THE VIEW FROM FLY CREEK
By ADRIAN KUZMINSKI • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Sustainable Otsego has been both a social network and political action committee since its founding in 2007. Over that time, it has advanced three principles around which local life could be organized:
- Sustainable Living.
- Economic Independence, and
- Home Rule.
Today let me address Sustainable Living; I’ll take up the other two in later columns.
Sustainable Living turns out to be a lot harder than many of us thought. The very word “sustainable” has been corrupted by phrases like “sustainable growth” and “sustainable capitalism.” Thanks largely to corporate propaganda and misinformation, it is less and less clear what terms like “sustainable” or “green” mean.
If it means anything, sustainable living means living on renewable resources on a finite planet.
At least that was the idea when the term “sustainability” went mainstream in the early 2000s.
Energy analysts had begun to worry about “peak oil” decades earlier, but by the early 2000s compelling evidence of limited conventional oil reserves, as well as of the depletion of other resources (fertile soils, clean water, essential minerals, species diversity), brought the issue of sustainability to a larger public.
The idea of sustainable living was a response to this brewing eco-crisis. It meant avoiding practices that led to pollution and a deteriorating natural world. The idea was to recycle everything, go organic, and use less energy and resources. We were supposed to lower our “carbon footprints” to minimize global warming and mitigate climate change.
Sustainable living became no less than a moral movement, a kind of secular religion where
Nature takes the place of God, cooperation takes the place of competition, holistic thinking replaces partial thinking, and harmony and compassion replace strife and tribalism.
That was a profound cultural moment, and it changed important human behaviors. It’s been the main force behind the progress made in recent years towards surviving on this planet. The hope was to maintain something like the middle-class lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.
The plan was to do it by replacing fossil fuels with eco-friendly renewables, poisonous chemicals with “natural” ingredients, and accumulated waste by recycling and composting.
But it didn’t quite work out that way, at least not yet. New technologies (fracking) expanded access to oil and gas reserves, postponing “peak oil” indefinitely, while locking in our reliance on fossil fuels through low prices. Recycling has yet to absorb the vast waste stream, and organic alternatives, popular as they are, are far from replacing cheap, chemically based products.
In the meantime, the methane and CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by continued fossil-fuel use has brought us to the verge of uncontrollable climate change.
The easy steps of sustainable living – buying a Prius, recycling, eating organic food, switching to
LED lighting, etc. – are no longer enough. We need structural, not just personal, changes.
Our continued post-fracking reliance on cheap fossil fuels has allowed the oil and gas industry to dominate the political system, frustrating the transition to renewables. Corporate-led deregulation has rolled back the environmental standards necessary to fully promote organic products and eliminate waste. Indeed, under Trump we’ve gone backwards on all these fronts.
At this point, only upheaval from below seems likely to change national politics. And that will happen only when the urgency of the biggest threat – climate change – reaches a critical threshold in most minds. Because of it, we’ve witnessed in recent months massive wildfires out West, catastrophic floods in the Midwest, melting glaciers and polar ice packs, another record heat wave in Europe, accelerating wildlife extinctions – the list goes on.
The floods a few years back gave us a taste of what can happen here, though climate change for us so far has been mostly incremental and cumulative, rather than sudden and overwhelming.
But it’s not any less significant for that. Hundred-year floods now occur a lot more than once a century. Storms and power outages are more common. The growing season has lengthened.
Winters are milder. Tornados, once unheard of in our region, now occur repeatedly.
If you experience the weather mostly when walking to and from your car, it’s easy to dismiss all this as some kind of delusion, a fake crisis. But if you’re a farmer, a gardener, someone who works outdoors, or manages infrastructure (powerlines, roads, etc.) exposed to the weather, you’re more likely to recognize that climate change is happening right before your eyes.
Sustainable living is both more important than ever, and even harder to achieve. To recognize its challenge is to feel its urgency, and especially the vital need to replace fossil fuels with renewables.
This is evident in the deliberations of the new Otsego County Energy Task Force, where climate change concerns and economic-development issues are coming together for the first time locally.
In response to this growing crisis Sustainable Otsego has evolved into a political action committee focused on local government. Given the failures of our major parties nationally and locally, Sustainable Otsego remains resolutely non-partisan. Visit us on Facebook, and at sustainableotsego.net.
If we’re to respond successfully to climate change from below, it will be because local grassroots activists – conservatives and liberals alike – insist upon it. Only they can force our representatives – local, state, and national – to do what’s necessary to secure the transition to sustainable living. No one else is going to do it.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor
and co-founder and moderator of Sustainable Otsego, lives in Fly Creek.