Austin's Greenest 'Yellow Pages': Seventh Edition Hits Stands
Paul Robbins draws on institutional knowledge to produce a 'labor of love'
Though some 40,000 copies of The Austin Environmental Directory have appeared throughout the city over the last month, you can be forgiven if you haven't noticed. The AED is an unassuming little booklet, staple-bound, with a cover illustration of the Barton Creek Greenbelt depicted in subdued yellows and greens – and looking just a bit blurry on the unforgiving newsprint. The directory blends in easily at places like Central Market and Half Price Books, where you're most likely to find it displayed among other free publications, usually weeklies and monthlies. The AED, however, is no weekly or monthly. This edition, the seventh since the inaugural issue in 1995, took three years to complete and is available for free mainly at the personal expense of founder and Editor Paul Robbins.
While Robbins is perhaps most easily recognized from his regular appearances at City Council meetings, where he has been goading local officials toward more transparency and better environmental stewardship for the last three decades, he has lately found himself behind a desk more often than a podium. "The directory keeps me out of a lot of trouble I wish I could get into," says the activist. As you might guess, the AED provides information about local environmental resources and organizations (Gail Vittori of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems calls it "the Yellow Pages of the green movement"). The current issue fills about 100 pages with details on recycling, green building, water and energy conservation, locally grown food, and even hiking and vegetarian restaurants. Want to know where to recycle batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs, food waste, pill bottles, Styrofoam – even building materials? Just check out the AED's two-page spreadsheet of 64 different recycling drop-off sites.
But the directory long ago evolved into something more than its name humbly suggests, which explains the four-year stretch since the last issue. After publishing the 2006 edition, Robbins went back to saving money – and energy – to begin the next one. Then Robbins, who says he follows the adage that "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing," began the long process of writing what he describes as his "theme" articles, each of which requires months of full-time research. "I do give myself a time limit," says Robbins, "and 80% of the time I miss it."
"The articles ... oftentimes summarize significant changes in energy policy that no one else has really ever studied," says Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith, who calls Robbins "an institution" whose work has inspired many "to consider energy advocacy as a career." According to Smith, Robbins "catches trends and understands data better than anybody else in Austin – and the country, in many instances." In the current edition, Robbins tackles synthetic fuels, electric cars, and the "zero-energy suburb," all topics that he says people need to understand more closely. "Humans aren't descended from apes, but lemmings," says Robbins. "What are they going to do when they run out of oil? They are going to do all these things that no one expects them to do. And one of them is synthetic fuel." Most "synfuels," as Robbins calls them in his "Synfuels and Redemption," produce higher carbon dioxide emissions – up to 172% higher – than conventional petroleum, and they're becoming more popular. "One of the things that I figured out was that 10% of our liquid fuel is now coming from synfuels," says Robbins. "That's a huge amount, and nobody I knew had figured it out yet."
Robbins' work has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, the city named a cooling plant after him ("Downtown Coolin' Plant Chillin' Like Paul Robbins," July 27, 2007), a nod to his work on energy issues, which began during the late-Seventies fight against the South Texas Nuclear Project. "Many people who become activists start with something small like putting in a sidewalk," he says. "I wanted to stop a nuclear plant." He was one of the first in Austin to promote the idea that money could be better spent on energy conservation than on power plants, a philosophy now institutionalized at Austin Energy. "Austin began doing energy conservation in 1982," he says, "and one of the things in my life I'm proud of is that I helped start that program with 20 other people." Robbins went on to do consulting work for nonprofits, serve on campaigns for council candidates, and fight for policies that protect natural resources. "Our council office has gone to him for research questions because he has such great historical knowledge on so much dealing with the environment," says Barbara Rush, aide to Council Member Laura Morrison. "That's the thing about Paul – really, he's sort of a one-stop shop."
While environmental organizations and agencies contribute to the AED through sponsorships and ads, the new edition burned through both that money and a lot of Robbins' savings. "I would call it his labor of love," says Vittori, who helped edit the current issue. In hopes of returning that love, she will join the Barr Mansion's Melanie McAfee and a dozen others in hosting a fundraiser in Robbins' honor. Vittori sees the event as a way to recognize the man who has contributed so much to "knowing who we are as a community of people engaged in all kinds of levels of green initiatives." The directory, she says, "is both an incredible representation of that collective knowledge and also a fantastic resource to connect people with this network that's here."
The Austin Environmental Directory is available at www.environmentaldirectory.info, along with expanded versions of Robbins' theme articles from both current and past issues. The Friends of Paul Robbins will be holding the fundraiser Wednesday, May 26, 6pm, at the Barr Mansion, 10463 Sprinkle. Suggested donation: $25. See www.austineconetwork.com for details.