Monday, April 20, 2009

It's The Environment, Stupid

Tom Brokaw has an op-ed in today’s New York Times. He basically makes the case for more regional provision of services as a cost-cutting measure during these tough times. This is not revolutionary nor is it a new proposal.

When discussing North and South Dakota’s 17 colleges and universities and why so many schools are unnecessary for such a small population he states, “They are a carry-over from the early 20th century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season.”

Both of these ideas - cheap travel and local farming - are two sides of the same coin, and two issues we need to address and think much more clearly about with regard to the environmental crisis we are facing.

Travel may be easier, but that is because it is heavily subsidized. We are encouraging environmental degradation with cheap fuel. Our jet-setting lifestyle is convenient for those who can afford it, yet this frivolously inefficient hyper-mobile culture is also destroying the planet.

Later Brokaw opines, “If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century.”

Today’s realities dictate that we concentrate more on local sustainability rather than global mobility. Certain places are naturally endowed to produce food and others have an abundance of natural resources. The last fifty years have seen a totally new development pattern – highways and exit ramp economies. We locate wherever we want regardless of the natural environment and then, because travel/shipping is cheap, we build and import whatever we need to make that place livable.

We dam and reroute rivers. We build over wetlands. We turn deserts into golf courses. We construct hundreds if not thousands of miles of irrigation systems and water supplies for farmlands and subdivisions that should never be.

I agree that service consolidation is an efficient idea. But we must also consider the environmental realities. We have built fantasy communities where they should have never been imagined – much of Arizona and Nevada comes to mind. Until we face the hard fact that some of these places are not sustainable and we come to grips with a more long-term, high-density lifestyle we’re really just spinning our wheels.

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