Dylan Ratigan Is on a Mission to Transform Communities With Healthy Food, Clean Energy and Jobs for Veterans

Can the former MSNBC host's new solar-powered farms help shape the future of sustainable living?

Dylan Ratigan at Commonwealth Club
Photo Credit: Megan Robertson/Flickr CC

Let’s face it, we’re facing some serious problems. Our centralized power, food and communications systems are failing us. The fossil fuels we rely on are depleting rapidly, heating up the planet in the process. We have so little food in some places that people are malnourished, yet so much unhealthy food in others that people are obese. And the world is in the grip of armed conflict, while the military veterans who put themselves at risk are too often abandoned by society.

What if there were a single idea that could address all of these problems with a community-based solution?

For Dylan Ratigan, author of the book Greedy Bastards and outspoken former host of MSNBC’s the Dylan Ratigan Show, there is.

Ratigan is one of the co-founders of Helical Holdings, which produces the Helical Outpost, a hydroponic farm, solar power station, satellite communication center and water filtration system all wrapped up in a single "plug-and-play" shipping container that is capable of transforming entire communities.

I spoke to him about this extraordinary invention, how it’s helping to solve our sustainability problems and what we can all do to be greener.

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten: What do you see as the biggest sustainability problem we are facing today?

Dylan Ratigan: I would say it’s our obsession with the culture of centralization. We operate in a world that believes that our food, that our power, that our water processing, that our WiFi connectivity, that the basic foundation of our connectivity and infrastructure can only be managed massive centralized systems. That flawed belief denies the reality of our unique capacity to shift to a significantly more de-centralized system. The greatest threat to our ability to function as a sustainable planet is our continued investment in a culture of centralized resource control.

LG: How does Helical Outpost help reassess the validity of centralized systems?

DR: The whole premise behind Helical and the Helical Outpost is the idea of creating a company that can support basic equipment that can serve as the foundation for decentralized resource hubs. The natural, most efficient way to support the human beings of this Earth in their basic resource infrastructure is through super-high-performance decentralized systems, which naturally will disrupt large businesses that make their money using centralized resource production, but it's not the intent. We need to understand that there's going to be a disruption; really we're better to have compassion for the coal businesses and the nuclear businesses that are going to be disrupted by this because it's our family and our friends who work inside some of those businesses.

LG: Compassion plays a big role in the Helical Outpost—part of its mission is to create jobs for returning veterans. Can you tell us about that?

DR: The inspiration for Helical Holdings came from talking to combat veterans I interviewed while working at NBC, many of whom articulated a strong desire to sustain their commitment to global security. Remember, the mandate of the U.S. armed services is not to kill people or to perpetrate violence; it is to provide for global security at its most aspirational. The idea behind the Helical Outpost is to allow them to continue their commitment to global security, to continue their commitment to a mission larger than themselves, but give them a new set of equipment to achieve that with. Rather than deploying a 50-caliber machine gun, they're deploying a solar panel setup and a hydroponic farming system.

Helical Systems co-founder and chairman Dylan Ratigan (blue T-shirt) talks to USDA officials and U.S. veterans about the Helical Outpost hydroponic organic farm unit at the future Patriot Farmers of America facility site at the Hill and Dale Farm in Berryville, Virginia, on July 7, 2015. (image: USDA/Flickr CC)

LG: It's amazing how the many different facets of this fit together seamlessly. Was that something that naturally happened?

DR: I think that one of the things we run into is the isolation, where we're like, "Oh, this is an educational campaign," or, "This is a jobs campaign," or, "This is a health campaign," or "We're going to do a power system," or "We're going to do a water system." Life doesn't work that way. Life is a symphony orchestra. You can't pull out one variable and fix it. It's like having a symphony orchestra simply play the horn without any strings. With all the different components that become the Helical Outpost, all those things are true; the idea ultimately is to create something that is foundational to the culture of creating capital and people.

LG: There are the people who are directly employed and then the people who learn from it, and there’s a wider impact.

DR: Not everybody wants to be a farmer or a solar power person. Some people want to be a filmmaker or a cook or a singer. The nice thing about the Outpost is it creates a naturally magnetic centralized hub; it's where you charge your phone, it's where you get your food and water, it's where you can connect to WiFi. It naturally creates a magnet to bring people to it, which makes it additionally a venue for a training hub for a wide variety of skill sets that are transcendent to whatever's going on at the outpost itself.

LG: What kind of impact do you see access to fresh fruit and vegetables having, particularly in the U.S.?

DR: If you look at the number one issue in the United States from a healthcare standpoint, it is diabetes and the refined sugar that is at the foundation of the American diet, particularly in our more impoverished communities, which are also the places that have the least access to fresh fruit and vegetables. By installing Helical Outposts in urban or rural environments which are food deserts, you are able to create jobs, hope and education, while simultaneously creating availability for nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables, which then create a healthier option for that community, leading to lower healthcare costs and lower tax bills.

LG: The rate of change of technology is accelerating; how do you see this impacting Helical?

DR: Helical at its essence as a company is a certain set of expertise and capital inspired by the idea of integrating stationary resource production for decentralized utilization. The Helical Outpost is simply the first iteration, the first product. It's the iPod, if you will, of the company. The idea is really to continue to dynamically update and integrate state-of-the-art resource technology in a way that allows more consistent access to that technology. Understand, there's a gap between what's possible and what's deployable based on the average human being's ability to relate to it. Helical's role really is to integrate it and make it accessible, not to invent it.

LG: What's Helical's biggest barrier to success?

DR: We’ve proven the technology, but the biggest barrier to the success of Helical is the cultural shift to understand and invest and embrace the value of decentralized resource systems as the path to global abundance. At this point, what we're really looking to do is help people understand and cultivate the culture to support it; shifting culture requires an investment in time, in young people, and in broad communications in order to inspire people to make that shift.

LG: Do you think that shift will happen?

DR: It is happening. Our world today is vastly different than it was five years ago. Typically, most major changes, to be blunt, require a full generation of 30 to 40 years to pass—it's only as the horse-and-buggy operators retire that the automobile takes over. You don’t take decentralized resource systems to established, dependent cities like New York City, you take them to rural areas and small towns, to the food deserts, to places where you can create the most value. At the same time, if you find yourself with capacity to access resources, expertise and influence in a global center, don't be afraid to use it to move the curve in this direction.

LG: What can people in big cities do if they want to decentralize their lives?

DR: If you're living in a city, you're actually already in the top 10 percent of the greenest people in the world, so don’t beat yourself up. Set your intention each day to be compassionate and constructive with other people. Then, if you're looking for little things to do, honestly the easiest thing for everybody to do is to use less plastic and fewer bags. In some cities you can also opt to only buy solar-generated power from your power company. The scale of the act is irrelevant, because it is the underlying intention of each individual that ultimately sets the tone for the world.

Watch a video about Helical Outpost and scroll down for images:

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten is a freelance writer. Read more of her work at telllucy.com.

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