Naked City

Several Shades of Green

The 2003 Austin Environmental Directory, which made its debut Monday, may represent Paul Robbins' most ambitious effort yet. The longtime activist and editor of the free sourcebook spent nearly three years digging into our industrial past to support this year's theme -- environmental business as a viable economic engine.

A meticulous researcher, Robbins devotes the first half of the book to the evolution of Austin's high tech industry and its long-standing reliance on government tax incentives (the unabridged version is at www.environmentaldirectory.info). You'll learn, for example, that from 1966 --2001, local taxpayers covered $193 million in subsidies to relocating or expanding companies, with high tech firms drawing the lion's share of the handouts. On a timelier note, more than a dozen Austin companies owe a chunk of their success to the U.S. military, as they collectively performed nearly $2 billion in contract work between 1997 and 2001.

The directory also offers Robbins' account of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's heavy-handed and singularly focused mission to transform Austin into a high tech mecca. Robbins interviewed past Chamber leaders, including Vic Mathias, who led the group from 1956-1982. "I wanted to know how the Chamber thinks," Robbins said of his research into its history. "Personally I don't like a lot of the growth that's happened over the years but ... I think it's good to understand how we got here." Mathias, described in the directory as one of the social architects of modern Austin, proved to be Robbins' greatest resource for Chamber history. "He is just a wealth of information," he said.

The directory is the fifth to be published since 1995, but Robbins has been at the forefront of environmental and alternative-energy causes since 1977, when he jumped feet first into the anti-nuke movement -- specifically, the protest against Austin's participation in the South Texas Project nuclear plant. Today, Robbins still advocates for alternative energy sources -- this time as a way to rebuild the local economy. And, to that end, he believes the Chamber's current economic development efforts lack creative thought. "They're trying to build on past successes and not thinking outside of the computer box," he said. He points to several environmental technologies as potential economic drivers: wind power, energy storage facilities, or the manufacture of light-emitting diodes as an alternative to artificial lighting.

Last but certainly not least is the book's cornucopia of all things green: parks and preserves, watersheds, green-building and landscape guides, locally grown foods, farmers' markets, and more. Besides the Web site, the directories are available for free at various distribution points around town, including Wheatsville Co-op and Half Price Books. To get a copy by mail, send $2.50 to Clean Water Action, 715 W. 23rd, Austin, TX 78705.

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