30th Annual Great American Think-Off
Congratulations to all four finalists!
Read the winning essays below

The four finalists for the 2023 Great American Think-Off are (in alphabetical order): Gretchen Mayer of Mansfield, SD; Douglas McClain of Fergus Falls, MN; Allen Taylor of Colorado Springs, CO; and Timur Usenov of Maple Grove, MN.

At the 30th annual Think-Off debate held in New York Mills, MN, on Saturday, June 10, 2023, Doug McClain won the gold medal, successfully arguing for the environment, while Allen Taylor, arguing for the economy, took home the silver medal. Gretchen Mayer (environment) and Timur Usenov (economy) each earned bronze medals. Each of the four finalists also won a $500 prize and an expense-paid weekend in New York Mills.

Read the 2023 Think-Off Finalists’ award-winning essays below!


Gretchen Mayer
Mansfield, South Dakota


If The Environment Does Not Thrive, Neither Will We

When my children were small—some twenty years ago—we would pile into the old Ford pickup truck and I’d drive slow down lonely country roads searching for the delicate ferns that revealed where the wild asparagus hid.

In the fall, robins feast on the bright red berries that grow on the tips of the ferns. Later, when they come to rest on a fence or tree branch, they ‘deposit,’ the seeds.

Our eyes tracked lines of rusted barbed wire or sun-silvered wood. As so often happens with children, all things become a game and we’d compete to find the most, the longest, and the fattest asparagus stalks. “There’s one!” someone would shout, and I’d stomp on the brakes. They’d jump out and run over, squat down, and return with handfuls of green spears and victorious grins.

We discovered a spot in the corner of a field where, deep in the thick buffalo grass, rare white asparagus poked up out of the fertile soil—a delicacy. We’d cook our bounty that same night, rolling it over a hot grill, basting it with olive oil. “An hour from field to fork,” we’d say, and the taste was bright and intoxicating. But the tradition had to end when the farmers ripped up miles of fence so they could plow closer to the road, planting soybeans or corn on every available inch. Century-old trees were cut down, the white-asparagus patch tilled under.

Heart-shattering books such as Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and The Overstory by Richard Powers, confirmed all that I suspected—our environment gives us so much, yet we have wounded it—perhaps mortally. The earth is being mutilated by deafening two-story machines called excavators. They dig and shake and tear leaving in their wake an open gash of gravel and soil in search of a few ounces of gold.

Prairies are disappearing—only about two percent of the original grasslands remain. Farmers spray planeloads of weed killer on their crops and I look up and curse the sky as white clouds drift down, settling onto the earth where frogs, toads, and important pollinators live—bumble bees, moths, and beetles. The poison kills the ladybugs who devour the clusters of parasitic aphids that feed on leaves, stems, and roots.

But my righteous indignation was overshadowed by my own hypocrisy. Each fall I would hire a neighbor/farmer to mow the three acres of foxtail and side oats growing around my house, then sell him the bales for his cattle. The remaining yellowed, dried stumps could hold no snow in the winter. In the summer, the field was quiet—no birdsong or toad croak. No buzz of honeybees.

“I’m re-wilding,” I told the farmer a few years back. No longer would my land be cleared but will return to its origins.

When humans are weary from hard work and stress, they do not flock to Wall Street to heal, they seek out forests, oceans, lakes to renew their spirits.

Today, on my few acres, orange-winged Monarch butterflies flutter about, laying eggs on milkweed plants. Green garter snakes slither about keeping the grasshoppers and crickets at bay. Toads and frogs gather in a low spot where rainwater collects. Feral cats grow fat on field mice. Hen pheasants lay clutches of brown eggs, the mats of long, thick, Prairie Dropseed protecting their chicks from the steely eyes of the Cooper’s hawk.

The land returned my kindness with many gifts. But gifts sometimes come with a price—rabbits multiplied exponentially, and I had to fence in the garden if I wanted any lettuce or tomatoes for my table. The deer decimated my tender grapevines, so we installed a motion light to frighten them off.

But even with all this, the balance is in my favor. Today, delicate ferns wave like pale green flags along the tree line. Tomorrow I’ll be showing my grandchildren the joys of foraging—asparagus, broadleaf plantain, and rose hips.

An economy of goods and services did not exist until humans appeared on the earth. It is the environment that creates the competition for resources with its fountains of oil, buried gems, fields of wheat, and caged beef, pork, fowl. So, should it not logically follow that if you protect the environment, you also protect the economy?

And without a healthy environment, where will humans go to mend their blistered souls?


Douglas McClain
Fergus Falls, Minnesota


Can we eat or drink money? Do we get nourishment from stocks, bonds, and mutual funds? While assets may sometimes be “liquid,” we surely cannot drink them.

The environment existed before we did; it was not created by human beings. The economy on the other hand, a manufactured construct, was created by us to be used by us or to use us. We are the motor of the economy, while we are but one part of the environment. The environment does not need us to operate, and some may say it would run more efficiently without us.

I grew up with an environment-focused father, a hunter, angler, and someone who felt rejuvenated by the natural world, but who also worked to ensure his family’s needs were always met. He, like all of us, was part of both the economy and the environment. He passed his love of the natural world on to me, also a hunter, angler, gatherer, and observer, and someone who sought to make the environment the focus of his career.

Throughout my academic and professional career, I have tried to be a steward of the environment and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. Wildlife conservation and the habitats they utilize are dear to my heart. I feel rejuvenated by my time spent in the natural world, whether as a consumptive or non-consumptive user of the environment. Others may not see the point, but many did decades ago strict environmental regulations were passed in this country. Collectively, we realized that our economic progress had come at a cost. Rivers were catching fire, eagles and other migratory bird populations were decimated by pesticides such as DDT, and our soil, air, and water were being severely degraded. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency were all passed or created in response to these environmental concerns. People decided that their health depended more on clean water than on progress.

Today, some may say that people are suffering, and I do not disagree. People are underhoused, underfed, underpaid, and overworked. People wonder where the next mortgage or rent payment will come. People may make decisions to pay for housing or for food.

However, the protection of the economy at the expense of the environment will not rectify these issues; it will only worsen them.

The plowing of prairie and the cutting down of forests add greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, furthering the effects of climate change. The draining of wetlands and channelization of rivers reduces water quality and groundwater recharge and increases the severity and duration of flood events. These outcomes negatively affect the health and wellbeing of people, but also hurt the economy many are so desperately trying to protect.

I argue that the economy could be protected at the expense of the environment; however, the protection of the environment positively impacts the economy.

When wetlands hold back water on the landscape, how many homes, businesses, and dollars are saved through flood mitigation? When butterflies, bees, ant, and other pollinators are conserved and allowed to do what they do daily, how many countless plants are pollinated, thereby providing a free service to us that is vital to the future of our food supply? Protecting the environment and supporting the ecosystem goods and services that this world provides free of charge positively impacts the economy in ways many do not think of routinely.

Many people, me included, need the environment for our souls, our hobbies, and our personal economies. While all may not feel the same connection to the environment, everyone on this big rock undoubtedly benefits from its protection. Economies ebb and flow, but one thing is constant: to our knowledge, the planet we live on is the only one we have. Our compassion must work to ensure that people around the world are clothed, fed, and sheltered, but this “being human” is not dependent on the economy. In fact, it flourishes regardless of the economy. Our protection of the environment is a vital way we can show compassion for our fellow human beings around the world.

In conclusion, the environment will run without our economy, but without the environment, our economy and those in it, will cease to exist. The stock market will not feed us. Money will not nourish us. At the end of the day, water is the most critical liquid asset we can have in our human portfolio.


Allen Taylor
Colorado Springs, Colorado


At age 22 (back when I knew everything), I owned a family hand-me-down 1980 Chevrolet Citation – also known as “FrankenChevy.” In its first year of life, it spent more time in the shop than on the road. It grew worse with age. It wasn’t a lemon – it was a time bomb with a randomized clock. Looking at it filled me with loathing and disgust. There was more rust than paint; it leaked oil, spewed smoke, and random parts fell off -on schedule- every week. FrankenChevy cost me 40% of my factory drudge income in junkyard parts alone. The mileage was awful, but at least the gas fumes filling the cabin saved me from a serious smoking habit. It drove like it was always one week away from the dump, and it destroyed my dating life.

Since I was 22 and knew everything, I knew I needed a new car. I KNEW the cost of a new car was exactly the same as the extra fuel and repair costs for FrankenChevy. I KNEW the fuel savings alone would save a fortune. I KNEW my neighbors would be happy, no longer having to slam windows shut as I backfired past in billowing clouds of smoke. Replacing FrankenChevy would be better for EVERYONE… and I was outraged that no bank would float a loan to a job-hopping college dropout relying on Army Reserve checks and donating plasma to pay the rent.

Clearly, I had no understanding of what a new car actually cost: Under-25 comprehensive insurance, bad credit loan interest, and modern parts were FAR more expensive than I knew. To gain what I (and the neighborhood) desperately needed simply wasn’t possible until I achieved financial stability, and I could not do that overnight.

It took 12 years. I learned the difference between wants and needs; I established priorities, stuck to a budget, celebrated every small step towards my goal, and most importantly – I stopped lying to myself.

Similarly, the Economic versus Environmental priority question is not an either/or proposition – we MUST have both – but the economy is the lever to move the environmental mountain. It takes a robust world economy to protect the environment.

The costs are staggering. According to the often-cited 2019 Morgan Stanley Decarbonization Report, the cost to reverse climate change will be approximately $50 TRILLION dollars, with those costs being borne by 10% of the population in the world’s most wealthy nations.

A more comprehensible number: this is $105,000 for every taxpaying adult in the industrialized world, NOT counting the people of China or India.

Worse: This report only addresses climate change. It does not address the issues of pollution, plastics, deforestation, over-fishing, soil erosion, and strip-mining the world’s poorest nations for the very resources needed to reverse climate change.

It is clear: if we are to have any global effect on the environment, there must be a robust global economy to bear the immense costs involved. Moreover, it furthers those environmental goals to help build the economies of struggling nations around the world whose cooperation we MUST have. With a healthier world economic base, the eye-watering costs can be borne worldwide by nations that could now afford to share in the responsibility.

Demanding that “SOMETHING be done” without a plan invites failure. In 2010, I worked at a metallic lead recycling facility – one considered the standard in environmental protection. A new series of regulations came down that year from the county, the state, AND Federal governments. All of those new regulations involved reporting information already being reported to 9 new agencies – in different formats. People were hired to do nothing but compile the same data, now in 18 different ways and send that same data to 18 different government agencies. My employer spent a quarter million dollars per year, improved not a single process, and had exactly ZERO positive effect on the environment in any way.

When environmental protection takes priority over protecting the economic ability to do so, we destroy our tools and cripple ourselves with the best of intentions.

Protecting the environment requires massive conventional resources. We must build storage and reinforce the electrical grid. We must develop new energy technologies, and we MUST protect and support the businesses, organizations, and emerging economies who provide the means to make all this happen.

Because – as my experience of the 1980’s has taught me – focusing on the environmental goals without the economic means to succeed will result in our world being stuck with the same old, rotting car.


Timur Usenov
Maple Grove, Minnesota


Between the COVID-19 pandemic and vicious global warming running rampant, we see that we need change now: change toward a cleaner world, a more developed society, and a healthier standard of living. Placing that responsibility in the hands of a few core nations is not enough.

Thus, I will affirm that protection of the economy is the most crucial measure that must be taken in order to combat human suffering and maximize global progress.

Billions of people across the world financially struggle to survive in the current, modern world. Having grown up in an ex-Soviet Union nation, Kyrgyzstan, I have seen through the lens of my family first-hand the depravity of poverty forced upon the human condition. Life within and after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the quality of life for millions to plummet. No jobs, no opportunities, no money; the people of these nations had only bread and milk to fill their stomachs, and even then, they were considered lucky. Everyday belongings and foods we have now were luxuries.

The economic state of these nations created cycles of violence, corruption, and crime- everyone was fighting to survive. Lacking the proper economy to enhance the people’s quality of life, your only hope was to get out or join the system that perpetuated this decay. It must be emphasized that this is only one type of poverty, as poverty spans across the globe in many different forms.

Within America itself, following the housing market crash of 2008, millions of people’s lives flipped upside down. Family, friends, and neighbors lost almost everything they had. My mother and father struggled to find jobs that could support us after our immigration into America for over 3 years while we lived in a cheap, small apartment. A poor economy snuffs the possibility to live within our modern world. I still know people who are struggling to reclaim what they once had, even 15 years later.

Poverty is persistent, it is generational– it pushes people into the most depraved form of human existence one can experience. In a way, the economy is an organism: whenever it breathes, we breathe; whenever it holds its breath, we hold ours.

Many people worry that a pursuit for economic expansion is a danger to the health of our world, but it is much more complex than that. It is important to understand that the 43 core nations, on their own, cannot combat and save the world from some of the largest environmental issues that are upon us. We still have the rest of the world, or the 152 peripheral nations, who are eager to achieve the same, but struggle to step forward.

In order to achieve massive environmental changes, we need strong economies across the world to take collaborative action. So, in the current state of world politics and diplomacy, it is far-fetched to assume that such action can be taken for issues as big as climate change itself. Many developing nations do not have the current systems or infrastructural capability to develop or invest in green technology or climate fighting programs.

When the people are starving, fighting for jobs, and clawing their way to survival, green investments are the last worries on their minds. There needs to be a strong economic foundation.

While living in Kyrgyzstan, I have witnessed devastating environmental issues: trash littering the streets, air pollution covering the city, and deforestation decimating the natural landscape. The development and support of these nations is crucial to ensure a global, unitary movement to alleviate the impacts of environmental issues. It also stresses the importance of understanding the fact that, with a poor or crumbling economy, there is no opportunity to develop general environmental strategies.

We need a strong economy, not just to minimize human suffering, but to have meaningful environmental programs and investments that will prevent future suffering as well. It is not mutually exclusive.

A failing economy presents itself as one of the largest threats to humanity. It not only exacerbates human suffering under poverty, but it extinguishes the possibility to expand and develop on domestic and global issues. By protecting the economy, we protect the current and future generations of people across the globe, both by preventing a loss of human life and creating a realistic possibility to actually alleviate our environmental crisis. We need to stop thinking of the economy as a separate system outside of our existence. It is central to our lives, our futures, and the world.


Want to know more about how the 2023 debate went? 2023 Think-Off results coming soon!

The Think-Off Committee also awarded 5 Honorable Mention recognitions to the following essayists:

  • Pearl Daugaard, University Student, Norman, OK – environment
  • Andrew Napier, Data & Analytics, Rochester, MN – environment
  • Priyanka Poplai, High School Student, Bridgewater, NJ – economy
  • Carolina Saladin, Content Creator, Gilbert, AZ – economy
  • Angela Stehr, Administrative Assistant, St. Paul, MN – economy

The Honorable Mention essays will be published soon; STAY TUNED!

Questions or want more information? Give us a call at 218-385-3339.

This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through an operating support grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.