Picture this: A handsome 28-year-old bachelor is transferred by his computer company in California to its Paris office, complete with a company-paid two bedroom penthouse overlooking the City of Lights. Good pay and plenty of time to enjoy French wine, French food, and yes, French female companionship. It’s the kind of job most young men would kill for and Taylor Selby felt pretty much the same way when he landed in Paris in 2000. But six months into this dream life Selby found himself channeling Peggy Lee, asking “Is That All There Is?”
“I was having a blast, but when the novelty started to wear off, I began questioning myself: What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing?” The answers eventually led him and his fiancé, Christina, to Santa Fe as the co-founders/creators of Earth Care International, teaching Santa Fe youth how to preserve and protect their own environment.
SantaFe.com: Okay, we’re talking about a big leap here. How did saving the world get so implanted in your brain?
Taylor Selby: A friend of mine at work in California gave me a book, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. It was mainly about our population’s disconnect with nature and it alarmed me. It marked my first time ever to be concerned about the state of the world. I started doing a lot more reading.
SF: When you moved to Paris, were you still gnawed by thoughts of the earth’s environmental problems?
TS: Even in that terrific lifestyle in Paris, I started studying about the problems of global warming, deforestation, learning about species becoming extinct and thought, “Well, this is depressing.”
SF: Were you feeling pretty much alone over there in this way of thinking?
TS: A friend in Paris to whom I had talked about it said she had a friend in the States, Christina, who was all about saving the earth. Christina and I started an email correspondence and on a business trip back to the States I got to meet her. I even talked her into coming over to Paris and help me figure out how to set up Earth Care.
SF: You must have been very convincing.
TS: We were sitting at a great outdoor restaurant in San Diego overlooking the ocean when I first broached the idea of her coming to Paris. At that moment she looked up and saw a U-Haul truck drive by with an Eiffel Tower and the word Paris written on the side of it. This must have been a sign for her because in two weeks she was in Paris.
SF: So the two of you launched Earth Care in Paris?
TS: We spent four months working on it, finding people willing to support us and learning how to set up a nonprofit corporation. About that time my company went bankrupt; so, the timing was perfect. We flew back to the States and moved into Christina’s Volkswagen Jetta.
SF: That was home?
TS: Pretty much. We packed lots of camping gear into the car and spent six months traveling around the country trying to find the perfect place to launch Earth Care.
SF: How did Santa Fe become that place?
TS: It was our last stop after six months of travel. We had probably visited 20 other towns by then, looking for the right diversity of people, resources, and sense of commitment to our ideals.
SF: How quickly did Santa Fe fit the bill?
TS: On the first day. We were mesmerized by the beauty of the place. Within four days we met Fiz Harwood, who had created Ecoversity. She told us Santa Fe really needed something like this kind of work focused on young people. She gave us a place to set up shop and $5,000 from her foundation. Everything fell into place.
SF: Why did you decided to focus your efforts on working with youth rather than more experienced, knowledgeable adults?
TS: One of the things we found in traveling around the country going to conferences and workshops in places like Jackson Hole, Portland or Seattle was that there were almost no young people involved.. We thought if this is going to be a movement that really makes a difference, it has to start with education, teaching young people while their values and ethics were being formed.
SF: That was different than your own experience?
TS: Yes. Why did it take me until I was 28 years old to learn about what is happening to our world? Why did I have to stumble across a book from a friend? Why didn’t I learn that in school? Why wasn’t that part of my high school education? That’s the kind of thing we kept coming back to.
SF: Do you think things would be much different if this sort of thinking had been incorporated into everyone’s education?
TS: What if George Bush had gone through sustainability education as part of his training in high school. What if he had had social justice training as a young person? What would he be like today? My guess is he would be someone completely different.
SF: When you first set up shop here, what was the number one thing you needed to do in order to get young people interested?
TS: We had to show them that there is a better way, that we don’t need new technology or more gizmos in order to live sustainably on this planet. Our core message at Earth Care is positive about the future and what we are in the process of creating. The more Christina and I traveled, the more we realized that most people in the environmental movement are really depressed. I didn’t want to have a depressed life. And doomsday talk can be a real turn off for youth. To tell them the world is ending and we are all on the brink of ecological collapse without giving them the opportunity to do something about it was, I thought, really irresponsible.
SF: So what is the main way you try to convey this kind of positive attitude to young people?
TS: We make everything we do relevant to their lives in Santa Fe. You can talk about global warming and elephants being endangered in Africa, but that’s too removed. If we talk about water, we start with what’s happening with water right here. We ask, “What is the most sustainable use of water right here in our community?”
SF: Is water topic number one?
TS: It better be. We give the youth hands on experience, learning how to install water catchment systems. We get a significant amount of water in Santa Fe each year, and most of it just rolls down Cerrillos Road, completely wasted. We teach the young people how to build swales, where you dig a line on the contour of a hill and the runoff water goes into those ditches. I’ve got them all over my property and we save thousands and thousands of gallons of water a year that would otherwise be lost.
SF: But where does that water go?
TS: It seeps into the ground and recharges our aquifer. And we also look at things like permeating asphalt so that when it rains, the water can actually seep into the ground.
SF: What other hands-on techniques are the youth learning?
TS: Food is a big area. They look at food and how far it travels to reach their plates. The average distance food travels is 1,700 miles to reach its destination. So, the young people look at the ecological consequences of food traveling that far—all the petroleum being used, all the jobs being supported outside our community. One of our projects is building greenhouses at various schools, where they can grow food year round. One of the greenhouses at Monte Del Sol Charter School is connected to the school’s kitchen which reduces the amount of money the school has to spend on food each year.
SF: How did you attract these young people in the beginning?
TS: Surprisingly, we have never had an issue with recruitment. We started with an organic garden and put up flyers around town saying “Hey, you want to save the world? Come help with our garden.”
SF: How many young people are now involved in your programs?
TS: Last year we worked directly with 1,071 teenagers.
SF: Are the public schools receptive to what you are trying to do?
TS: For the most part, but schools are designed to be closed systems and aren’t really inclined to change that fast. But we have been engaged to offer two teacher training sessions every year, with twenty teachers in each class learning how to integrate the idea of sustainability into the classroom agenda.
SF: What kind of money does to take to stay afloat?
TS: Our budget this year is $570,000, most of which comes from foundations and individual gifts. We generate about 25 percent of our income from producing the annual Sustainability Guide which is distributed through the New Mexican.
SF: Santa Fe loves to think of itself as on the cutting edge in so many ways. Is it really on the cutting edge environmentally?
TS: I think it is really progressive as far as the environment is concerned. When I go to places like Tucson and see all those green lawns in the desert, or to Las Vegas, where they are pumping water from a totally different eco system, I realize how lucky we are to live here in Santa Fe.
SF: Other than living downwind from Los Alamos, what is the biggest environmental threat to Santa Fe?
TS: Water, with a capitol W. Santa Fe has about 14,000 acre feet of water available every year and right now we are using ten to eleven thousand acre feet every year. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for play. One of the things about the environment is that there is always an ecological limit, and our limit here is water. I’m not a no-growth person, but when we hear talk of the city growing by 40,000 people, we have to be very careful not to exhaust our resources.
SF: How big do you see Earth Care getting?
TS: I see us being truly international in five years, with Earth Care Brazil, Earth Care India and other countries, all working out of this Santa Fe headquarters.p> SF: How do you and Christina try to live sustainably?
TS: We bought our house about a year and half ago. Some of our like-minded friends also bought houses in the same area and we try to live as a community, sharing in every way we can—friends of ours here in Santa Fe. There is nothing legally binding about any of it, we just choose to live in harmony this way. We are keeping chickens now to provide all the eggs we need. We garden together and provide our own honey and next year we will add goats. We try to be as self sufficient as possible.
SF: You and Christina married here in Santa Fe two years ago and your first child arrived just weeks ago. I can imagine this child will never know anything but how to respect the earth and use it wisely.
TS: We hope to have our child learn the importance of taking care of the earth and treating others with respect. It is very important for parents to model what it means to operate with a high level of social and ecological consciousness.
SF: What turns you on most about Santa Fe?
TS: The people here in Santa Fe really want to see a better world. That’s my overarching experience here.
SF: What turns you off most about Santa Fe?
TS: Sprawl, all these suburbs, especially on the Southside with houses all look alike and are built to last 20 years.
SF: If the gods frowned and said you could no longer live in Santa Fe, where would you go?
TS: On a boat, sailing around the world. But if it had to be on ground, probably in Colorado where my family lives.
SF: Ah, but if the gods smiled and granted you any one wish for Santa Fe, what would it be?
TS: That’s easy. To be able to live in peace and harmony with each other and in harmony with the planet.