Other Voices: Smart growth, conservation are the only ways to survive
In 1990, I was one of many citizen volunteers to rewrite the Nevada County General Plan. This was a massive project, with committee work spread over two years and final adoption of the plan, still in force, in 1995. I had recently, together with several other members of the Nevada County League of Women Voters, completed a land-use study and gone through the process of building a home here – hence, my interest in and qualifications for the Land Use Committee in the rewriting process.
It was during that time I learned the principles of what is called “smart growth,” which envisions mixed-use communities (homes and apartments, businesses, offices, perhaps even some light industrial) and pedestrian friendly streets (narrow and with sidewalks). People can walk, bike or take public transit to work, school, church, the library and businesses to fulfill their needs and desires. If this sounds familiar, this is much the way Grass Valley and Nevada City – Gold Rush towns from before the use of motor vehicles became common – grew up.
These small, older towns are not just charming reminders of the past, they are also a bridge to the future. Basic to the concept of smart growth is another concept, “peak oil.” Sometime around the 1970s, scientists in the petroleum field realized oil discoveries were declining, and that trend has continued since. It is now recognized by all but the most “head in the sand” diehards that the era of fossil fuels – which allowed for 100 years of technological and scientific expansion and provided for the lifestyle enjoyed today in the industrialized nations – is coming to an end.
Petroleum, coal and natural gas, which took millions of years to form, have been used up in what is just a blink of an eye on the face of the planet’s history. If you have any doubt of this, compare what it costs to fill our gas tank with what it cost five years ago, 10 years ago, and look at your utility bills. No one is more aware of the depletion of fossil fuels than oil and utility companies, for once the oil, natural gas and coal are gone, they are out of business. Check out the TV ads: BP (British Petroleum) advertises “Beyond Petroleum,” and Pacific Gas and Electric urges development of sustainable energy, “The Future is …”
So what can we do about the depletion of fossil fuels? And how long do we have? Some estimates say another 10 or 20 years. Truthfully, no one knows, and it also depends on how long we can make them last and our ability to develop forms of alternate energy. Nuclear was once thought to be the answer, and the country of France has gone far with that. But incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl dampened enthusiasm for nuclear energy. And, like fossil fuels, this energy source is not sustainable. “Sun, wind, water, air,” as the cute kid in the PG&E ads says. These and biomass hold out the best hope. And work is being done on hydrogen, believed the most plentiful element in the universe. But as yet, none of these technologies are able to make more than a very small dent in fulfilling our energy needs when compared to fossil fuels.
In the meantime, what we can do is conserve. Being no primitivist and enjoying my creature comforts, I would rather not. But the alternative, using up the world’s supply of fossil fuels before we can replace them with sustainable energy technologies, is too horrific to contemplate: Economies collapsing and nations devastating the world with wars over the last of these precious resources, much as in the old Mel Gibson film, “The Road Warrior,” in which barbarians attack the fort where the last supply of oil is held (some would say this is happening now).
So how do we conserve – turn the thermostat down to 70 degrees? Good idea, and cheaper, too, but the real savings must come through our use of gasoline-powered vehicles, and this is where smart growth comes in. We must not only develop more fuel-efficient cars but cut back on our use of automobiles by learning to live more closely together, as people did 100 years ago. We need to get away from huge housing tracts and shopping malls far from homes – with big box stores set among acres of parking – and develop mass transit and electric vehicles. Smart growth and conservation must be our future if we and our children are to have one.
Pat Wynne lives in Grass Valley and is a member of APPLE and Grass Valley Neighbors.
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