Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What's Sustainable?

The question raised here the other day, about what would a sustainable Iron Range look like and work like, should, I think, become the basis for a widespread and wide ranging conversation about what kind of a Minnesota we want. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens on the Range doesn't stay on the Range. Extracted materials are shipped elsewhere to have additional value added. Pollution heads down wind or down stream. More jobs mean more people (unless there's a prior agreement that all new jobs will be filled by current residents of the Range, an unlikely scenario). We could consider the following as conditions of a sustainable society. (Let's note that we don't have a good way to get at the status of these conditions using our current process.)

The Natural Step: System Conditions


As I understand it, our current process generally works this way (oversimplified):
  1. An entity proposes an action with the potential for a significant environmental impact.
  2. The Responsible Governmental  Unit does an Environmental Assessment and either completes a worksheet (EAW) or scopes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
  3.  The EAW or the EIS identify environmental impacts that require mitigation and what those mitigation measures would be.
  4. The permitting process incorporates the appropriate mitigation measure(s) in the permits issued OR there is a determination that adequate mitigation measures aren't available.
  5. The project proceeds as permitted or sits on "hold" until mitigation is possible. 
At no point in our current processes do we really get to ask the questions: "Is this a good idea?" "Does this contribute to the kind of community and state that we want?" We're left arguing over semantic absurdities such as whether 500 years is the legal or functional equivalent of perpetual. We need to find much improved ways to deal with the increasingly vexing questions we can expect to be faced with in the future. I doubt we'll like the results if we continue to be overly reliant on legalistic and regulatory processes. As a society, we won't even accept findings supported by 97%+ of the scientific community. If we really expect to live in a Minnesota where all the children are above average, we need to change our ways. One definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." (Einstein?) If we continue to stick our heads in the sand about what kind of future we want, I think we'll leave our posteriors more exposed than we should. Here's an example of a "new and improved" approach we could try, to show we care about the future and the children.

The Natural Step: Backcasting

The Children

By Mark Jarman 
The children are hiding among the raspberry canes.
They look big to one another, the garden small.   
Already in their mouths this soft fruit   
That lasts so briefly in the supermarket   
Tastes like the past. The gritty wall,   
Behind the veil of leaves, is hollow.
There are yellow wasps inside it. The children know.   
They know the wall is hard, although it hums.
They know a lot and will not forget it soon.

When did we forget? But we were never   
Children, never found where they were hiding
And hid with them, never followed   
The wasp down into its nest
With a fingertip that still tingles.
We lie in bed at night, thinking about
The future, always the future, always forgetting
That it will be the past, hard and hollow,   
Veiled and humming, soon enough. 

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