Ashland's environmental scout

Growing up in Ashland with home-schooling and a profound love of nature, Elias Alexander, 20, came into adulthood with recognition that the planet was in trouble and maybe his life could make a difference.

After a year studying theater at Northwestern University, Alexander has expanded his mission to include environmental studies and (after attending the inauguration of President-elect Obama) will take off on a learning tour of Findhorn and several other ecovillages and "transition towns" in Europe.

His goal? To report back what he finds to Ashland's new mayor (a family friend), to support the city's sustainability drive, to learn how to direct and teach the skill sets of ecovillages and to work the knowledge into his bachelor's degree, which he plans to continue at an Ivy League university.

Ecovillages are communities where all functions — food, water, energy, money, even spirituality in some cases — operate sustainably from the ideas and energies of inhabitants, while transition towns are regular towns where significant numbers of inhabitants work to transform it to sustainable systems, says Alexander.

The forces driving this movement are climate change, the end of cheap oil and the declining economy, adds Alexander, who in addition to his environmental work, has taken time to learn bagpiping, volunteer for the Obama campaign and appear in many plays — including "Brigadoon," now at Camelot Theater.

"The issue of climate change is not only environmental but is a moral issue," he said. "We have the imperative to take as much action as we can or we're going to be harming billions of people. It's going to affect society on a huge scale and it's been a dream of mine for many years to do what I can to help us live sustainably."

Alexander will undergo a five-week training at Scotland's Findhorn Community, the oldest ecovillage in the world, learning the techniques of sustainable living, including food, water, shelter, waste and community decision-making.

In spring, he will visit ecovillages or transition towns in Kinsale and Eco Cloughjordan in Ireland, Totness in England, Sieben Linden in Germany, Haarlem in Holland and Danahur in Italy, followed by a stay at the Four Generations Project in Kenya, which is based on connecting youths to elders through stories and the love of the land.

The Kenya project plays into both his love of theater and nature and will be woven into his college and life work, he notes. To raise the $5,000 for his trip, Alexander worked for many months and secured grants and donations from family friends.

There are only a few ecovillages and transition towns sprouting in the U.S. — and Alexander hopes to lend his skills to help Ashland (which is already strong in his interests of theater, nature and sustainability) down the path toward becoming a transition town.

Alexander's evaluation of present-day culture and its awareness of impending climate changes is that most people are still focused on being consumers and getting the money to pay bills — while also feeling removed from the centers of political action.

However, he adds, the promise of transition towns is that they bring one's identification "back to where you live and where you can do something sustainable, that connects you to community and makes you happy."

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