Thursday, April 16, 2015

Not yet, on sustainability, it seems....

This post is triggered by the beginning of the biking season here.  Joy of joys!!  When the snow's gone and the temperature gets far enough above freezing for weaklings like me to venture out on my bike, I like to see what's changed along the many various paths that are here, since the previous autumn when I put my bike in the basement to wait out the long, icy winter.  My usual reaction is that an important message hasn't gotten through at all.

We live in a land-grant university town.  Penn State is in fact a very good university.  We have an ag school and they have some active conservation and sustainability groups.  But overall it is a money-first institution.  Each year as I venture out I see more former agricultural land being urbanized:  soil and the prior year's farmland is being paved over to make room for condos or suburban-style McMansions, or shrink-wrap or fast-food franchise outlets, or banks.  Oh, and more bars, of course.

A few years ago our President and trustees sold many, as I recall hundreds, of acres right near the edge of campus, upon which hundreds of condos are being built.  That land had been used by the ag school and its students.  Bye bye, or perhaps one would better say $ye $ye to that old-fashioned notion!

View of Circleville Farm, 2005; Penn State Daily Collegian

Circleville Farm now: US Framing
Even here it seems that the message hasn't gotten through that what's important here should be beyond the interests of the short-term 'developers' (that is, the realtors and destruction companies) and that there should instead be at least a modicum of consideration not just for the long-term future but also the quality of life.  Thousands more people come in, and what we get is more demand on water, more light, noise, and air pollution, more crime, more sewage and electricity demand, more litter.  And, of course, more business for the local banks, shrink-wrap, fast-food, and alcohol merchants.  Every new development seems to be named for what the developers destroyed to build it -- "Pheasant Glen", "Acacia Woods", "Pine Hollow".

Urban sprawl envy
It is difficult for me to grasp why, even here, the need for restrained growth and long-term sustainability, especially in regard to agriculture, is basically not felt at all.  I think that's the appropriate word for it.  Humans are humans, and we're a short-term thinking species.  We're very good at long-term awareness, but it's in the abstract.  What we feel is of the here-and-now, and in our society this means quantity more than quality of life.  Or, to be fair, quantity of life is seen as quality of life.  Until the threat looms palpably on the horizon, we will carry on with what we know and are used to.

Even here, even in a university town with an ag school, intellectual awareness of issues has little 'bite'.  It is depressing.  Even as we see stories in the news of droughts and soil loss and climate change issues, we do essentially nothing.  Without a wolf right at the door blowing hard, complacency yields to or generates deniers and other arguers-of-convenience, who reflect the general human pattern of short-term thinking.  We daily hear arguments about how to insure 'growth' in business and the economy.  Population growth is hardly on the agenda at all, either locally or globally.  Here the operative word is growth, and it's a mainstay of international development efforts as well as economics professors.  There was just an episode of the  BBC Radio4 program The Inquiry, that dealt with this problem--and asked if we've just all got tired of hearing about climate change. The same goes for population growth, and resources exhaustion.

I can ride my bike all over town, which is a very good thing.  But at night it's hard to see the stars. We may think our consumerist world is expanding, but light pollution keeps us from realizing how finite we really are.

If State College with a major university, that even has sustainability programs, can't do it, who can or will?  Maybe in the western US, where drought stares one in the face?  We shouldn't denigrate climate deniers if we act in a comparable manner.  It seems that there is only one word in our language:  "More!"  Instead, Nancy Reagan had it right: when it comes to 'development' what we need to learn is how to "Just say No!".

But if deniers want to keep their big vehicles and whatever else makes them feel righteous, climate change advocates have their own hypocrisies.  They and their publicity advocates overstate the various aspects of the science itself.  Sustainability advocates use efficient LED light bulbs and recycle their milk bottles, but they still live in big air conditioned houses and drive to work and to the store to get those milk bottles.  Climate scientists and relevant policy-makers in large numbers gambol around the world attending meetings (flying, nice hotels with fancy meals, ....) where they debate how people should cut back on greenhouse gases, rather than the boring alternative of using Skype or Google Hangout for their conferences.  This is do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior and no matter how correct the climate and sustainability arguments are--and they seem essentially urgent--the threat is just not looming enough.

I, too, am a hypocrite and probably, no certainly, don't do enough to truly recognize the problem. Neither do I have any idea how, or even if, it would be possible for a people, even an educated people, to become enough aware of long-term issues to do something really major about it. I like my car (and driving to the store to get my bottles of milk)!  But I also know that as long as everyone carries on as usual, each year there will be more bike paths for me to ride, because they put them in and around all the new condo complexes, and that's great!  So, I think I'll close now, and head out....

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