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Everyone Has a Story

Aaron Lehmer

As a young boy, Aaron Lehmer lamented as the cornfields outside his family’s suburban home in Des Moines, Iowa gradually were paved over to make way for more housing. Lehmer could not fathom how while agricultural land disappeared, people still believed that their food supply somehow would not. Perhaps it is this early memory of illogical expectations that began Lehmer’s interest in guiding people to a greater understanding of our connection to the environment, and to confronting the kind of corporate mentality that looks toward only profit, not communal needs.

photo of a young man, tree in backgroundCourtesy Aaron Lehmer

Lehmer, 36, began his activist career in 1996 as an intern with ReThink Paper (RTP), an Earth Island project that was dedicated to reducing the pulp and paper industry’s destruction of forests, reducing overall paper consumption, and promoting alternatives to wood-based paper. His primary interest in the organization stemmed from his concern over the plight of American farmers who were trying to make ends meet by planting crops such as kenaf, a cotton-like plant suitable for paper production, which would create new niche markets while providing strong yields.

After the year-long internship, Lehmer accepted a full-time position as RTP’s outreach coordinator, using his writing and presentation skills to advance the organization’s goals. After two years, he found himself increasingly concerned not only with how transnational corporations drive the economy, but also with the lack of citizens’ control over how resources are used. Lehmer decided to further his education so that he could maximize his ability to make change. He attended Humboldt College in Arcata, California, completing the Masters program in Globalization and the Environment. Research for his thesis on the promise of economic democracy took him to the coffee co-ops of Nicaragua, a country fueled by the economics of caffeine.

Lehmer brings such energy to his projects that one wonders whether all his waking hours aren’t also caffeine-fueled. His commitment to environmental issues has lead him to such roles as co-founder of Grassroots Globalization Network (a now-defunct Earth Island project that sought to “promote democratic ways for people to create healthier local economies, safer communities, and a cleaner environment”), program director at Circle of Life (which began as an Earth Island project), program coordinator at the Postcarbon Institute, and now, along with his job as campaign manager for Reclaim the Future at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, co-founder of his latest project, Bay Localize.

Based in Oakland, California, Bay Localize is diligently working toward its goal of decreasing society’s reliance on fossil fuels by increasing people’s ability to resist those corporate decisions that affect their daily lives. “We can’t continue to increase our dependency on an inevitably declining resource base and expect to transition to a sustainable economy,” Lehmer says.

The guiding premise of Bay Localize is that there is strength in numbers. Sharing the resources and know-how of communities and individuals allows those involved to make decisions that might otherwise fall to impersonal corporations. For example, by developing a series of rooftop gardens, neighborhoods can not only provide for more of their own food needs, but they can also create renewable energy, promote greater energy efficiency in their buildings, and reduce water runoff. Or, by pooling their purchasing power, small local companies can collectively make a decision to secure their power from renewable sources. Such projects result in both economic and social benefits for the community.

“It’s been extremely rewarding to see how this idea resonates with so many different groups,” Lehmer beams proudly.

Just as Lehmer’s heart has never strayed very far from the farmland of his youth, neither has it taken him far from Earth Island Institute. Bay Localize has applied to become a project of EII. At the risk of sounding corny, we’re ready to welcome him home.


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