Most days, J.W. Rogers plants earbuds in his ears, fires up a podcast and makes the 30-minute walk to his offices in downtown El Paso. He avoids driving as much as possible, partly because he loathes traffic and enjoys a stroll, but also because he’s trying to “walk the walk.”
Car culture, he’s often told me, borders on insanity: “Why do we get into these 4,000-pound machines, waste our time in traffic and pump all these carbons into the atmosphere? I mean, walking is fun. It’s good for you. It gives you time to think.”
Walking is also a useful anecdote to explain the work Rogers has undertaken since coming back to El Paso. On the one hand, it would be nice for Americans to commit to cleaner, healthier transportation. On the other, he’s realistic enough to understand such a widespread change is unlikely to happen overnight.
Instead, he takes action where he can, one step at a time—all the while looking for ways to subtly influence the world and people around him.
A Green Incubator
Rogers and I are best friends and business partners. In 2016, we started Wondor Eco:Nomics, an El Paso-based green business incubator.
“We provide a variety of services to local green businesses,” Rogers said, “to help them get networked into the community, refine their business practices, and expand their clientele.”
Rogers moved back to El Paso from New York City in 2015 and brought with him a goal of creating a more resilient local community.
For one, that meant strengthening social bonds in a borderlands area often characterized by polarization.
Beyond that, he hoped to cultivate in El Pasoans a respect for the physical place we call home—an understanding that the land itself sustains us, and that we should, in turn, help sustain it.
“Modern science is giving us a deeper awareness of our intimate connection to this planet,” he said. “In the recent past, we felt ourselves as separate from nature. Now, we’re looping back into realizing we are a part of the ecology—even our bodies themselves are micro-ecosystems—and we have the power to act symbiotically with the rest of the world, and, in that way, we’re an important factor of the diversity on the planet.”
Out of this ethos, Wondor Eco:Nomics was born. For the first half of 2016, Rogers and I hit the pavement. We visited farmers markets, school gardening projects and volunteered at La Semilla Food Center, clipping spinach and turning compost.
Sundays found us planting trees at Tierra es Vida, a neighborhood farm run by La Mujer Obrera, a social organization dedicated to building communities defined by women.
At home, we began composting, gardening and building a rainwater-harvesting system (a technique for which we’re bringing a certification course to El Paso this February.)
Along the way, we met scientists and hippies, cowboys and farm workers, environmentalists and Native Americans alike—all of whom share a common concern for the land itself, for the places and the landscapes we call home.
In those six months, I spent more time digging holes and rolling around in dirt than in all the previous months of my life combined. Rogers described this period as “chaotic.”
“There was no real good blueprint,” he said. “It was pretty whimsical. We just kind of jumped into the mud with these guys and gave it a shot.”
But by keeping open minds, and by taking the time to survey the landscape, we discovered people and practices we never would have known.
“We learned there was an eclectic, intelligent community of people who were already pushing forward with all of these green concepts and techniques,” Rogers said. “I wouldn’t have to be at the forefront of these ideas; I was jumping into a system that was already in place.”
The ‘three pillars’ of Ecology
Often, when we were hoeing rows for corn, or washing and weighing bags of lettuce, Rogers would talk to me about what he called “the three pillars” of society and ecology. He was trying to work out a concept that took into account the relationship between people and the biota—in other words, the land and its associated organisms.
The three pillars refer to food, water, and waste, he explained. In each area, our community faces considerable challenges. Very little of our food, for example, is grown locally, and many residents lack healthy food options.
Likewise, El Paso is behind other communities of similar size with respect to how we handle organic waste. Rather than reusing such products as food scraps to rebuild healthy soils, we dispose of them in landfills, where they emit harmful methane into the atmosphere.
As for water, our growing population and water-intensive agricultural industries are over-tapping the desert’s natural sources. For this reason, the El Paso Water utility expects to spend roughly $600 million on land purchases and pipeline infrastructure to import water from ranches around Dell City—nearly 100 miles away.
But in each of these challenges, Rogers sees opportunity. “With food, water and rethinking what waste is, I think we can dramatically affect the place where we live, and the society we involve ourselves in,” he said.
Introducing the ‘Green in the Desert’ Series
To that end, Wondor Eco:Nomics initially partnered with three local businesses. In each instance, these entrepreneurs devised novel solutions to pressing environmental problems at hand. And that’s what this Green in the Desert series is all about.
In the next articles, we’ll meet Shahid Mustafa, a local organic farmer whose mission is to sink carbon back into the ground while feeding residents local food and educating them as to its value.
We’ll meet Carlos Huerta, a composting professional who turns organic waste into a resource for the benefit of the valley’s soils and croplands. And we’ll visit Mike “Cactusman” Gaglio, who salvages native plants from destruction while converting the desert’s scant rain into an abundant resource, a practice with the power to reduce the city’s water consumption and alleviate damage from flooding.
Rogers has realistic hopes for these projects. He knows that one man walking each day is not going to overturn immense problems like climate change and global warming. But it does have a practical effect, however infinitesimal, and the wider impact inheres in such an action’s symbolic power, in the fact that one man walking might inspire another to do the same.
In that vein, Rogers believes local people, acting individually and together, are the key to unlocking the desert’s regeneration.
“El Paso is in a very unique position,” he said, “being a border community, being right on the Rio Grande, being the biggest city [along with Juarez] on the Rio Bravo Watershed. There’s a lot of potential here to show the world at large that a desert community with 9-inches of rain a year can redirect the course of where it thinks it belongs as a city—as a place.”
“Everything’s always tougher in the desert. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”
Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.
Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.