Rolling Stones Keyboardist Pushes Smart Growth Policies

Chuck Leavell promotes private-sector innovation that will be critical to a smart-growth future.

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Cellulosic fuel.

Biomimicry.

Closed-loop manufacturing.

Mama cookin’ chicken fried and bacon grease / Come on along, boys, it’s just down the road apiece!

Welcome to the fruitful double life of Chuck Leavell.

In between tours with the Rolling Stones and sessions with John Mayer, Martina McBride, and a host of other recording artists, the legendary keyboardist--and family forester--is consumed by visions of natural-resource depletion, willy-nilly development, and melting ice caps. [Read more about energy policy and climate change.]

Appearing yesterday at the National Press Club in downtown Washington to promote his new book Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong, Sustainable, Leavell was quick to stress, however, that he’s an optimist.

Indeed, he says the book’s cover was inspired by a Reaganite vision of America as a shining “city on a hill”--a skyscraper-lined city that happens to be outfitted with windmills and solar panels. [See a slide show of 10 cities adopting smart grid technology.]

“This is America,” Leavell declared. “We can do anything.” Meaning: We don’t have to passively accept a future of fossil-fuel dependence, clogged highways, or haphazard exurban development.

Leavell is a Democrat and fervent conservationist, but he’s no doctrinaire, antigrowth extremist (like, say, Paul Ehrlich). His Georgia tree plantation is for-profit, as is Mother Nature Network, the environmental website he cofounded with public relations executive Joel Babbitt. The signature picker on his E-mails notes that it’s okay to print them; paper is a “biodegradable, renewable, sustainable product.”

And, every five years or so, he works with a onetime London School of Economics student--Mick, ahem, Jagger--whose left wing bona fides, if he ever had any, were cashiered decades ago.

Leavell says “growth is inevitable.” The question is, what do you do about it? Do you try to shape it and influence it? And if so, how?

There is not one answer, but rather many. One might involve higher taxes on gasoline and some kind of cap-and-trade scheme. Yet there is no one-size-fits-all solution, a point he emphasizes when meeting with lawmakers--not only Republicans; witness West Virginia's Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin--who suspect that environmentalism is a Trojan horse for socialism and central planning.

For instance, Leavell says the great thing about methods like biomimicry and closed-loop manufacturing is that “they don’t involve government at all.”

Biomimicry involves the application of natural phenomena to new technologies--such as, no kidding, ventilation systems based on those of termite mounds.

And closed-loop manufacturing systems, pioneered by industrialists such as the commercial-flooring executive Ray Anderson, strive to “feed factories entirely with recycled materials,” as Leavell puts it in his book.

Leavell documents, too, the $20 million, environmentally-friendly retrofitting of the Empire State Building, spearheaded by co-owner Anthony Malkin. “The heck with making people ‘do the right thing,’ ” Malkin said. “I would rather get them to do what makes economic sense. Everything here is about dollars. I’m improving my competitive position. I’m improving my ability to attract tenants and make more money.”

And our present reality--one that features federally-subsidized highways and mortgages--is hardly a free-market ideal. As much as the automobile and the pretty house with its two-car garage have been assimilated into our cultural mythology, the fact is, America’s postwar suburban boom was an artifact of social-engineering. [See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.]

The sooner we realize this, the sooner we’ll all be willing to try something different.

Leavell’s book is chock-a-block not only with the requisite public-policy recommendations, but with models of private-sector innovation that will be critical to a smart-growth future.

By the way, responsible stewardship of another kind informs Leavell’s latest musical project--a forthcoming tribute to unsung prerock blues pianists such as Leroy Carr and Charles Spand.

It’s tentatively titled Back to the Woods, an appropriate shorthand not only for Leavell’s way of life--but his way of business, and his way of art.

  • Check out this month’s best political cartoons.
  • See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.
  • See a slide show of 10 cities adopting smart grid technology.