Interview with Lead Donor, Tom Brandstetter

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August 5, 2009



Terry Wiggins conversed with Tom Brandstetter, member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, the lead donor on our Sustain Our Society (SOS) project.Tom’s generous gift helped get this project off the ground, and this is his story, the story of a sincere, concerned person who is taking action out of hope for our future. We covered first his views of the SOS project, followed by his understanding of peak oil, his sources of information and inspiration, and finally his personal story – his profession, upbringing, and travels that have influenced his views.

TB: Terry, before I start talking about my personal journey I’d like to say I agreed to an interview and changed from being an anonymous to a public donor so that we could discuss and explore critical issues as a congregation.


TW: So, what’s the Sustain Our Society project at First Church about?

TB: The SOS team has put together the most intelligent response that I have ever seen, to address climate disruption and non-renewable resource depletion. We will be doing energy conservation, energy generation, energy education, and hopefully motivate lifestyle changes that give us a fighting chance of sustainability. We hope to motivate other churches to follow suit, as we were motivated by UU Church West and others. Though there is no guarantee our efforts will actually work, given the coming realities, a fine group of people came together and we are all dancing as fast as we can. I’m very proud to be part of the effort, which included zillions of meetings and emails. Our goal is to be as honest with ourselves as possible, to get us thinking about our world situation. We’re not going to do one simple thing, or any “greenwashing,” and call it a day. We’ll be saving ten tons of CO2, which is like taking two 25 mpg cars that are driven 15,000 miles a year off the road. Some might say that two cars worth is not very much, but it’s 10 percent of the church’s electricity usage, and we should be proud of cutting it.


TW:  As The Rev. Dena McPhetres said, “Incremental change is powerful.”

TB: It’s the only kind of change there is. And we have run out of time for baby steps; we must lengthen the stride.


TW: What were some of the challenges with the SOS project?

TB: We had to make many choices: we had to decide how we’d reap the most payback. We had to balance the visible, alluring, solar panels with the invisible yet equally important conservation measures that will cut our energy use. We’ll be able to make further cuts to our consumption through conservation. In fact, our carbon footprint has already decreased over the years, as we’ve replaced old fixtures, including three boilers in the past three years . However, many of the changes in the past have been invisible to the congregants. We want to make the next set of changes more visible, so that we can then show other churches and groups that we did it, and they can too. We have some serious challenges with our historic building, including not disrupting the historical view of the building from Ogden Street. Maybe someday the standards for historic buildings will change, and recognize that energy efficiency is a value to be recognized. Each church is very different. UU Church West and Madison [First Unitarian Society of Madison] are very different than our urban church; we have very limited sunlight for photovoltaic panels and land for geothermal wells.


TW: Tell us about your decision to fund this project at First Church.Tom Brandstetter

TB: Last year, I was in the process of lowering the footprint of my 1922 duplex in Bay View.   Got rid an old refrigerator. Insulated the walls. Installed a wood stove for heat. With those measures and lifestyle changes, I brought the building to within the goal the experts want the world to reach by 2050 – an 80% reduction in deep-time carbon utilization. By 2060 the experts want us to take that 80% to a 120% reduction. This is not possible without using less than we use. The only way to do it is to generate your own green power and give it back to the world. 


I explored putting photovoltaic panels on my roof but I decided to do it at the church, rather than on my house, because I have the shade of an evergreen tree, and because I have the wrong roof pitch. Also, I believe we need to get past our American radical individualism, to a communitarian mindset, and that’s what church is about. Joining with others to do this project at the church could have so much greater an impact.


TW: That’s the way I see it, too. Houses of worship – of any faith – are great places to express our care and gratitude for the living Earth. We can preach, teach, and model this care, and spread the word to others in our families, in our congregations, and in our faiths, and thus very widely.

TB: Plus it was a no-brainer financially. For the same amount of money as I would spend at home for a system, I could pay for the photovoltaic panels for the church. The church will get Focus on Energy and We Energies rebates that I couldn’t get, and I’ll receive a tax deduction for my donation. For the same money, I’ll remove three times more CO2 at the church than I would at my house. My gift was contingent on exploring conservation measures and education. Others immediately came on board and have been working on this ever since.


TW: What do you want members of the church to learn in the process of the SOS campaign? 

TB: I hope the kids will learn a lot, because it will be their generation, more than ours, which will have to deal with the consequences of our actions regarding energy use. I hope they’ll see us acting like adults; I want them to see our congregation as a place they can learn valuable skills for their future. I hope the adults will learn from the kids as they bring things and ideas home from RE. Also, adults will have the opportunity to view a variety of films, among other educational opportunities, to help us be part of the solution in our own homes as well as working as a group in the church.


TW: Can you explain peak oil, which I understand is a whole subject unto itself.

TB: Peak oil is basically a way of framing the discussion about the decline of petroleum reserves. M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956, the year I was born, that oil extraction would peak in the U.S. in 1971. That happened as he predicted, and it is part of the reason behind the successful oil embargo that occurred in ’73.The 1973 “oil crisis” only resulted in a 5% decrease in the amount of oil coming into the USA but it caused a huge panic. I was 16 yrs old then and I remember it well.


TW: As I understand it, the peak oil concept suggests that after peak oil, the rate of oil production on Earth would enter a decline, such that the oil left would be more difficult and expensive to extract than what has already been extracted.

Europeans use tiny vehicles that sip, rather than guzzleTB: Yes, and world oil discovery peaked in 1964, and world oil extraction has recently peaked or will be peaking soon. The current recession may delay it. We could have a “saw tooth” decline of petroleum availability, as one recession ends, sending demand and thus prices back up, which would put us into another recession and decline of demand and prices.   This is relating to “conventional” oil. Tar sands and other very dirty alternatives will likely push us over the tipping point of runaway climate change. CTL -- coal to liquid -- generates 7 tons of CO2 for every ton of gasoline or diesel you get out of it. This is how the Nazi war machine kept going even when they were stopped from getting at the Baku oil region in the Soviet Union. All these unconventional oil alternatives are suicidal but we will use them anyway unless SOS type projects are successful all over the world.


TW: So why do this project now? We’re in a recession! Can we afford it? Energy prices are down anyway, as you just said.

TB: I honestly love the timing. Not that I like the recession, but it gives us, a faith-based institution, an even better opportunity to send a message. Our values are not just based on money. We can’t just do what’s easy or affordable; we have to do what’s right. The Hirsch report, a government report published in 2005, said that a transition to a sustainable economy would take 20 years if we work at the effort level that it took to send a man to the moon. But this country has been wasting time and money, as evidenced by President Reagan ripping the solar panels off the White House in 1985. Back then we had 20 years to do a painless switch to renewables; we don’t have that luxury now. We can’t slow down or let our commitment waiver. This transition needs to occur year after year, full-on, regardless of the economic cycles. And religious institutions need to lead the way, and First Church can be a leading religious institution.  


TW: We’re not the only one. In the Journal Sentinel on Sunday August 2, 2009, an article appeared about a conservative church in Brookfield that had installed solar panels, and they talked about being good neighbors as one of their reasons for doing it. And UUs passed a Statement of Conscience at General Assembly in 2006 about Global Warming/Climate change, declaring our responsibility to respond.

To turn to another topic: I’m interested in what you read, listen to, watch, and so forth. Do you have favorite books, authors, or speakers?

TB: I read and watch all kinds of things, but as it applies to the issues at hand, I’ll give a list.

The Long Emergency can be emotionally gut-wrenching; E. Howard Kunstler, the author, is often harsh, and short on solutions. Though it’s a good wake-up, I look on that book as more epic poetry – more on the lines something Homer would write.

Peak Everything is by Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute, who is more of a realist and talks about post-carbon cities in his book. Though he doesn’t sugarcoat, he offers answers, and I think he’s worth listening to. I met him last year and was deeply impressed with him.

Post Carbon Cities is a book I gave to Mayor Tom Barrett this spring. Politicians don’t want to deal with this issue, but all you can do is be creative and put the info in front of them.

I watch PBS, Point of View, Frontline, CNN, and C-Span2.

Some important movies/DVDs are “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “Kilowatt Ours,” and “The End of Suburbia.” “The Age of Stupid” is a new one, coming out soon. We’ll be showing some of these, and others, at church, and we’ll have people to explain and discuss the concepts presented.

TW: How do you relate this work to what you do professionally?

TB: I’m a Clinical Inpatient Hospital Pharmacist. My specialties are critical care, detox, and delirium management. I work with addicted patients, having developed protocols to detox them, and I agree with one thing George W. Bush said: “We’re addicted to oil.” One of the ways to look at this addiction is that a gallon of gas is equivalent to 6 weeks of human labor, so the average American has well over a 100 energy slaves at their disposal. We are addicted to these slaves. I’ve worked in the inner city for 27 years, and have become a specialist in detoxing alcoholics in the drunkest city in the nation, though I only get involved in direct care in the toughest cases. My job is easy, in that it only takes three to eight hours to detox an alcoholic because I understand the brain chemistry. It’s much tougher to deal with our fossil fuel addiction; it’s like trying to detox each other in the middle of a heroin shooting gallery.

TW: It’s hard to get our heads around having energy slaves when we’re not even aware of it.

TB: At one time, we just needed to understand how to run from a predator on the Serengeti. We are not designed to understand exponential growth, for example, what it means to have 6.9 billion people on Earth.

Something else: over the last year, in trying to put my arms around the ethics and morality discussions, I learned of a very important statement from Elie Wiesel, the prolific author who’s written about the holocaust: “There is no such thing as good and evil, there is only good and indifference.” The majority of Americans are indifferent to our energy use, and because of that, horrible things are happening; people must have knowledge to make changes. As it is, so much CO2 comes from living our industrialized, all-consuming lifestyle with all our plastic and individual autos.

TW: Tom, you have technical knowledge of the project at First Church, and your participation is not just financial.

TB: The best way to learn about a thing is to actually do it. I’ve been a homeowner for years, and am comfortable with plumbing, electrical work, insulation … we’ll have to learn much for the future, including how to garden and produce our own food. This relates to my experience growing up in Cudahy, where you never had a plumber or electrician come in.

TW: I want you to talk about your background -- your geographic and religious odyssey -- because they inform us as to how you came to be where and who you are today.

TB: I was born in 1956, and I’ve lived my entire life in the metropolitan Milwaukee area, except for the years I attended UW in Madison. My formative years were in Cudahy, where I was raised in its blue-collar world and the values that come with that. We lived for many years in a Polish duplex with my grandparents. We had a garden as did everyone else. This model of extended families is no longer the norm but it I believe it will become more common again in the future. Things that are now rare were just part of my world. 

In the 60s, when children could go off for long periods and play away from home, I had access to 3 miles of unbroken “wilderness” and explored the beachfront and cliffs of Cudahy. An aspect of my early life that relates to the SOS project is through my extended family’s ownership, from the 1930s up until 1970, of Century Hall on the Eastside. During that time it was a Polish bowling alley, wedding hall and tavern. I have many fond memories of being around all my cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was there that I was exposed to the important social justice events of the sixties. Though I was a young teen and didn’t understand what was going on, my cousins and I knew it was important and frankly exciting. We would sneak out the back of the bowling alley and go to the water tower fountain, where the big anti-war or other protests would happen. We would watch what was going on maybe 50 yards away from the tear gas and Chief Brier’s storm troopers. Though we went as children for the drama, the values and committed activism I witnessed left a deep impression.

TW: Related to your childhood wilderness experiences, I know that Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods, says that most of today’s children experience “Nature Deficit Disorder.” That’s clearly not your experience. One of Tom's wilderness experiences

TB: Not at all; being outside in natural surrounding in unstructured play was what many of us did back then. Many children today have a very unnatural view of the world and this is a dangerous situation for the future of humanity. If nature is not part of who you are, you will not protect it.

TW: Could you talk about your spiritual journey.

TB: I was raised Polish Catholic, in a very Catholic city. That was my world and all other religions were the “other” and false. I was around 16 years old when I rejected infallibility and how easy it was to wash your sins away with confession. I didn’t have anything to replace it with but at that age, who needs religion? My rejection didn’t become public until I was married at First Church in 1979, and my relatives truly got it when we refused to baptize our two children. I don’t believe in original sin.

I didn’t become a UU officially until about 5 years ago, though I’ve been on the UU path for decades. Over the years, I’ve explored the ancient texts of many religions as well as more modern spiritual leaders, such as the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Dhammapada, the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, John Muir, and many others. Eventually, I put all that into a personal package, as we are asked to do as UUs. Because of that journey I joined this church.

TW:   Tom, I understand you’ve traveled outside of the United States. How does that travel inform your current values?

TB: Even though there is a CO2 emissions component to travel, I feel it’s important to experience other cultures if we are going to change this one into a sustainable one. You don’t know what is possible until you travel outside of our insane mass consumer culture, and surround yourself with people living very different lives. We put up all kinds of limits on how far we can change our lives. Though many Americans call themselves citizens of the planet, their footprint is very different than the average world citizen’s. Americans on average dump 44,000 lbs. of CO2 into the air every year, whereas the average person on this planet adds 8,750 lbs. This large difference is not something to be proud of. 


I try to travel with meaning, to experience things first hand. It’s one thing to read about or watch a culture on TV. It’s very different to live it for a while. I lived in India for six weeks, and it was frankly a shock to my system. I’m not sure I could ever get my carbon footprint down to the level of someone living in Rajasthan, India. Though it’s sustainable, it’s beyond my current limit unless I’m forced to. Yet I found that many of the people are living fulfilling lives -- religiously fulfilling lives -- while consuming 15 to 25 times less carbon than we do (note, not 15-25 percent less, but 15-25 times less.) Even though they have no heat or air conditioning in their temples, they have deep experiences.

TW: Are there any other cultures you want to mention?

Sheep mow the lawn in front of solar panels in DenmarkTB: An area that’s more comfortable for me is Europe. I’m of Polish, German and Norwegian descent, and I admit I’m Eurocentric. Europe is not sustainable but it’s half way there compared to the USA. The average European dumps 22,000 lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, half of the USA level. 


I found my sustainability heaven on an island in southern Denmark, where I lived for 10 days. The island is basically carbon neutral. I knew exactly were the electricity was coming from and how the water was heated. I didn’t have any guilty feelings about taking a shower or turning on a few lights now and then. I saw a show on TV talking about increases in Americans’ general anxiety disorders and neurosis over water and fossil fuel usage. The reporter thought something was wrong with these people. In Denmark that awareness is much higher. The people are better informed and are happier. Their Gini score, which measures income disparity, is the lowest on the world -- they are the most egalitarian country in the world and it’s wonderful to be in a culture that flourishes in that setting. The Danes have the ability to see the climate and energy crisis and actually act on these emergencies as sane individuals would. 


TW: What’s the Gini score of the USA?

TB: We are in a three-way tie for 77th, with Ghana and Turkmenistan.

TW: Have any other travels affected your opinions or actions regarding sustainability?

TB: Anything that takes me off-grid for awhile, and gives me time to think, is good. For me, the biggest lifestyle-changing trips I do while traveling in the USA is Alpine, or mountain, backpacking. With the right preparation and skills I can live a very low-impact, leave-no-trace life in very beautiful areas. It’s not easy, and it has pushed me to my limits. For years I’d go off and do these trips and then come back to live my typical energy-pig lifestyle here. Over the past year, I’ve brought some of those mountain skills into my home, to lower my carbon footprint.

TW: Has that worked?

TB: Yes, for the most part. The same organized planning and thoughtful goal-setting that go into high altitude climbing—or training for ski marathons—apply to living sustainably. Many people spend a great deal on time preparing for long-distance athletic events like the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon. I’ve done over 15 of these and when well-prepared, have done well. When I approached them without preparing and acting on a plan, I have ended up under a blanket on sled being pulled off the course by a snowmobile.


My approach and plan for the coming “long emergency,” after oil production has peaked, as described by Kunstler [see books mentioned previously], was a joke up until a few years back. We all need to look at this world and prepare ourselves as an athlete does for his or her sport. Currently, we approach sustainability like half-hearted weekend warriors. The Birke doesn’t play nice if you are not ready, and climate and depleting oil fields don’t play nice either.

TW: What are you doing to lower your carbon footprint?

TB: To live a truly low-carbon and low-war-for-oil footprint, I’d have to give up all kinds of things I’m used to having. To get out of the blood-for-oil set-up, you can sell your car or make your own fuel. I like the mobility of cars so I make my own fuel; it’s just that simple. Making your own fuel is very similar to a walking meditation like one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s. While collecting oil behind restaurants and all the other steps of making fuel, I become connected to carbon energy discovery, extraction, processing and delivery – all the steps that Exxon goes through so that we don’t have to think about where our fuel came from or who died for it. Though the oil that is collected in 55 gallon barrels behind restaurants is not “deep-time carbon,” I can process it so that I end up with the ability to continue to drive. Today, the average car goes 25 miles while emitting 20 pounds of CO2, whereas a small diesel car is capable of going 400 miles while emitting the same 20 pounds of CO2. (TW: Deep-time carbon is also known as “ancient sunlight,” the energy sources we find stored below ground– oil, natural gas, and coal.)

TW: How do you feel about carbon footprint calculators?

TB: Everyone should go through the process of self discovery – if you don’t know where you are, you have no idea of how to get where you want to be. These internet calculators are not terribly accurate so I’d suggest using several of them [See Resources page [web address]]. You will get better numbers and learn much along the way.

There is more to our energy lives than just our We Energies bills. But at the very least, if someone asks how many kilowatt hours you use a day you should know the number. Americans have the status of being energy pigs within the worldwide community, because most of us really have no idea what that number is.


TW: So are you saying sustainability is about math?

TB: Partly. Sustainability decisions begin by engaging your morality and ethics but end with hard, unsentimental, numbers. The biosphere doesn’t care about how we feel about things. It just cares about reality.



TB: We are all on this journey together and we all have choices to make. We can allow large corporations to lead the way or we can lead at the grassroots level. On TV, oil giant Chevron asks "Will you join us," but I ask, "Will you join SOS?"

All photos courtesy of Tom Brandstetter