World premiere video on Greensburg, Kansas: A red state town turns green

On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was destroyed by an F5 tornado.  Almost every building in town was leveled.  Eleven were killed, dozens injured.  Yet within days, the people of Greensburg had committed to rebuild their town, and to rebuild green.  Today, Greensburg is the greenest town in the USA, and maybe the world.  Much of their electricity now comes from wind.  There’s some solar.  There’s geothermal.  And there’s highly efficient buildings.  There are more LEED Platinum rated buildings in Greensburg per person, and per acre, than anywhere in the United States.  All town buildings are now LEED Platinum.  There are Platinum rated homes, a beautiful, LEED Platinum school for the children of Kiowa county, and Platinum-rated private businesses.  People come from all over the world to see how a small farming community pulled together to rebuild and transform.  When I visited this September with Randy Olson, we met two visitors from China’s leading teacher training university who were touring Greensburg’s new school to learn how they can develop green schools in China.

All this happened deep in the heart of Kansas, a red state with strong conservative values.  The people of Greensburg are religious and mostly Republican.  Most of them voted for President George W. Bush, twice, and were proud to pull the lever for him. I expect that, like many other Kansans, many of them don’t believe in global warming.  And yet they rebuilt green.

That’s guest blogger Prof. John Sterman of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  Sterman is a leading expert on systems thinking and climate change.

Without further ado, here’s the world premier of “Amber Waves of Green,” directed by  scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson:

Here’s more from Sterman:

Talking to the folks there I got the strong sense that they did it because they wanted to take charge of their future, that unless they created a vision of a better Greensburg the town might not be rebuilt at all – that people would move to nearby Pratt or distant Wichita, and Greensburg would become prairie again.  They were willing to sacrifice in the short run to build for the long run.  It would have been easy to take the insurance and FEMA money and build something fast and cheap, or just to move away.  Some did.  But most stayed, living in FEMA trailers or crowded together with relatives and neighbors whose farms escaped the tornado while they rebuilt.  The children of Greensburg weren’t shipped to another town for school, but went to class in trailers for three years while their new school was built.  Now they are learning in a beautiful new building that uses a fraction of the energy, water, and materials used before.  A geothermal ground source heat pump draws energy from the prairie earth to heat and cool their classrooms.  Cisterns collect rainwater to irrigate the gardens.  A wind turbine spins near the new football field.

Climate change has become one of the most polarized and politically divisive issues in our country today.  Opinion polls, such as the recent study from Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication show huge gaps between Democrats and Republicans.  For example, 81% of Democrats agree that global warming is happening, but only 47% of Republicans; 68% of Democrats believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, but only 33% of Republicans.  These huge gaps are important because they are not disagreements about what we should do about the risks of global warming.  They are disagreements about the scientific facts.  We now live in a nation where people’s political affiliation determines what they believe to be true about the physical world.  Serious, respectful dialogue has broken down.  The prospects for action seem dim.

And yet Greensburg rebuilt green.  Make no mistake, the folks there still drive pickups, and you won’t see many Priuses.  But Greensburg shows that we don’t have to sit by and do nothing while oil imports weaken our economy, while the climate changes, while jobs keep moving offshore.  Greensburg shows that it’s possible to make the dramatic changes we need to cut our dependence on fossil fuels and our greenhouse gas pollution, and that when we do we’ll save money and live better.  Perhaps it’s their pioneer spirit of self-reliance, or the conviction that we shouldn’t be dependent on foreign oil, or that it’s foolish to pay more for energy than we need to.  Whatever the source, Greensburg is important because it shows that building green isn’t just for the affluent, isn’t just for liberals, isn’t a partisan issue, isn’t a choice between a healthy economy or a healthy environment.  It’s about preserving the environment so we can have a healthy economy.  It’s about creating jobs by building green.  It’s about taking charge of our future.  It’s about our children. It’s about what made this country great.

— John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan school.

Randy Olson is the writer/director of the feature films, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.”  He is also the author of, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” (Island Press, 2009).  The music was kindly donated by his friend, country music legend John McEuen, the co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and recipient of three Grammy Awards, including this year for producing Steve Martin’s collection of original banjo tunes, “The Crow.”
Kudos to Olson and Sterman — and Greensburg.
Comments on the video are welcome.
More on Greensburg:
More on Sterman’s work:

20 Responses to World premiere video on Greensburg, Kansas: A red state town turns green

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s nice to see this green commitment, but they should have rebuilt with either reinforced masonry or steel in case another tornado strikes. Houses built from two by fours turn into a pile of matchsticks after a tornado or hurricane. The other problem is that wood from industrial logging carries an enormous CO2 emissions burden, a fact disguised by the US timber industry in their reports to both EIA and IPCC,

  2. Some European says:

    OT: Benin

    From NOAA’s State of the Climate
    “The United Nations (UN) News Centre reported on October 14th that the West African country of Benin was the hardest hit among all Central and West Africa countries affected by heavy rains and flooding. At least 43 people died and more than 90,000 lost their homes. Additionally, 800 cases of cholera were reported across the country, with seven deaths attributed to the water-borne disease outbreak. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, flood waters covered *TWO-THIRDS* of the country.” (emphasis added)

    From IRIN
    “BENIN: Counting the cost of flooding
    DAKAR, 8 November 2010 (IRIN) – Relief agencies and the government of Benin have appealed for US$46.8 million to help the West African nation recover from the worst flooding in nearly 50 years: Agricultural experts have warned of huge damage to land and livelihoods in rural communities.
    “We are talking of farmers losing 100 percent of their crops,” warned Saïd Hounkponou, head of Benin NGO Initiatives pour un Dévéloppement Intégré Durable (IDID). “When you have fields of maize, manioc and other crops flooded to that degree, there is nothing left to harvest.” ”

    Of course, none of that is ever going to happen in the west, so why care?

  3. Wit's End says:

    I think the Greensburg story is fascinating and I would really like a more definitive answer as to why, exactly, this redstate community decided to go green. Did the tornado cause climate change deniers to understand that pollution is causing more frequent violent storms? If we want this sort of effort to be replicated (yes we do!), it’s important to understand what inspired this transformation. The reasons listed in the post seem too numerous and vague. I went to the website and haven’t found any clarification yet.

  4. Not A Lawyer says:

    Planet Green/Discovery had a series on this not too long ago. I didn’t get a chance to see it all, but I never got the sense that it was really about climate change deniers having a sudden conversion or anything like. I think it really did boil down to, as Mr. Sterman says, they were afraid the town would literally vanish from existence and the people would have to move.

  5. Gord says:

    Twitter URL for this page is broken. 10:47 AM EST Nov 9th.

  6. Wit's End says:

    Not A Lawyer, that explains why they rebuilt, but not why they rebuilt GREEN. It costs more to rebuild green. Maybe it was economic – somebody clever figured out how to get government grants thereby actually making it cheaper? Why hasn’t New Orleans rebuilt at all, let alone green? I think, it would be quite useful to understand the motivation.

  7. James Newberry says:

    Isn’t America a strange inconsistency of values? Those who voted twice for one of the most radical exploiters to hold the office of US President, base their town’s reconstruction on the core value of conservation.

    Thanks to Randy Olson.

    I once heard a foreign ambassador describe how their delegation decided to “go green” with their embassy building in DC. They did some in-house thinking, then spent $40,000 for design consultation and then $110,000 to retrofit building improvements. For a total out-of-pocket of $150,000 and much public approval and goodwill, what economic return did they get? The answer is $150,000 per year in reduced operating costs, for a simple financial return of 100%.

    They had to change their attitude to Think Green before they found an energy investment return that any investor would happily endorse. This seems to be the case for “clean energy” across America. (Witness the new 2010 governors of upper mid-western states stating rail passenger transport is not an option, while other nations provide rides past traffic, and traffic jams, at hundreds of kilometers per hour via the inherent efficiency, safety and enjoyment of passenger rail transport.)

  8. Ken Johnson says:

    This is a great story, but I object to the author’s statement that “I expect that, like many other Kansans, many of them don’t believe in global warming.” Let them speak for themselves.

    This is one small example of how “progressives” continue to reinforce political polarization by trumpeting and exaggerating the message of climate denial. For example, last week I saw a news caption on that said “Most Republicans Don’t Think Global Warming Is Happening”. The headline linked to a story by Elizabeth McGowan titled “Study: Only 47% of Republicans Think Global Warming Is Happening” — the same figure cited by Sterman. 47% of surveyed Republican responded “Yes” to the question “Do you think global warming is happening?” But upon reading the small print in the article, I found that only 38% responded “No”. 38% is not “most”, and it is significantly less than 47%. McGowan’s story would have been more appropriately titled “Study: Only 38% of Republicans Think Global Warming Is not Happening”.

    So based on the cited study, the “mostly Republican” people of Greensburg more like than not do believe in global warming.

  9. catman306 says:

    Consulting Google maps, I discover that Greensboro, KS is about 200 miles from Wichita, home of Koch Industries, but only about 30 miles from Liberal, KS. Could that be the reason?

  10. Ken Johnson says:

    [typo in last sentence: “… more likely than not …”]

  11. cyclonebuster says:

    “Tornado events” are lower with “Underwater Suspension Tunnels” as they upwell enormous amounts of cooler water in the Gulf Of Mexico loop current thus lowering SSTs in the Gulf of Mexico. This cools the atmosphere and the warm air is no longer there to mix with the cool Canadian air migrating from the Northwest thus lowering the chance for severe weather and tornado formation. Ya’ll get it yet?

  12. Leed platinum says:

    That town is fine. I go there once a year. Relatives show me the progress and the Archie that designed some of the buuldings keeps me updated. Most of the work came from large FEMA budgets.

  13. Roger Wehage says:

    Opinion polls, such as the recent study from Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication show huge gaps between Democrats and Republicans. For example, 81% of Democrats agree that global warming is happening, but only 47% of Republicans; 68% of Democrats believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, but only 33% of Republicans.

    Might it be appropriate to replace agree and believe with say in the above statement? Just because I say that I agree with or believe (in) something in response to a poll question doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with it or that I believe (in) it.

    Do we really believe that the Republican folks from Greensburg, Kansas are any different from the Republican folks from most other Kansas towns and communities or from most other Midwest towns and communities or from towns and communities throughout most of the country? I don’t think so. So what happened? Did the townsfolk get struck by lightening or hit on the heads by flying boards when that F5 tornado went through? Or could it be that they weren’t being exactly truthful when answering those poll questions? I tend to believe the latter.

    I also tend to give Republicans and Democrats alike credit for sufficient intelligence to understand what 97% of climate scientists are saying about climate change and global warming. I think the majority of Americans believe the scientists but don’t want to admit it, because they fear that the government will force them to change their lifestyles, lifestyles they’ve known their entire lives. And they fear that forced changes could take away some or all of their five prized vices, houses, cars, food, luxuries, and income. They also fear the uncertainty and cost of making these changes.

    The F5 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas accomplished some of those changes in an instant. It destroyed houses and businesses and cars and luxuries. Now the inhabitants had a choice; replace with the same or better or worse. After the F5 tornado wiped out Charles City, Iowa in 1968, the inhabitants replaced their buildings with the same or sometimes worse, because climate change and global warming were essentially unheard of at the time. If the inhabitants of Greensburg, Kansas had really believed that climate change and global warming weren’t happening or that human activities weren’t responsible, is it likely that they would have gone to the extra expense and anxiety of building a green community? I doubt it.

    My guess is that the Greensburg community had one or more innovators who showed the community the way and they followed, because the people really did believe that this was the right way to go. And what they really believed was not what they said in the polls.

    So what the communities around the midwest and the country and the world need are innovators to show them the way so they can follow. That’s where climate scientists can shine. We’ve heard enough about the dangers of climate change and global warming. WE BELIVE YOU, even though we may be too frightened to admit it. We need you to show us how to do what you say we must do and in ways that won’t destroy our lifestyles and bankrupt us.

  14. paulm says:

    Food prices….

    Metro Vancouver is calling for the provincial and federal governments to come to the aid of local farmers who’ve seen their crops wiped out by weeks of exceptionally heavy rainfall.

    most of these crops … we don’t have insurance,” said Steeves. This year’s rain has been a “once-in-a-century happening,” he said. “Why would you insure it?”

    estimates losses to local farmers at no less than $30 million

  15. Terry Heidelberg says:

    What seems to be missing in this story are some hard-nosed numbers on costs.

    I see at that DoE spent at
    least $2million to assist Greenburg to be energy efficient in the rebuilding
    process. I see at
    that FEMA spent at least $49million in disaster assistance to Greenburg.
    Is there a recent summary of the total monies spent by various government
    agencies to help Greenburg recover from this disaster?

    Are there good numbers on how much (if any) additional costs were incurred
    to build to the LEED-platinum standards, rather than some lower-level standards? What are the recovery periods for these additional costs?

    Surely the writers/filmers of this story are not suggesting that one should
    get one’s town completely destroyed in order to “go green.” If so, the real questions should revolve around how much costs are incurred to “go green”, the potential recovery periods for these investments, and their durability properties, as well as expected energy savings over the projected lifetimes of the rebuilt or modified structures.

    If we knew good numbers about what percent of the rebuilding in Greenburg came
    from “outside” government agencies, then we could make some judgments about
    whether the Greenburg case is a one-off financed mostly by government
    agency support, or an example that is scalable to the rest of the country
    in non-disaster-recovery situations.

    Do such good numbers exist somewhere?

  16. Roger Wehage says:

    Leed platinum says: Most of the work came from large FEMA budgets.

    What will red towns like Greensburg, Kansas do when the Republicans and Tea Partiers do away with government agencies like FEMA?

  17. Claudia F. says:

    Good for them, but it’s too late now. Averting dangerous climate change would have meant having a basic understanding of and belief in science, possessing the intellect to resist the constant propaganda, and taking action at least a decade ago. I don’t think that there is anything that surprising in people changing course when their lives are immediately and severely affected. Re-building green makes a lot of economic sense, but it won’t save us at this late stage.

  18. Roger Wehage says:

    I imagine there’s only one way that residents of Greensburg will give up their SUVs.

  19. Chris Winter says:

    Terry Heidelberg wrote: “If we knew good numbers about what percent of the rebuilding in Greenburg came from “outside” government agencies, then we could make some judgments about whether the Greenburg case is a one-off financed mostly by government agency support, or an example that is scalable to the rest of the country in non-disaster-recovery situations.

    Do such good numbers exist somewhere?”

    It’s not easy finding such numbers.
    The Cost of LEED Certification
    New Data on the Cost of LEED, Credit-by-Credit
    Posted April 16, 2010 12:22 PM by Nadav Malin
    Related Categories: Mister Tristan Talks LEED

    The second link points to a new report which is probably what you want, but costs $49.00.

    These may also be helpful.
    Obama Already Has $72B on Tap to Green Buildings, Study Says
    By GreenerBuildings Staff
    Published April 30, 2010

    “All told, the programs identified in this report have the potential to directly provide or facilitate over $72 billion in funding or loan guarantees, and can leverage hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment through instruments such as mortgage insurance and regulation of the real estate lending market.”
    Green Buildings Do NOT Have To Cost More To Construct
    Stuart D. Kaplow, January 2010

    There is no statistically significant difference in construction cost between LEED® and non LEED projects.

    That statement will surprise some. It is not the puffery of some global warming activist, but rather a penultimate conclusion of a major study of 107 actual projects in New York City. Read on to be shocked as to what that study found about LEED Commercial Interiors project costs…

  20. Mike O'Brien says:

    As an American, I firmly believe in helping out my fellow citizens when they have been hit by a natural disaster. In this case, I am proud of Greenberg for using our federal assistance dollars to build back their town better than before. Whatever motivated them, it’s a wonderful jump into the future.

    Here in Portland some development teams are on their third and fourth generation LEED buildings and they are starting to cost less than similar conventional buildings, while outperforming earlier buildings.