon-offsetting program. “In Portland, everyone is Kevin Bacon,” he says. “Our foundations lie in a very interpersonal, interactive environment.”
At a Bright Neighbor rally in late January, the roughly 150 people assembled ranged from people living entirely off the grid to small business leaders, Pakistani immigrants, and Oregon Institute of Technology grad students studying sustainability. According to Sam Drevo, an early Bright Neighbor adopter, the crowds at such events are steadily growing. Drevo has used the site for everything from finding a bookkeeper for his kayak-instruction business to buying compost and seeds for his garden to organizing carpools for river cleanups. “Bright Neighbor has been something that I’ve met a lot of knowledgeable people through,” he says. “If you were to take a cross section of the people using it right now, you’d probably be surprised by the expertise in different sorts of sustainability.”
Ultimately, that’s what White’s entire enterprise is about: crowd-sourcing information. He hopes to export the knowledge base he builds to other cities, employing people nationwide as worm farmers or administrators of other Bright Neighbor sites. And while he admits that he doesn’t know if there’s a demand for the platform outside Portland, he knows that serious threats to our way of life may be looming.
“Cheap energy has allowed us to increase our population exponentially, and not everybody will be able to evolve fast enough to keep up,” he says. “There’s a comic that I think about: You see these two dinosaurs sitting on the edge of the shore and in the distance you see a boat with two elephants and two giraffes. And one of the dinosaurs turns to the other and says, ‘Ah shit, was that today?’
“If you can’t evolve and realize that we’re going to have to help ourselves, then you might be sitting around waiting for someone to rescue you who never comes.”
Illustration by Scott Barry.
This article first appeared in GOOD Issue 19: The Neighborhoods Issue. You can read more from the issue here.