Will we heed the sustainability wake-up call?

Earlier this week I sat in on two different events revolving around the issue of this thing called “sustainability.” At the first, an Our Future Summit roundtable discussion Tuesday, a small group of locals folks wrestled with the very idea itself: what it means (or should mean) as well as how it relates to things on the global, regional and local level. On Wednesday, the second annual SustainaBiz conference attracted a hundred or so locals interested in sustainability as it relates to business.

With about a third of the Gulf of Mexico now closed to fishing and oil set to start lapping the shores of Florida’s Redneck Riviera, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the perfect poster child for global sustainability discussions related to the environment. Locally, a favorite example is the empty log mansion or entire second-home neighborhood – always an issue in ski country but even more poignant and visible now in the wake of the housing bust.

Other examples – from single-use plastic water bottles to oil company subsidies – abound. But what I found refreshing about the conversations I heard this week was that the finger of blame was not the focus. It’s easy (and somewhat gratifying at times) to sit around and identify all the ways we’ve gone wrong as a society in regard to creating a sustainable world around us. It’s another matter entirely to move past that and work toward solutions. It can be disheartening, though, to look at something as vast and horrific as the Gulf oil disaster and feel like the best we can do is screw in a compact fluorescent light bulb or recycle a few cans. There’s a huge issue of scale here that calls for a much more comprehensive approach that’s led from the top down as well as the bottom up (yes, we should still recycle.)

The BP gusher in the Gulf may yet have a silver lining: It’s absurd to keep pushing subsidies to oil companies that A) post extraordinary profits and B) are wedded to 20th century energy products that clearly have no place in our future beyond the next few decades. That’s why it was refreshing- finally – to hear President Obama speak this week of ending those subsidies and diverting that money to research and develop new, non-petroleum technologies.

Whenever I or anyone else writes about the need to get off oil, there are always some comments demanding to know exactly what new technologies will replace it – the suggestion being that, absent an immediate and precise explanation and cost-benefit analysis of said technology, it’s clear we should stick with oil because, well, it’s the evil we know. Like many of the people gathering around the sustainability question this week, I reject that kind of thinking as defeatist and unwelcome. I have no idea how to create a car or a plane that runs on something other than petroleum products, but I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the scientists and engineers of America and other countries can and will develop clean alternatives for oil, coal and natural gas – it’s already happening, just not on a grand scale yet. Accompanying that, though, must be a groundswell of support from us and our leaders. Is it time for a gas tax, a carbon tax – some reckoning that forces us to acknowledge the true cost of oil (and don’t forget the military expense) and pushes us more rapidly toward other energy sources? It may be. We may not want to pay $5 or $10 for a gallon of gas as they already do in many other countries, but do we also want to keep our head in the sand to realize that savings at the expense of the very world we live in? Just look at the Gulf … and believe me, with tens of thousands of oil rigs out there, this won’t be the last ocean-killing disaster our there.

Also raised at Tuesday’s roundtable was the question of whether something like the BP gusher is enough of a catalyst to get things moving in what is clearly the right direction (i.e., away from oil). Obama’s pronouncement about ending subsidies is one good sign; popular anger rising about the situation in the Gulf is another. Once the stories about the ruined lives and livelihoods all along the Gulf start rolling in, perhaps this will be one wake-up call Americans simply can’t ignore.

Summit Daily News | June 3, 2010

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