Traverse City Record-Eagle


June 17, 2012

Eco-couple looks back — and ahead — on silver anniversary

TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck married each other and their work when they started Neahtawanta Research and Education Center on the 1987 summer solstice — their wedding day.

Now, a quarter century later, the center's activism and commitment to the environment, peace and social justice have helped connect and build a local community intent on confronting world ills.

That community, in turn, helped the eco-couple remain resilient in the face of Russell's cancer diagnosis in May 2011 and his continuing treatment. Russell now lives his life in eight-week cycles between body scans.

He received a clean bill of health at his May scan. The pair immediately started planning a June 23 gathering with friends to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and Neahtawanta's birthday.

"Resiliency" is a word environmentalists use these days to describe a shift in focus from preventing environmental devastation to adapting to and repairing it through downsizing, recycling, energy and waste reduction and non-polluting lifestyles.

Climate change and ecological system destruction were top environmental concerns in 1987. Today's issues are climate change and resource restraint.

"Essentially we and other environmental groups all failed," Russell said. "We're now past the point of repair and are going into a time of transition to lack of abundance and change of climate. We've had to shift to the work of resilience and how to adapt to the conditions humans have created."

He defines resiliency as a property of the natural world, which constantly adapts and evolves.

He and retired local television meteorologist Dave Barrons, with the help of former Dow Chemical media specialist Trent Tomlinson, produce a regular interview series called "Investigating Community Resiliency" on UpNorthTV, Traverse City's public access station.

Topics this year ranged from local food, energy, managing community waste streams, and agricultural trends to area chamber of commerce initiatives. Russell attended a conference last weekend on how to maintain local economies and improve investment in them — also a new focus for the center.

"We created a different earth and we have to respond differently," he said. "Our work now is how to make that transition as smooth as possible and not so dark."

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