Friday, 22 April 2011 00:00
If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated pollution at the rate of the mean average American, we would need the productive land and ocean resources of five and two-tenths Earths to sustain our lifestyles. Unfortunately, we only have one Earth available.
It isn’t just Americans. The environmental footprint of wealthy suburbs around the world generally come in at the U.S. level. Great Britain comes in at three planets as a whole, but the suburbs of London are between five and six. A recent study of Cape Town, South Africa, found that the footprint of some of that city’s richest suburbs were so large that 14 planets would be required if everyone lived like them. Americans are not alone in conspicuous consumption, or in a corporate economic environment that measures success in relentless growth. Not just production or profit, but more production and profit. Americans do get some kind of award for making believe it doesn’t matter, and that what is happening isn’t happening. We win that.
Some of us were taught that this lifestyle is what we should want, that is a sign of status, that we deserve it. But is the Long Island we have now really sustainable? This week, I paid $4.16 a gallon for unleaded gasoline.
We need to reduce our ecological footprint not because it’s a nice thing to do, or because it’s fashionable or makes us feel good. We need to do it because we have no choice if this region is going to survive in anything like its current form.
Don’t fret about it. Don’t fear it. Don’t shout about it at public meetings. Change is coming. We can try to get in front of it, try to shape it before it smashes all over us and runs down our fronts.
One way or another, the right way or the wrong way, Long Islanders will be walking more in the future. It can be a very bright future, with benefits to the air, our health and our personal and community finances. People in very walkable neighborhoods (places that you don’t need a car to get to stores and restaurants and other popular destinations) typically weigh seven pounds less than people who live in sprawled neighborhoods.
I’m optimistic in many ways about Long Island’s potential to get through the trying years ahead. There are silver linings in the clouds. For example, in a world in which the availability of water for drinking and for crops is going to become an important issue for a great many people, Long Island is sitting on top of its own large water supply. If we can keep it safe.
We have schools, libraries, parks and other good things that are worth salvaging. We are not building some of the hardest things from scratch.
We are going to have to localize some key resources (food), and give people options in how they travel and move goods. We are going to have to stabilize our local government revenue systems, because we’re going to have to build some new stuff and rebuild some old stuff. Some institutions we’re used to may have to be put on the shelf. None of what we will have to do will be fatal. Long Island 1950 has lasted six full decades. It will absolutely not last another six. Or even two.
At some point, we’ll probably get the streetcars back on our turnpikes and avenues. Not just because they’re cool, but because it will be the cheapest and most efficient way to move people on an island with three million residents. Well, actually more like eight million, because we can’t think of Brooklyn and Queens as being on another planet anymore. This is how we will have to think. This is how Long Island will survive and thrive while other older suburbs do not.
And some Long Islanders will be upset. Some will yell. Some will say we must stay the same, always, and they will make believe that we’ll cap this and reduce that and it will be the same. But it won’t be. It isn’t 1950 anymore. It can’t be.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org