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October 12, 2013

Sustainability shouldn't be a dirty word

By Gary Koutnik Guest Commentary
The Daily Star

---- — There has been some confusion recently about the definition of sustainability. There has also been some willful misrepresentation.

I’d like to make an attempt to clear up the confusion, and respond to the misrepresentation. As a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives who is endorsed by Sustainable Otsego, it’s important that I understand, and be able to articulate, what sustainability is all about. As a citizen of our county, it’s important that I consider the future that sustainability offers.

Sustainability is a term that describes a way of thinking — and then acting — about the present and, especially, the future. When we think sustainably, we think about how we can protect and nourish what we value, so that it can grow to be robust and self-sufficient in the future.

Heath Markus Green, from Cornell University, spoke at Foothills recently about a study of the old D&H railyard in Oneonta. He had some ideas about how it could be used, and in the course of his remarks, he mentioned the idea of sustainability — an approach he embraces — and provided a three-part definition: the three Es.

First: economy. In a sustainable system, the economy is healthy for the long-term. It doesn’t need constant re-starting or excessive regulation, and isn’t episodic: no boom-bust cycles or fast-fading fads. No sacrificing important resources for short-term gain. It’s broad and deep and diverse, like a good stock portfolio. Sustainability requires, then, strong, stable, enduring economic activity that preserves and strengthens our most valuable resources.

The second ‘E’ is environment, a word that tends to be the beginning and ending of most folks’ understanding of sustainability. But this doesn’t just mean clean water and air, and a livable landscape around us. It also means the built environment, the infrastructure we already have. Resources of every kind, all of them. For instance, Oneonta is not only nestled in a beautiful valley, with (so far) pure air and water, but it’s also on a rail line and an interstate, and it has an airport, two colleges and a hospital. All this needs to be factored into sustainable a plan for economic development.

And the natural environment is more than just a beautiful, healthy landscape for us to live in. It is an economic resource, and it draws people here in great numbers. It would be pure craziness to damage or diminish it.

The third ‘E’ is equity, or equality of opportunity. Equity isn’t just a noble goal; its importance is a fact of life. The more equitable the opportunities are for the widest range of people, the more likely it is that an economy can achieve and sustain self-sufficient growth in the long term.

We’re in trouble here, of course, living in a country with some of the greatest income inequality in the world. Locally, this aspect of our economy is getting worse. We’ve got to do better; just adding low-wage jobs isn’t enough.

So what can sustainability look like in Otsego County? We need to create a strong, diverse, self-sufficient economy which works for everyone who chooses to participate, and does not destroy the resources that are most important to us. We can manage careful growth for Southside Oneonta, and resist fracking’s dangerous allure. We can support the new agriculture on our numerous vacant farms.

We can vigorously prepare and promote the many advantages of our light industry sites, rather than continuing to engage in status-quo economic non-development. We can become a leader in renewable energy initiatives, rather than build the infrastructure for the natural gas roller-coaster. We can defend, protect and strengthen our awesome natural heritage.

This is harder than letting the ‘free’ market have its way with us, and coping with the collateral damage. But we’ve tried the easy way, and we’ve seen how it’s worked over the last few decades.

My oldest son is getting married soon, and so grandchildren are on my mind. It may be that the most important aspect of sustainability is not about me, or my life, at all. It’s about the future, about creating a better, long-lasting built environment, and preserving a healthy, beautiful natural environment, for my children and grandchildren, and yours as well, and all those who come after.

So that’s what we stand for, those of us who are endorsed by Sustainable Otsego. I think that most folks, when they clearly understand what sustainability is really all about, would find that they stand with us, as well.

GARY KOUTNIK is a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives.