Viewpoint: Who cares about our ‘sustainability’?

The headlines are commonplace today: “County Board OKs 223 upscale homes,” a sizeable subdivision is approved near Caledonia and another near Winnebago. Still others are announced in and around Rockford, along with commercial development projects.

We continue to build more and bigger roads to push the urban sprawl farther and farther out. Maybe that should not be too surprising. Oil is plentiful today because we are producing about as much of it as we ever will.

James Kunstler, author of The Longest Emergency, states the situation this way: “…This massive quantity of oil induces a massive amount of work, land development, industrial activity, commercial production and motor transport. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a lot happening, that houses and highways are still being built, that TVs are pouring out of the Chinese factories, commuters are still whizzing around the D.C. beltway, that obese children still have plenty of microwavable melted cheese pockets to zap for their exhausting sessions with Grand Theft Auto.

“But in the peak oil situation, the world is like a banquet just before the tablecloth is pulled out from under it. There is plenty on the table, but it is about to be overturned, spilled, lost and broken. There’s more oil available than ever before, but also so many people at the banquet table clamoring for it that there is barely enough to go around, and the people may knock some things over trying to get it.”

So, amid all the frenzy and hype to build more and bigger developments and race to develop newer kinds of fuels so our motoring fantasy can continue no matter what, it is disconcerting that we hear nothing about sustainability. Where is the planning for survival? Why are we trying to increase consumption rather than practice conservation?

A considerable amount of new housing is made up of what Kunstler terms “McHouses,” built, in many cases, at some distance from urban centers because that’s where the cheaper land is. We’re told one proposed new development will feature houses priced at $350,000 to $400,000. With gasoline projected to hit $4 a gallon by Labor Day, how many prospective buyers will be lined up to sign a purchase contract? If the cost of driving the few miles into Rockford becomes prohibitive, how much will those lavish edifices be worth? How about the even pricier dwellings located 30-40 miles from Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver or other big cities?

Real estate markets are beginning to cool off, but we still have plenty of evidence of denial. The problems, however, are not “somewhere down the road,” they are here right now. We are in desperate need of real leadership to meet the challenge.

President George W. Bush declared we are addicted to oil, and he is going to correct that. Immediately after that speech, he fired researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and blocked oil conservation efforts.

Instead of trying to save the car culture and cheering on the production of more SUVs, we ought to be hard at work restoring this nation’s railroads. They are a far more energy-efficient means of transport than cars will ever be.

Today, the meaning of “growth” as used by politicians and corporations is vastly different than “bigger and better.” As oil inches past $70 a barrel and expected to keep climbing, the cost of all goods and services will be ever higher, and the stresses on families, the government and big business will be tremendous.

We will be running faster just to stay in place, and some will fall by the wayside.

Growth today, as Kunstler points out, means more landscape ripped up, more pastures and croplands turned into McHousing subdivisions and a very large investment in a living arrangement that has no discernible future. Builders and developers cannot change, they can only continue to put those dwellings on any available land until circumstances make such activity impossible. As the housing bubble unwinds, they will disappear.

Kunstler notes another critical factor in this scenario: “We are going to need every meadow, cornfield and pasture that we have, because as cheap energy wanes, we are going to be desperate to grow enough food to feed ourselves—another reason to be wary of alternative fuel fantasies based on growing crops dedicated to gasoline substitutes.” Ethanol, anyone? As we said several months ago, would you rather drive or eat?

“We must stop living in denial,” says Mike Ruppert, publisher of From the Wilderness and a peak oil educator. “To address a crisis, we must first embrace that crisis for what it is, not for what we want it to be. For this reason, it is essential that those of us who understand the problem find one another quickly and begin to plan what our future will look like before the Pentagon and private industry decide our future for us.”

Sustainable communities, those in harmony with their environment and resources, do exist. They are called “Ecovillages.” The Ecovillage Network of the Americas has produced a community sustainability assessment questionnaire, which cities and towns can use to determine how sustainable their habitat is. We invite Mayor Morrissey and other community leaders to examine this document and, perhaps, begin to determine where the Rockford area stands as we are poised on the brink of an uncertain future.

From the May 17-23, 2006, issue

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