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Bookish Memorial For Traverse City Activist

An unusual book group begins in Traverse City this month. It’s a memorial for a man who passed away this summer and left behind a list of books related to the main concern of his later life. Bob Russell was convinced our planet faces a future with severe problems related to energy use and climate change, and he spent most of his spare time trying to prepare his neighbors for the future he saw.

Russell was often referred to as an environmentalist, but his activism was more comprehensive than that word might suggest. You could find him involved in all sorts of civic work like creating a local currency, Bay Bucks, sitting on the local board of public works or holding a conference to talk about better governance.

All his efforts were informed by a huge library. Russell’s home and business, the Neahtawanta Inn, burned last February. Dave Barrons helped put the library back after the clean up, and he says it took two people a couple half-day shifts to shelve all the books. 

“And they range from field guides for Australia of all kinds because he’d lived in Australia,” says Barrons, “to Boy Scout handbooks and such practical things as how to tie knots all the way up to the most esoteric and current literature you can imagine.”

The esoteric stuff concerned critical issues like climate change. Bob Russell had every "State of the World" report published since they began in 1986. That’s an annual look at global environmental concerns.

Dave Barrons says Russell read right up to the end of his life. They produced a community television show together for the past few years. This summer, as Russell was in the past phase of his battle with cancer, they taped three extended conversations together.

The show is called "Investigating Community Resilience" and is produced at Up North Media in Traverse City. Resilience is a word used by people thinking about how to prepare for unpleasant scenarios for the future of our planet. A resilient community is one that has some ability to deal with events like a flood or a dramatic spike in the cost of gasoline.

Bob Russell was convinced that our society’s constant focus on economic growth, powered by fossil fuels that only burn once, is folly. He warned that without an applied understanding of resilience, the systems that now make up our civilization will collapse under the weight of nine billion people.

“It will be a painful crash,” he told Barrons.

The way Bob Russell saw it the best solutions are cooperative. He was a huge fan of cooperative entities like Oryana Natural Foods Market, a member owned store in Traverse City.  On one show he pulls out a book called "Owning Our Future", a study of cooperative businesses around the world. He goes on to say science shows cooperation is the best way to live.

“Our species evolved the most when we cooperated not when we were in competition,” he said.

As they were tapping the shows it occurred to their producer, Trent Tomlinson, that the reading list ought to be preserved and promoted. So the Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project was born.

Russell passed away in August. The first book discussion will be February 24th at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The book is "Cooked" by Michael Pollan.

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.