The genesis of Melaver Inc. began in 1915 with two humble corner grocers in downtown Savannah, a family business which grew to become the legendary M&M supermarket chain.
After M&M was sold to Kroger in 1985 the company turned to real estate, and is now a national leader in green-friendly, sustainable development. Putting their money where their mouth is, Melaver uses wind energy to power its business operations, and its entire management staff is LEED-certified.
But those small-town roots are what drive the company to continue to say it’s in the service business. The products may be different, they say, but the core business is run the same way as before.
Melaver Inc. is one of the prime movers behind the ambitious ‘Creating a Sustainable Future’ conference at various venues around town Feb. 6-10, beginning with its sponsored free screening of the sustainable living documentary Kilowatt Ours this Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Melaver property Abercorn Common.
We spoke with CEO Martin Melaver about his company’s role in promoting sustainability in general and the conference in particular.
Why Savannah? Why now?
Martin Melaver: In the past few years I can’t think of any community in the U.S. -- except for maybe Chattanooga, Austin, Santa Monica, Portland or Seattle -- that would have been doing this sort of thing. What’s happened is we’ve created an S-shaped diffusion curve -- perhaps better known as a “tipping point.” What you have is a very innovative group that’s now in the early adopter phase.
The stars are aligned, in a sense. I know that sounds a bit mystical. But we do have an existing core, critical group of cultural creatives that have come to Savannah -- and part of that of course is the presence of SCAD, the creation of the Creative Coast Initiative -- and really extended the cutting edge in Savannah.
You’ve got leadership of groups like the Georgia Conservancy, especially Patty McIntosh, who over the last eight years over there has worked steadily, building painstaking foundations. There’s been a lot of slow, steady foundational work by a number of very innovative people in the community.
And then you’ve got the confluence of certain top-down events -- greater awareness of global warming, that sort of thing.
It seems more and more as if the private sector is beginning to take the lead on addressing global warming.
Martin Melaver: Well, there’s a huge debate right now as to which sector should take the lead. You can break our culture down into four sectors -- the business sector, the academic or learning sector, the government sector and the nonprofit sector. Depending on where you focus, you get different takes as to where the real bang for the buck occurs.
Ryuzaburo Kaku , the former CEO of Canon, argues that business, because of its overall power and financial resources, really is the sector that has the greatest potential for creating environmental change. Up until fairly recently the business community has been very retrograde in that respect. My feeling is that probably some collaborative effort between government and business is really where the critical push is going to come from.
What are the forces that would resist such a collaborative effort?
Martin Melaver: The greatest resistors in general are people and entities with a siloed, noninterdisciplinary approach to things. One of the key issues is that you can’t differentiate the environment area from social justice needs.
Speaking of social justice, I’m still skeptical when people say Savannah is on the cutting edge. We have enormous poverty here, and the racial disparity in particular is incredible.
Martin Melaver: We do have basically a 50/50 black-white divide in this area. We need every citizen to understand the issues involved -- reduction in waste, reduction in water use, the need for lower energy usage, the need for low-cost housing. Education is a critical component of that. And of course environmental education is particularly tricky because it is so interdisciplinary in nature.
You’ve seen the same growth estimates I have, of a million residents on the Georgia coast by 2025 or so. How accurate do you think those numbers are?
Martin Melaver: Very accurate. I’m looking at an old essay by one of the preeminent environmentalists of his day, Eugene Odom. He wrote in the ‘70s talking about how Georgia back then had more or less maxed out in terms of its carrying capacity. Of course the growth we’ve seen since the ‘70s has been significant -- as well as its impact on streams, water quality, land consumption.
We need greenspace, not just for aesthetics but for carbon sequestration. We are dumping unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Also the fact that Georgia uses dirty energy doesn’t help. This in turn causes health issues, with an additional strain on the health care system.
Sad to say, development here can still get so much worse. Look at Hilton Head.
Martin Melaver: It doesn’t have to get as painfully bad as Hilton Head to be bad. The problem is wonderfully articulated by a little thin book called Flatland, by Edwin Abbott. The premise of book is that there is this two-dimensional world of lines that can’t conceive of a three-dimensional world -- until one of its citizens breaks out of its world into that three-dimensional space.
Most of us live in a metaphorical version of that 2D world. Collapse doesn’t seem to be right around the corner, though a third of all mammals are in danger of extinction, along with 12 percent of all birds and 15 percent of fish life. There are major degradations of fisheries. Water quality is impaired globally. There are 80-plus thousand synthetic chemicals out there, most of which are untested.
But for most people, they see that their faucet works and there’s plenty of green space around them, so it doesn’t seem to be an issue.
People do tend to tune out really bad news. Isn’t this a real problem environmentalists face, this tendency to depress people?
Martin Melaver: Al Gore mentions in his movie that we move too often from a position of denial to a position of despair. The way out is really to use that old cliché of looking at problems as opportunities. America, specifically, has been replete with examples of taking the depletion or obsolescence of one technology and transforming it into possibilities for the future.
The next generation has immense economic opportunities that the environmental crisis provides. Ninety-five percent of the adoption of most technologies of the 20th Century occurred in a 20-year span. Let’s say solar and wind energy were adopted with the same rates as the telephone, car or computer.
Having said that, we also have to get our heads around the idea of limits to growth and consumption. In my mind there’s no question about that.
I don’t want to drag you into a political discussion --
Martin Melaver: Oh, go for it.
-- but doesn’t it seem as if the debate over the cause of global warming is sort of moot at this point?
Martin Melaver: It is a moot point. Global warming is with us. By and large in the history of our country we have placed the burden of proof of skepticism of growth on those resisting growth. But the major elements that have led to environmental degradation in time have come to shift that burden of proof. Therefore I think at this point the burden of proof needs to move to the other side.
One philosopher terms it the “Big Bet Phenomenon.” That is, people seem to be willing to make big bets on ways of conducting our lives, such that if we’re wrong the consequences are irreversible.
I would apply that to a lot of different things. Nuclear energy for one. Advocates are always calling it a clean alternative to coal, but I think the burden of proof is now on the utility industry. We have to say, “Wait a second -- this is a huge bet. If it goes wrong we can’t recover from it.”
There are very few businesses out there that make business decisions by betting the farm. My question is: Should the planet?
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Filmmaker to attend documentary screening
Melaver Inc. sponsors a free screening of Jeff Barrie’s documentary Kilowatt Ours, Tuesday, February 6, at 6:30 p.m. in Abercorn Common, at the corner of White Bluff and Abercorn. Admission is free but seating is limited to 300. Doors near the fountain open at 6:15 p.m.
The film tells the upbeat story of a couple who make changes in their way of life that make a difference in their cost of living while helping the environment.
Filmmaker Jeff Barrie will be on hand to introduce the film and have a Q&A session.
‘We’re part of a very special region’
Patty McIntosh on development -- sustainable or otherwise – on the Georgia coast
Patty McIntosh is the executive director of the coastal office of The Georgia Conservancy, which works to educate Peach State citizens about how best to steward our substantial environmental assets and natural beauty.
As part of the ‘Creating a Sustainable Future’ series of events, McIntosh will serve on a special discussion panel on ‘Governing for a Sustainable Future’ Feb. 7 in the City Council Chambers.
Though invitation-only because of the small venue, the panel features some key local names, including Mayor Otis Johnson, Superintendent Thomas Lockamy, Martin Melaver and Micheal Elliot, president of Union Mission.
We caught up with McIntosh during a break in her always-busy schedule -- made even busier these days because the legislature is in session.
Is it remarkable to you that an area usually so conservative in so many ways is now hosting a conference which includes a screening of a film by Al Gore?
Patty McIntosh: The remarkable thing is who shows up to see it, I guess (laughs). The things Gore talks about in that movie have become ordinary in my world, but at the same time I’m shocked that not everybody has seen it. I do think bringing it here is bold given the prevailing sentiment.
Does this signal a sea change of sorts?
Patty McIntosh: I’d like to think so. I do think there’s change coming, and change in people’s perspectives on a whole realm of environmental issues.
The name of the whole conference is a little confusing. Apparently there’s a libertarian school of thought called the “sustainable use movement,” which most environmentalists do not embrace.
Patty McIntosh: In some people’s minds there’s a notion we can manipulate nature to our ends, an idea that we can just keep consuming more and more because we engineer our way into sustainability. That’s not going to work forever. There are all sorts of secondary impacts involved in that. Nature breaks down if you keep altering it to satisfy human needs.
What are your top three priorities these days at the Georgia Conservancy?
Patty McIntosh: Trying to keep the Marsh Act from being weakened. That’s at the top of our list.
The second is keeping public lands safe from development -- for example, Jekyll Island. We want to keep these public areas affordable and accessible to all Georgians.
Number three for me is growth and development on the coast in general. It’s ever-increasing in its rate of acceleration. We’re consuming our most precious lands at alarming rate. Nobody is looking at that big picture. What are we doing? What are we becoming?
I guess you could put all those things under the broader category of the whole tension between private property rights and the common good. Wealth versus commonwealth. One of my favorite quotes is by Sylvia Earl. She said, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.” It’s not the other way around. Our long-term economic vitality is completely tied to what the ecosystem can support. That’s where I am on that.
A whole culture change needs to happen to come to that realization that what we’re doing now is for short-term gain, and not going to serve us well in long run. We have in our society a moral obligation -- and ethical obligation -- to think about not just ourselves but about future generations.
Are you hoping to see real change come from this conference or is it more just an awareness thing for you?
Patty McIntosh: I’d like to see both of those. Education in the community, and education of our leaders. It’s so important to have new leaders step up who are interested in all of these issues. I’m hoping our leaders will gain an understanding of how this all works together and Savannah will realize it’s not alone – we’ll realize we’re part of a very special region. Savannah has a lot to do with setting precedent and good examples for the coast.
You go to a lot of public input meetings. What are you seeing in terms of citizen involvement?
Patty McIntosh: The one I just got back from on marsh protection was amazing. So many people were there -- citizens who stepped up to the mic and said all these things that even some of us in the environmental community might have shied away from saying. It blew my mind the passion I heard about protecting what we have here. Those are real leaders to me.
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For a complete schedule for ‘Creating a Sustainable Future’ go to www.savcds.org/symposium/symposium1.html
Alternate energy discussion at The Bean ‘puts the party back in politics’
Last week the Sentient Bean hosted a discussion concerning energy issues, the damaging effects of modern sources of power and proposals for new ways to harness it.
Since May of last year, the group Energy at The Crossroads has been traveling throughout the Southeast to get others involved in this pressing topic. Instead of hammering the audience with droning data, the participants grabbed their attention with a number of sing-a-long songs, and even a satirical skit.
Seamlessly orchestrated, the songs buzzed with a definite folk sound and sang that “nuclear waste [is] piling high”.
Laced throughout the quips were the issues. The tour’s goal for the future is to break away from the harmful and dangerous effects of coal, oil, and nuclear power and move forward towards the economically and environmentally safe energy obtained from the sun, water and wind.
Burning coal and oil is one of the leading causes of global warming, they said, and nuclear power is a major terrorist threat as an attack on one would be disastrous.
“Both coal and nuclear power are killing us,” said Mary Olsen, Southeast Director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Olsen said that renewable solutions, such as direct solar energy, are a safe, nontoxic and improved way of energy.
More importantly, the overall theme of the night became the power of the people.
“The individual’s sense of powerlessness has to be overcome. The power of the people can not be taken away,” said Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition.
With this newfound sense of empowerment, organizers said, individuals can become more involved in alternate energy activism. Voting against taxpayers’ money subsidizing the nuclear industry and thinking smart when using energy can greatly assist creating a cleaner tomorrow.
As one participant said: Energy issues are an extension of the civil rights movement, as people have the right to breathe clean air.
-- Alex Lukas
For upcoming news and information visit the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s website at