The Green Column #50

Paradigm Lost: Can Americans Change Course?
(I wish I’d said this!)

June 8, 2011—Today’s column was written by Curtis Johnson and appeared on Citiwire.net/Washington Post on April 17, 2011. It was originally published August 9, 2008 and is used with permission of the author. 

An historic $14 trillion of public and personal debt, a fourth of America’s bridges deficient, more than a fourth of adults obese, and nearly half of the nation’s youth not prepared for a 21st century economy—what do these baleful effects have in common?

Each of these effects and more like them show what we got for a half-century of an easy-going, profligate, low-efficiency culture. Though only five percent of the people in the world, we Americans got comfortable with burning 25 percent of the world’s resources. From corporate practices to personal lifestyles, we shoved the consequences of waste on to the backs of the less well off and future generations. We provided schools but didn’t worry if half the students didn’t succeed.

Now costs along with climate change compel Americans to use air and water and land more efficiently, to rethink how we can arrange our lives less tethered to our car keys, to get serious about creating schools that work for every willing child.

Ongoing wars aside, 2008?s been a rough ride. On top of collapsing confidence in the world’s financial institutions, we got a rude awakening from the run-up in prices of food and fuel.

We are an adaptive people, but emerging from a half century of seemingly effortless superiority, seeing our assumptions turned topsy-turvy has us in shift-shock. For as long as most of us can remember, we could force our will through military might. Our universities—still the best in the world —prepared enough young people for the best jobs. We imagined an economy 70 percent dependent on consumerism was sustainable strategy. We thought cheap fuel and food would go on forever.

Faced with the possibility of permanently higher prices for energy and food, people all over the country are forced to rethink sources and the supply chain for food. Would locally grown food be both better and more affordable? Even Wal-Mart executives now seem to think this is possible. Utilities executives such as Jim Rogers of Duke Energy have plunged into the regulatory pits to argue that power companies should help customers optimize use and be rewarded for the savings.

We seem suddenly aware that hundreds of proposed new coal-fired energy plants might come at the price of the planet. Though we struggle still with the notion of reducing consumption, interest seems up for cleaner fuels, especially renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Can we Americans really deep-six long held habits? We prefer spending to saving. We’re hooked on the ease with which we borrow from China to pay our Middle East energy tab. We don’t like postponing gratification or using less energy or water that’s always seemed to be ours for the taking.

After a generation of eating too much and exercising too little, the nation’s looking at a cost for a medical system probably too high to pay, if we’re to have resources left for anything else. Can we get everyone in the system and also make lighter use of it?

Americans grew confident we could live on California cliffs or in fire-prone Florida forests or farm the Mississippi river floodplain. When disaster came, a sympathetic nation wrote subsidy checks so we could go back and do it again. With both resources and patience running thin, we are grudgingly reconnecting land use policy to environmental realities. It’s getting embarrassing to grab our bottled water, climb into our SUVs and head for a Sierra Club meeting.

A Minnesota bridge fell a year back, becoming the canary in the infrastructure mine. Now paying attention, we discover a big unpaid bill ahead for leaky pipes, a shaky energy grid, worn-out roads and rail tracks. Catching up will cost nearly $2 trillion. Just to keep up with the Europeans, we’d have to insist that Congress and the states invest two to three times more of our GDP every year on infrastructure improvement.

We’ve lived large—big houses, big cars, big meals—and over the past half century managed to consume about five times more land than we had population growth. It would take a generation for communities to restore historic patterns that enabled people to walk or use public transport for most trips. With housing values plunging in exurbs, rising in urban interiors, enthusiasm for sidewalks shooting upward, there certainly seems to be a real market for living closer together, for new commercial and retail developments where people can park once, or better yet, arrive by train or bus and then walk to many destinations. Bicycles are making a comeback.

With the climate change clock ticking and America’s long-playing success story on the line, we can mourn the passing of the easy era, or get busy on every front. Our states and regions should start tapping the new energy for change.

Curtis Johnson’s career is half devoted to being a leader in the public sector and the other half as analyst and commentator. In the mid-1990s he was chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which coordinates growth management and operates the transit and wastewater systems for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region of Minnesota. Following ten years as a college president in the 1970s, Johnson for eleven years led the Citizens League, in the Twin Cities; and then three years as policy adviser to then-Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, including a period as chief of staff.

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