By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Donald Johnson doesn't expect you to listen. Sure, he's talking, but he talks a lot and he's used to being ignored.
"Thirty-five years ago," he says, "I was ranting on the radio for an hour. I told [host] Connie Goldman that these exhaust fumes are not going into outer space and leaving our planet. They're staying right with us and building. Of course nobody listened then.
"I had been going around the metro area giving speeches for MECCA, which stood for Minnesota Environmental Citizens Concerned Association. I was talking about how dangerous all this pollution was, that it causes cancer and the eventual weather disasters. I always knew that we were importing oil, and that wars are mostly resource wars, like Buckminster Fuller used to say."
Johnson speaks while standing amid the clutter of his hole-in-the-wall store on 38th Street and Grand Avenue South in Minneapolis. He has lived on Grand all his life, at various addresses, and the way things are going—he's got a bulge of purple flesh the size of a cherry tomato jutting from his left forearm and a feeding tube sticking out of his stomach, from "cancer of the tongue and jaw and lymph nodes"—he will die here.
"We're going to do ourselves in. We're doing ourselves in," he says. "Global warming is much more serious than we're even hearing. The scary part is it's an accelerating increase. We cannot stop it. It won't stop in our lifetime. The only thing we can do is slow it down at this point, because it will take a hundred years to reverse it. The damage has been done. The young people today should be more concerned than ever. Sometimes I wonder why I'm ranting and raving about it, when the young people don't care. 'Course they're all brainwashed by corporate capitalism not to care."
The 66-year-old Johnson stares past the awning that advertises his antiques and solar power business (www.solarhardware.com) and past the neighborhoodies who meet for coffee at Bakery On Grand next door. Not too far from here, Johnson attended the old West High School in Minneapolis and spent two years at the University of Minnesota before launching a giftware business.
"I had several employees and we shipped giftware all over the world," he says. "Then I dropped out in 1969, decided I was doing nothing but polluting the world to death. Wanted to do something different. I got into solar energy technology and manufactured windmills and the Solar Cooker, which is the most successful thing I made and the one that works and I still sell today. For a couple years there, I was the biggest solar module dealer in the country."
Johnson boasts that although there are plenty of cardboard versions of the Solar Cooker—a telescope-like device that heats food and boils water under the power of the sun's rays—his is the only "indestructible" one made out of aluminum. He has sold several hundred for $270 a pop, most to Californians two years ago during the energy crisis. He now sells two or three a month through his website, and lives primarily off his $500-a-month Social Security check.
Nothing if not a Renaissance man, Johnson (who is divorced with two daughters) ran for mayor in the last election and garnered 500 votes. To make ends meet, he sells the ragtag collection of old books, records, paintings, and pin-up girl portraits that stuff the store, where he's lived in a cluttered back room for 23 years. "It's my form of begging," he says of his antiques business; "I'll take whatever I can get for any of it."
When he moved in, his initial goal was to super-insulate his home with solar panels so he would be free from paying any utilities. "I'm on that path, even though the building is old and it's got cracks up here and in the basement," he says. "I'm working on it. I think I'll reach that goal someday.
"I'd advise everybody to do it," he says, finding his rhythm. "I think gas prices are going to double and triple, the way Americans tool around in these three- and four- and five-ton automobiles, and the war problems and greenhouse gas problem and the pollution problem and the pandemic cancer problem, all happened because of our piggish use of fossil fuels."
He'd be ripe for one of the interviews in the Dink, the Dinkytown-based free rag that interviews homeless and street people, who often make more sense than the so-called sane. Johnson comes off a little like a batty uncle, which is what can happen to a guy when you're one the first alternative-energy merchants in the country, now shuttered away and relegated to writing letters to the editor of newspapers all over the world. He also pens the occasional article for his friend and "hero," Ed Felien, publisher and editor of Pulse of the Twin Cities.
He wants people to know about the intellectual tradition of his "gurus": writers such as Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, Francis Moore Lappe. The bookshelves that line his ragtag store are similarly idiosyncratic. Gardening, general interest, politics, cooking, philosophy, writing—you can find all this and more. Titles include Always Cheat: The Philosophy of Jesse Ventura (by uber-gadfly Leslie Davis) and American Assassination: The Strange Death of Paul Wellstone (the proprietor believes the late senator was taken out by big-oil, alt-energy foes). Homemade T-shirts ("Re-Elect Gore"; "United My Ass") hang from the shelves.
On a stack of comic books sits a mint periodical from the '70s, with whacked-out caricatures of Farrah Fawcett and Lee Remick grinning from the cover. The short-lived Mad magazine knock-off's headline is "The Environment Issue." The name of the publication?