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Guest Column

April 7, 2012

If we don’t develop a sustainable system, who will?

In Otsego County’s local elections last fall, a number of candidates ­— most of them on the independent Sustainable Otsego line ­— ran on an anti-fracking, pro-sustainability platform. They recognized that our current way of life — dependent on increasingly scarce, costly and polluting fossil fuels —­ cannot continue.

What can we put in its place?

The problems fossil fuels have created — climate change, an insecure infrastructure, overpopulation, ecological degradation, depletion of resources and rising costs ­— are global in nature and, these days, very much in our face.

The solutions, however, are local. If we want to meet the energy challenge, we’ll have to do it in our own communities.

By conserving energy in our homes, businesses and institutions, and by developing locally available sources of energy, we have a chance to create an ecologically compatible local economy productive enough to support ourselves and our descendants with dignity.

On Saturday, May 5, Sustainable Otsego, with the co-sponsorship of Otsego 2000, the Otsego County Conservation Association, and Brewery Ommegang, will host a one-day public conference ­ “Meeting the Energy Challenge in Otsego County: Local Solutions, Local Control, Local Jobs” — from at 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. at Templeton Hall, 67 Pioneer Street, in Cooperstown.

(The event is free to the public, but registration is required; go to sustainableotsego.org.)

The morning session will address energy conservation, which is central to any prospect of establishing a localized, more-sustainable economy.

Speakers and panelists, including representatives of NYSERDA, will offer overviews of the issue, and explore ways of financing the retrofitting of homes and other buildings. The afternoon session will assess the potential of local renewable energy sources, including biomass, solar, geothermal and wind.

Some background may be useful.

There are no panaceas for the predicament we face. Our overconsumption of resources will not allow for an easy transition to living within our means.

Energy production today requires ever-more-expensive and -destructive techniques, such as deep-water drilling, fracking, tar-sands extraction, mountaintop mining, etc.

Unfortunately, the collective collateral environmental damage has now reached a tipping point where harms cancel out benefits.

This conclusion is intuitively compelling but hard to quantify. Our accounting system does not allow us to calculate the true costs of economic activities, which have a way of rippling out through society in myriad ways, while profits are concentrated at the source.

The deflected and uncalculated costs of an extractive process such as fracking are not borne by the corporations which carry it out. They are born by landowners whose property values are reduced; by taxpayers who must fund infrastructure repairs, disposal of toxic wastes and other services, while losing tax revenues from lower property values; by the health-care system that must absorb the costs of related illnesses and traumas; and by businesses that depend on resources such as clean water, or a pristine environment for recreation, or clean soils for organic production, and so on.

Its only at the local level that we have the capacity to bridge this gap between benefits and costs. Localization allows us actually to see and measure the distance from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to recycling and back again to extraction. Closed-loop systems essential to sustainability can be established and monitored locally, but they are far less manageable at broader levels. The larger the scale, the more intermediate steps, the more complexity, the harder it is to measure and control costs and harms. In this sense, our current global system is profoundly irrational.

We need to reset our economic activity locally, where we can establish and maintain sustainable practices. This is where the jobs of the future will come from. We need to stop investing blindly in large-scale systems where control is elusive if not impossible, and jobs are fleeting. Once local, sustainable productive systems are established, we have a chance to introduce broader systems of exchange where the goods and services involved can be certified on the basis of their sustainable bona fides.

Although we are too dependent on unsustainable practices to expect an easy transition to a steady state economy, the sooner we redirect investment to re-localized sustainable methods of energy conservation and production, the less disastrous will be out descent when we return to earth. At this point, we can only hope it won’t be a crash landing.

We hope to see you on 5 May in Cooperstown!

Adrian Kuzminski is the moderator of Sustainable Otsego.

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