Ecology and Economy: An Interview with Thomas Harris E-mail
Monday, 07 June 2010 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Thomas Harris photo by Marita PrandoniFor nearly two months, almost every day, a well-dressed, clean-shaven man has been standing at a busy intersection outside Santa Fe city limits. He stands several hours, usually from early afternoon until sunset, holding a sign that reads “WORK.”

My curiosity was piqued. Most people who stand at intersections with signs look much worse off. Their signs usually read something like “Stranded, Anything Helps, God Bless.” So after driving past this man dozens of times, averting my gaze, like many of us who are not living on the edge tend to do when we see strangers asking for help, I decided to park nearby and ask a few questions.

Meet Thomas Harris, a graduate of New Mexico State University with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He moved to Santa Fe 37 years ago at the age of 12. Having held jobs with independent booksellers and in an art-supplies shop, Thomas has been out of work and decided to try something different.

My conversation with Thomas was more engaging and environmentally related than I expected. Some people may believe it’s a cop-out to stand on a corner with a sign. But in this economy, in which more than a quarter of all mortgages are underwater (70% in Nevada), Thomas’s situation is indicative of the economy we have created with the help of our government and business leaders.

Many foreigners are baffled that wealthy nations can allow their citizens to become homeless, fortunately not the case for Thomas. But homelessness is rising, currently estimated at 3.5 million, 23% of whom are children. I recently heard a story about an Iraqi refugee in New York who, shortly after arriving to the US, encountered a homeless person for the first time. Perplexed, he dialed 911.

EcoHearth: It seems courageous to me to stand out here, rain or shine, so many hours with your sign. Why do you do it?

Thomas Harris: It takes a certain amount of temerity to do this. But I would stand out here if it were 20º below zero. I keep a thermometer in my bag and the other day it got pretty cold. I always have a jacket with me. I walk about seven miles round trip to get here. I’m trying to keep the carbon down. We all need to curb our emissions and I’m trying to do my part, trying to think out of the box. Cars are terribly inefficient. Roughly 14% of the energy spent goes toward propelling the car. The most efficient vehicle is the bicycle. Oil is not just required to run a car, but to make its components, which are largely molded plastic, which is petroleum.

EH: So you think about global warming?

TH: I think New Mexico should have begun making a transition to solar and wind energy 30 years ago.

EH: Why do you think we haven’t? Do you think the state’s reliance on oil and gas revenues has prevented our legislators from adopting solar and wind?

TH: I think our lawmakers know we need to make the switch, but they don’t want it to be too painful. They want to make the transition gradual. But the longer they wait, the more painful it will be. One person who has taken the lead is [California] Governor Schwarzenegger. His energy policy is very controversial, but necessary. We’ve reached nearly eight billion people.

Thomas Malthus knew the population was growing exponentially and that human numbers would outstrip the food supply. He hadn’t seen the industrial revolution coming, which staved off famine. He might not have been correct about when the population would be too great for the Earth to support us, but he was correct that it would happen.

EH: Have you actually been offered any work?

TH: Things have opened up for me. Sometimes I’ll get some landscaping work or will help someone with a move. Sometimes someone will make a donation. I can make about $600-700 a month, or on average, $25 a day.

EH: Is that enough to get by?

TH: It is. I live in an apartment with just my girlfriend and our Siamese cat, Jasper. My girlfriend is Native American—Navajo and Hopi from Arizona, and she has diabetes and a disability. Every now and then we have enough to enjoy a dinner out at a local brewpub. Jasper gets the Dick Van Patten food, no additives or fillers. He has it pretty good. Siamese cats are fiercely loyal. I take him for a walk every morning. He walks like a dog.

EH: Is there a place in your apartment complex where you could try to grow food?

TH: I suppose we could try in the courtyard. That might be a good idea. Growing food is very empowering. Another thing that can help us survive hard times is not wasting. People in our society are incredibly wasteful.

EH: Do you ever sit down when you’re out here? Or do you bring a book?

TH: No. That would be very unprofessional. When I’m out here working, I’m on my feet nonstop. I eat before I come, and I bring a bottle of water.

EH: So, do you intend to continue doing this for a while, or would you prefer to find longer-term work?

TH: Absolutely, I’d like to find another job with an independent bookstore again. I love reading and being around books. A sheriff pulled up the other day and asked if I wanted to join the force. But that’s not my line of work.

EH: So do the authorities ever hassle you?

TH: No. That’s why I walk all the way out here. Within the city limits, they don’t want to see people panhandling and they’ll pick them up. But no one hassles me.

EH: Do you own a car?

TH: No, I don’t. But someday I’d like to get a little car and take Jasper for a ride—maybe up to the Durango-Silverton area. I worked a couple years with the narrow-gauge railroad train there. We could sneak him into the motel in his little kennel and really live it up.

Comments (1)add
Written by Charleen Touchette , June 07, 2010
Thanks for the illuminating interview with Thomas Harris who I used to see working in the bookstore and art supply store and now see when we drive into town in Santa Fe. His presence is dignified and shows how even in difficult times a person can retain their personal integrity and have much to teach others. Thomas reminds us how thoughtful and wise we need to be about our environment and energy use. I hope he will find steady employment soon, but for now he is doing important work standing as proof that economic hardship can be faced with courage and dignity.
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Eco Tip

Grow a garden or a fruit tree. A garden is fun, provides exercise, teaches kids about nature, reduces your carbon footprint (since your food need not be shipped to you), and controls what pesticides or chemicals do or do not go into the food you eat. Not to mention how delicious and nutritious fresh-picked fruits and vegetables are! More tips...

Eco Quote

How long can men thrive between walls of brick, walking on asphalt pavements, breathing the fumes of coal and of oil, growing, working, dying, with hardly a thought of wind, and sky, and fields of grain, seeing only machine-made beauty, the mineral-like quality of life?  - Charles A. Lindbergh, Reader's Digest, November 1939   More quotes...