[imgcontainer left] [img:chadgarbage.gif] [source]Living Land and Waters [/source] Chad Pregracke surrounded by garbage collected during the Capital River Relief cleanup of Washington D.C. rivers. [/imgcontainer]

Here’s a mouthful for the new sustainable rural economy: earthtrepreneurship.

Earthtrepreneurship. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s important to revitalizing the rural business-owning middle class that can sustain communities and provide new jobs.

What is earthtrepreneurship? It’s a rural community growth opportunity in what so many pundits are calling the new green economy. Why use the term if it’s so difficult to say? It exactly describes the types of firms that savvy individualists can start to earn a living while respecting the earth and using its gifts to help others at home and abroad.

Rural sustainability needs to be built on an earthtrepreneurial middle class that understands how to create, use, and sell appropriate technologies and services at home and around the world. In some cases, this might well be social earthtrpepreneurship, dedicated to helping others through a nonprofit organization. But it might also involve ways of profitably, but responsibly nurturing and cultivating the earth’s natural heritage.
Earthtrepreneurship is based on respectful, earth-centered ingenuity. Earthtrepreneurs understand and love their own backyards. But they also understand that their ideas have markets elsewhere. They serve their communities, building sustainability at home. They also serve the world, building global sustainability.

One of my favorite earthtrepreneurs is Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands and Waters, an organization dedicated to cleaning up rivers. Pregracke’s story is somewhere way out there on the scale of nonprofit start ups, a combination of local knowledge, innocence, persistence, charisma, incredible energy, and an innate willingness to learn and adapt on the fly. He loved the Mississippi River and its banks, where he grew up near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. He was appalled with the trash he saw during his work as a diver for river mussels. He decided to do something about it.

[imgcontainer left] [img:chadhead.gif] [source][/source] Chad Pregracke [/imgcontainer]

Pregracke readily admits he didn’t really know what he was getting into when he started his venture on a shoestring grant from a major corporation that believed in him. He is truly an earthtrepreneur, having built a nonprofit organization that has a fleet of boats and barges to work on rivers, an environmental education program, and a nursery to grow trees for riverbank restoration. Yet, Pregracke still sees himself as a garbage hauler, someone who decided to solve a problem and figured out a way to get others to help him do it. Along the way, he gained international recognition as an environmentalist, something he never really sought.

[imgcontainer right] [img:weshead.gif] [source][/source] Wes Jackson [/imgcontainer]
Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, represents another form of earthtrepreneurship through his patient and persistent efforts to develop perennial agriculture using native prairie plants to develop high-yield food crops. The approach is quite different from Pregracke’s. The Land Institute is using complex science to fundamentally change the way agriculture is done. The goal is to reduce reliance on energy for fuel and fertilizer by developing crop production that is in sync with natural Midwestern prairies. The institute also works on climate and energy and sponsors a Prairie Writers Circle to raise consciousness about ecological issues in the Midwest. Jackson’s institute has become a training ground for graduate student scientists who share his passion for farming practices that respect and nurture the land. The Land Institute could be responsible for creating a whole nation of farmer earthtrepreneurs.

The big question is how to develop and sustain earthtrepreneurship in rural communities. Research on entrepreneurial communities is helpful, but doesn’t go far enough. It suggests that successful entrepreneurs have their own skills and personalities, but their success also can be enhanced by support from their fellow entrepreneurs and other members of their communities. This is a long way from the rugged individualist myth of great American entrepreneurs.

Transforming community-supported entrepreneurship into earthtrepreneurship involves moving past the current green fad to a fundamental recognition of the connections between communities and the land. Rural communities, because of their size and local environment, are ideal places to move this process forward. Communities that develop a sustainability attitude – a close and considerate partnership between residents and the earth – can build a better future by supporting and encouraging green business owners.

Earthtrepreneurship can be a satisfying way for someone to create a green life’s work in the community for the world. It is far more than a job. It blends old-fashioned entrepreneurial independence with vision, confidence, and determination to preserve our ability to survive on earth.
Earthtrepreneurship moves beyond the creation of green-collar jobs. It harnesses local creativity among the self-employed who are idealistic and interested in improving the quality of life in their communities and elsewhere. With a world view that allows them to export their ideas, products and services, earthtrepreneurs also can attract new dollars to their communities.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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