By David Morris, Co-founder of Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and first Director of ILSR’s Energy Initiative.
David and Neil Seldman were co-directors of ILSR from 1973 until 2013. He is a prolific author whose work includes We Must Make Haste Slowly: The Process of Revolution in Chile, 1973, Neighborhood Power: The New Localism, 1976, and Self-Reliant Cities, 1982, among numerous technical reports, articles and essays on localism and democracy.
When ILSR opened our doors in 1973 the chances of our entering adulthood, let alone being on the verge of our golden jubilee were vanishingly small. But here we are. And a key to our longevity has been Neil Seldman, not only because of his pioneering and immensely effective work but because of two unquantifiable but crucially important assets for successful institution-building: an irrepressible optimism (some would say, at times, wildly misplaced) that buoyed us during the lean, dispiriting time; and an unusual ability to communicate through instructive and engaging stories, usually centered on people and places and social change.
Neil understands theory and he understands practice. With regard to theory, he is astonishingly well read, with a special interest in history and particularly the history of popular movements. Among the many insights he offered us was that one cannot really understand an historical era until one had read at least four novels of the period. (A goal to which, I confess, I am still aspiring). Each author, no matter how meticulous, brings a different perspective to historical investigations.
In graduate school Neil studied political thought. His PhD dissertation explored the adaptations of Marx’s ideas by English and American activists at the turn of the 20th century. He came to appreciate the theory of Marx. But he came to appreciate even more the practice of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s partner and collaborator. A successful businessman, superb strategist, consummate communicator and effective organizer, Engels empirical reporting introduced Marx to the real plight of the English working class. His Dialectics of Nature confirms him as one of our foundational ecological thinkers. And his remarkable explanation of the economics behind women’s suppression, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, is a classic.
It has been a rare pleasure to listen to Neil formally lecture on all things Engels and Marxism and its relationship to local self-reliance.
Neil has been not only a student and teacher of political thought and history. He has been a student and teacher of the sport he loved the most: baseball. On the baseball diamond, Neil has been the catcher. For those unaware, catchers are the field managers. They call the game, frame pitches, calm pitchers and throw out base stealers, and they are the only baseball players wearing protective equipment, for obvious reasons. Which makes Neil’s 50-year longevity especially impressive. In the 1980s Neil traveled to Nicaragua to play baseball with and against players who had played in the majors. Almost 40 years later, he was still catching–this time in fast pitch softball.
Baseball is a team sport and Neil is a consummate team player, a trait that has enabled him to forge a network of enduring personal and working relationships in his field.
Neil’s experience working in his father’s retail mattress store and in his aunt’s cosmetic factory schooled him in the challenges and opportunities of business. In the summer of 1973, when ILSR was in the planning, astronomers gushingly reported that a comet as bright as the moon would streak across the sky that December. Someone in our planning group coined the slogan, “Kohoutek Cometh”. Which led Neil’s wife, Laura, a master silk screener, to create a beautiful design of a streaking comet on a background of stars. She printed up a dozen t-shirts and one intrepid member of our group went to New York City to knock on retail doors. Within a few hours she called to announce the sale of 500 to Hayden Planetarium and reported that Saks liked them but wanted sequins.
Neil jumped into action. He went to Orchard Street in Brooklyn and bought 10,000 t-shirts. The Washington Post praised our t-shirt. John Belushi wore it on Saturday Night Live. And then, alas, the astrophysicists re-evaluated. Kohoutek would not be the brightest object in the night sky. By November we were told that the best spot for actually seeing the comet at all would be the north Atlantic. So on December 3rd, when the Queen Elizabeth II took off from NYC Neil and Laura dutifully sat on the docks peddling, or trying to peddle, t-shirts.
Of the 10,000 we sold 5,000. Much of the rest became the foundation of a woman’s silk-screening cooperative founded by Laura.
A year or two later, Neil proposed we venture into small-scale manufacturing. His work in his aunt’s factory had taught him that the process of making cosmetic products lent itself to small-scale manufacturing. The women on staff nixed the idea of ILSR selling cosmetics. In retrospect they were right. But then again, I remember that at about the same time a few people in Maine began producing laundry detergents and soaps and then a toothpaste that they used not only to generate revenue but also to spread a message. And eventually, Tom’s of Maine did quite well.
Neil and ILSR came of age as the District of Columbia was gaining a significant measure of autonomy after more than a century under the direct tutelage of a subcommittee of Congress. Among the institutions created by the embryonic home-rule government was neighborhood planning councils in which Neil played a leading role. And he was associated with an unusual youth funding program in which the youth themselves made the competitive disbursement decisions. Neil always commented about how seriously and deliberately the youth made their funding choices, even when some of the recipients were neighbors or friends. We learned a fundamental lesson. Given real authority, teenagers will take on real responsibility.
In our early days, ILSR developed a decentralist framework that could be applied to all sectors, but we wanted to drill down in a few sectors to get on-the-ground experience and discover the relationship between policy and practice, and learn what works and what doesn’t, and see how change can and often does come from the bottom up.
Neil chose the garbage sector. And in doing so he began a lifetime of working mostly in communities of color because they often are the communities with the least power to say no to garbage transfer station or incinerator. In dozens of communities over more than two decades, Neil worked largely with multi-racial communities to stop incinerators.
A proposed incinerator usually was the catalyst for communities approaching ILSR and Neil for assistance. Neil always said yes, but would tell them upfront that we would help because the presence of a giant incinerator precludes a successful recycling program, but and that if we were successful in stopping the former, we would be there to help them build the latter. Which he did, in dozens of cities.
And as communities began to expand their recycling programs, Neil used his many personal contacts with small businesses that processed the recyclables into intermediate and finished products to convince the communities that successful recycling could translate into local economic development. In Los Angeles he brought in half a dozen small businesses that not only wanted to locate in LA but also were willing to partner with the communities in which they were located.
Neil’s work with unions also informed and nurtured his ILSR work. He rode with sanitation workers in DC at dawn on their collection routes, and later he helped their unions make their case when cities tried to privatize their solid waste systems.
In the 1990s, HUD wanted to demolish hundreds of public housing buildings vaguely promising to build equal numbers of new housing units. Neil visited the Secretary of HUD and proposed that HUD deconstruct rather than demolish because deconstruction lends itself to the kind of skill-training that could ungird a job training program. HUD was uninterested. So Neil went to Harford, Connecticut and developed a formal relationship between the local housing authority and the local building trades union that led to a successful deconstruction project in which mostly black youth were trained on deconstruction to gain the skills and experience to become union members.
Neil marched to his own drummer, and sometimes was out of step with his colleagues. But usually he was right. In the late 1970s, rapidly rising oil prices led national (but not local) environmental organizations to promote “waste to energy” plants and successfully lobbied the federal government to subsidize them. Neil called the new strategy “wasted energy” and worked with dozens of communities to stop them. By the end of the 1980s the communities had succeeded. By then the national environmental organizations had dropped their support. Although some states still call this energy “renewable,” the work of Neil and many others has convinced most policymakers that the idea is preposterous.
By the mid 1980s, recycling had moved from infancy to the brink of adulthood. The Waste to Wealth Initiative produced a steady stream of groundbreaking studies that helped define and propel the recycling movement. The Initiative documented the financial risks and environmental degradation caused by incineration; the success of recycling in small towns, rural areas and major cities to demonstrate that recycling levels could reach beyond 10%-25 which was the upper limit set by industry and the USEPA; the potential for cities and towns to stimulate local economies through recycling; as well as business plans for composting, building deconstruction and plastic enterprises. These documents, combined with direct intervention in dozens of cities, formed the basis for integrating recycling and local economic development, now a permanent component of the recycling movement.
In the 1990s recycling rapidly expanded and had moved from the bench to the starting lineup. But at the same time the solid waste industry became highly concentrated into a handful of dominant national companies. These companies promoted the idea of a single container where residents could throw all of their recyclables. Most cities embraced the convenience of it. Neil was one of the few who condemned the new development. He worried the new system could undermine an ecosystem painstakingly constructed over a generation. He saw vertically integrated waste companies begin to own not only the materials transfer station where trucks dumped mixed recyclables, but landfills as well, and begin diverting low margin recycling to more profitable landfill disposal.
With the advent of single bin mixed recyclables recycling rates stagnated. Neil also warned that the contamination rates experienced by mixing recyclables would undermine their value. For several years the warning went unheeded because China, desperate for raw materials to fee their rapidly growing manufacturing sector, was willing to bear the additional labor cost of further separating imported mixed recyclables. But in 2017 China suddenly refused to import any more highly contaminated US recycled materials. And suddenly Neil’s warnings and his decades-long insistence that local and regional scrap-based manufacturing be an essential part of a comprehensive recycling program, became mainstream thinking.
More recently, Neil has again rowed against the popular tide by taking on Extended Product Responsibility. He agreed with the concept. Product manufacturers should take responsibility for the disposal costs of their products. But he, and others, argued against states and cities also giving producers authority over the solid waste system. Neil reminded his colleagues that the prime movers behind EPR were also the prime supporters of a movement that stopped the highly successful state returnable bottle bills from expanding. As with all of his work, he connected to local coalitions to fashion state EPR rules that forced the product companies to pay for materials recovery but not to oversee the recovery system itself.
This summer Neil retired from ILSR, but not from his vocation. He is now the Director of the Recycling Cornucopia Project at the Zero Waste Coalition, working with a team of experts most of whom have worked with him on projects over the years. We should all be grateful he’s still in the fight. Original ILSR article