Solving the Unsolvable – Kat Houghton, PhD

Written through a collaborative effort by Kat Houghton and Dannie Frey


I co-founded and run an Asheville-based non-profit – Community Roots – focused at the intersection of self-governance and environmental sustainability. Many people don’t realize how intimately intertwined these two things are. Most of the biggest barriers to us as a City becoming environmentally sustainable involve our lack of self-governance. We, as a City, don’t have the power to make decisions that are better for our future.

When it comes to choosing how our electricity is generated for instance, in North Carolina we are at the mercy of the State. The State of North Carolina has a legalized monopoly arrangement with one company – Duke Energy. Duke is the seconds largest emitter of climate destroying CO2 in the world.

The County and the City have both passed resolutions to reach 100% renewable energy in the next 25 years or so. However, the fact of the current state of affairs is that there is no way for us to reach that goal if we continue to comply with the State’s unjust laws that keep us tied to one electricity producer – especially this particular producer! Duke Energy’s 25 year plan puts us at about 9% renewable energy by 2030 – the rest a mix of coal, gas (both major greenhouse gas emitters) and nuclear.

The City recently commissioned a report from an independent consulting group to see how they could get to the 100% renewable goal. The report clearly states that we can’t in the current regulatory climate. The only way to get there is buying RECs – Renewable Energy Credits – which is essentially paying companies in other states to produce renewable energy while we continue pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That is not a solution its a bypass.

Community Roots is working to address the lack of self-governance so we, as a community, can make choices that will get us to the 100% renewable goals we have set. We are doing this is partnership with a group of environmental lawyers called CELDF – the Community Environmental Defense Fund out of Pennsylvania. They helped us write Asheville’s Climate Bill of Rights – a local ordinance ( a law) that would allow us to purchase electricity from other providers and be the beginning to breaking up Duke Energy’s monopoly in North Carolina. The Climate Bill of Rights also prevents the build out of new fossil fuel infrastructure and establishes the Rights of Nature – this is giving legal standing to ecosystems (please see my TedX Asheville talk for a more in-depth discussion of the Rights of Nature CELDF have helped pass about 200 other similar Community Bills of Rights around the USA.

So, how to you go about getting a new law passed in the City of Asheville? You tun a citizen-led ballot initiative which gets the law on the ballot as a referendum that we can all vote on. You need verified signatures from 15% of the City’s registered voters.

Community Roots is running a campaign to collect 10,358 signature before January 31, 2020 so we can get the Climate Bill of Rights on the ballot in 2020 and vote on it. You can learn more and support the campaign at

“So many are frustrated with what feels like a unsolvable situation. We know that the planet is undergoing extreme climate collapse and massive species extinction and that the unbridled use of fossil fuels in a major contributed to this situation. Yet we feel powerless to change the entrenched power systems that keep us doing business as usual. We feel that our small efforts are not enough and that we don’t have enough power, money, status, whatever to make significant change to how things work.

– Kat Houghton

And in many cases this is true. We don’t have enough power in the State to be able to choose which companies we want to purchase electricity from. That’s why we need to change the way power is distributed in North Carolina and move from this outdated top-down, centralized model to a more distributed, network model where individual Cities and Counties can make decisions about what happens in the places they live.

At this time in history when scientists are predicting that we have but a few years left to make a significant dent in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change it is imperative that we do everything we can. The environmental movement has been trying since the 1970s to reduce pollution by working within the system – and some have tried working outside of the system – with the idea that the system is broken and we need to fix it. We have reached a point of understanding the the system is rigged – it works perfectly well for those in positions of power – and that is is time for us to break the system and build a new one focused on justice and environmental regeneration. The Climate Bill of Rights does exactly that.

The fact that local self-governance is part of the sustainability conversation in Asheville is a new trend – that wasn’t happening three years ago when Tyler Garrison and I founded Community Roots in response to our experiences at Standing Rock. It was barely part of the conversation last year when the City passed it’s 100% renewable energy resolution.

But now as people are beginning to see that the 100% renewable energy resolution is an empty promise and a “resolution” does not hold the City accountable for taking any action it is becoming clear that the major hurdle here is us being in compliance with unjust State laws.

On one level it’s legal – taking action to change the unjust laws that keep us trapped in this old paradigm. And on another level it’s psychological – people start to cringe and squirm in their seats when we talk about disobeying unjust laws. We have been trained to be “good citizens” to obey the laws and we seem to hold unexamined beliefs that equate law with “right” – if its the law then we should obey it, right?

Not if the law is unjust. It used to be legal in this country to own other humans as slaves, until enough people realized this law was unjust and took a stance to chance it.

Helping people to see this and get comfortable with the idea of citizens re-writing laws is challenging. The irony is that large corporations re-write laws routinely. It’s very easy for large corporations to lobby politicians and be part of writing new laws that further their ability to make a profit. It’s very hard in this country, and especially in North Carolina, for citizens to re-write laws. Once we can step into the place of recognizing that it is our Right to be able to make and vote on laws and that those laws should be written for the benefit of all people and the planet, not for the profit of a few humans, then things will change much quicker.

Kat’s Leadership Values


When reading about Kat and her passion about the environment, you can see what traits matter most to her:

Persistence – “I grew up on a farm, I learned that there’s always a lot of work to be done – you just have to keep going doing it until it’s done.”

Faith – “I fully believe that each one of us has chosen to be in human form at this crucial time in planet Earth’s history to be part of the shift into a new form of consciousness, a new human presence in the world – one where we take care of each other, the planet and all the other beings we share her with.”

Acceptance – “Not passive resignation, but deep non-judgement, non-resistance of what is. I spent 15 years working with kids with autism, they taught me the futility of resisting what is and the transformative power of deeply accepting, surrendering into the current moment. I have so much more energy this way! Resisting the way things are is exhausting.”

Her Role Models

My mother – She is a serial entrepreneur and a farmer in Scotland. She has always been a model of grounded, practical action (lots of it) with big picture thinking and total conviction that it’s going to work. When I was 10 I told her I didn’t want to go to the local school anymore, I wanted to go to a private school because I thought I’d get a better education. She agreed but told me she didn’t have the money to pay for that. She figured it out! She found a government scholarship program, took to me go sit the exams and the next year I was in the school I wanted. That experience taught me to go after what I want, know there’s always a way and understand the importance of having someone believe in you. I carried that with me into my work with children with autism – many of whom had no one who believed in them. I saw first hand the transformative power of our deep acceptance and sincere encouragement of each other.

Suzannah Park – She is a dear friend and has been involved in Community Roots since close to the beginning. We met on the way to the pipeline protest camp at Standing Rock in 2016. She is an incredible singer and runs the Wild Asheville Community Chorus. She has taught me the importance of staying deeply connected to those we love even when it feels hard – especially when it feels hard. That through our connection to others we can move through the hard times in life in a much deeper way that allows for more growth than when we wall ourselves off from those we care about. We have been through a lot together – we grieved the sudden death of a man – Tyler Garrison – who was friend, lover and colleague to both of us. Through that very hard and dark time Suzannah’s instance on us staying connected, holding space for each other’s pain and lifting each other up saved my life.

Mary O’Conner – My business coach. I’ve only known Mary for the last 8 months but she has proved to be a powerful presence in my life. I run a software company, an industry highly dominated by men. Having a strong, grounded, inspiring women to guide me through the daily ins and outs of running a company has made a huge difference to our bottom line this year. She has taught me to resource myself, to pull deep from my own well to find the things I need, not to search outside for them. And that when it comes to daily tasks to only do the ones I feel delighted by, to find someone else who is delighted to do the things I don’t want to do!

Leadership Advice

Get started!  – It doesn’t matter what you do, know you are going to change it anyway. Just start somewhere, do something then watch to see what happens. Make your next move based on your observations of what worked and what didn’t. Failure is the greatest teacher, welcome it in.
Be bold! Let your light shine – you are the only one who shines as you do. You are here for a reason that the world is waiting for you to fulfill.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            When asked what she is looking forward to in 2020, Kat’s answer was no surprise after reading this blog… Getting Asheville’s Climate Bill of Rights on the ballot so we can all vote on it.
Congratulations Kat and thank you for your work on this very important issue.



Kat Houghton is a 2019 Women’s Leadership Award Winner in the category of “Environment.” This article was written to tell her story and recognize Kat as an exceptional female leader in Western North Carolina. A video interview will also be released in the B&Co Blog.

Want to see Kat accept her award at the upcoming 2019 Economic Bruncheon? Tickets are available for a limited time at