Commentary

Christensen: The country's unwinding as told through NC man

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

— Working in little shop on a country road in Johnston County, it is hard to imagine that Dean Price was the leading figure in a national best-seller last year.

But that is where I found Price this week, busy working at Green Circle, his small waste oil recycling company, helping transform big vats of restaurant grease into biofuel to run school buses.

Price is the central figure of “The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer, a well-known writer for The New Yorker magazine. The book won the 2013 National Book Foundation award for nonfiction.

The book is about the decline of American institutions from 1978 through 2012 as told through several individuals: an Ohio factory worker, a Washington insider, a Silicon billionaire and others.

But the book begins and ends with Price, the son of a Rockingham County tobacco farmer/evangelist, who is both a small businessman and green economy entrepreneur.

Through Price, Packer tells the story of the decline of rural and small-town America – the closing of textile mills and tobacco factories, the emptying out of main streets.

Risk was worth it

Over three years, Price said that Packer spent 2-1/2 months with him, interviewing him and living with him for weeks at a time.

Price, 50, took a risk in telling his life story, including his father’s suicide, his divorce, business successes and failures with convenience stores, service stations, restaurants and green economy companies.

“The first night I read ‘The Unwinding,’ I sat down with a half bottle of Jack, and I read it and woke up the next morning, and I was very depressed because here was my whole life story for the world to read,” Price said. “Part of it was not pretty.”

But Price has a bit of evangelist in him. He believes strongly in the green economy, in particular biofuels as a way to help provide jobs in rural and small-town America.

“I felt I could get the gospel of biodiesel out there for the masses and what it could do for the country,” Price said. “That’s why I did it.”

Still, there wasn’t a day, Price said, that he didn’t have doubts about whether it was the right thing to do.

Potential in every town

Price, who calls himself “a McCrory Democrat,” thinks there is an opportunity for rural North Carolina to reinvent itself using existing resources.

For the past 80 years, Price said, cooking oils have been collected by rendering companies and turned into animal feed as a protein supplement.

His company is helping create a new industry by collecting the cooking oil for conversion to biofuels for school buses and other vehicles. Price would also like to see farmers grow canola to turn into cooking oil.

“You have a blueprint for a biodiesel industry in every community in North Carolina,” Price said.

Green Circle has a contract with Pitt and Johnston County schools and is negotiating with Durham schools. The schools share in the profit, using it as a money raiser just like selling wrapping paper. Green Circle collects the restaurant grease, cleans it at its Benson facility and sells it at biodiesel plants in Wilson or Pittsboro. Eventually it will go into school buses.

Price says he sometimes gets discouraged when he sees closed plant gates and empty downtown storefronts. But like geologists who see potential in oil and gas fields, he sees potential money makers in cooking grease at every strip shopping center in the state. And he sees jobs where none exist, producing cleaner energy.

“This is not the America of 30 years ago,” Price said. “But if we do a few things differently, there is great hope for the future.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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