Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spaceman, Cowboys, and the Cuyahoga River Burning

The other night, I went to hear my brother George speak at the Princeton Alumni Association of Northern Ohio (held at the Cleveland Skating Club). I hadn't seen him in over a year, and while dinner was served he was at the table for the "important" folks. We were at the table with my Mom, and a woman, Juliette Reynolds, whom is a Princeton Alumni as well as a volunteer interviewer. Juliette is the President of babysteps, producers of Parent Talk, a game about parenting. The Plain Dealer also has a write up about the game and the company.

What was really interesting was that Juliette also grew up outside of the United States for most of her childhood, and came back to America for her high school years before matriculating to Princeton. So she was very interested in our kids experiences and had some great questions for Elly. And some good advice too!

But back to the topic at hand

We got to the event about 15 or 20 minutes after dinner started. It took us longer to get out of the car dealership with our new used car (more on that in a separate post) than we anticipated. The event was held at the Cleveland Skating Club and dinner was not bad. Not the best I've had, but certainly good. As dessert and coffee was served, my brother was introduced and began his talk.
The title was a take off of Life, the Universe, and Everything, entitled Spaceman, Cowboys and a Theory on just about everything. Or some such. Don't quote me on that, as I'm going from memory and spent more time listening to him rather than reading the slides.

His whole talk started with the burning of the Cuyahoga River. In fact, his whole talk was littered with references to growing up in Northeast Ohio. Which made it particularly engaging, partially because I remember some of the references to where we played, etc. Most of his references were to when we grew up on Dartmoor Road in Cleveland Heights. We'll come back to the Cuyahoga River catching fire in a bit.

Anyway, the whole theme of his talk was that the United States is currently in a battle, a cultural battle, a world view battle if you will. The Cowboy view versus the Spaceman view.

The cowboy view is based on the assumption of unlimited resources and is exemplified by the quote, "Go west, young man". He also referenced Lewis and Clark, a book our father had us read(much to my displeasure *prior* to actually reading it). In this world view, resources are plentiful and the key to success is using those resources. So Laws and incentives were designed for that purpose. For the last two hundred years of this country, this bias towards using resources(that are unlimited) has worked very, very well for us.

The Spaceman view however is based on the assumption of limited resources, i.e., spaceman in a spaceship where there is only so much of everything to go around and when its gone, it's gone. And everything needs to be calculated and regulated to make sure everyone gets what they need to survive. Of course, this is an increasingly pervasive view in the last several years, and it what is guiding "sustainability" and "green" efforts around the world and in this country.

Interesting factoid #1: In a natural wooded environment, only 20% of rainfall reaches the ground. The other 80% is caught up on the canopy of leaves and evaporates, returning to the heavens to come back another day. Of that 20%, some if it moves overland, downwards through the "wetlands" where all the fecal matter and dead animal gunk is automatically "filtered" by the plant life that uses it for nutrients. The "clean" water then is passed on to the river.

The remaining water seeps through the ground eventually making its way to the river or, and just as importantly, seeps down into the aquifers.

This factoid will become important here in just a few paragraphs or so. But back to the storyline.

For thousands of years almost all major cities were built on the edge of water, often, like Cleveland at the mouth of rivers. This is largely due to mode of transportation, i.e. boats. To travel any great distance, boats were used. Consolidation in cities was due to local transportation was walking. While the wealthy could afford horses, it takes a lot of money to support horses so big portions of the population could not afford them. The first major change was the train which enabled the creation of towns and cities not near waterways since people could travel long distances with out using boats. This was the beginning of "sprawl".

Of course, it still wasn't too bad. It wasn't really until post WWII that sprawl really kicked in. With the construction of freeways and the mass production of cars sold at an affordable price for the majority of Americans, the expansion farther out into farmland and other natural environments. Of course this entailed paving over the natural water filters provided by wetlands and wooded areas.

Interesting Factoid #2: 80% of wildlife species live in the "wetlands". Clearly, with the destruction of wetlands and wooded areas, as you would assume the wildlife is increasingly endangered.

The first thing to go in a development of land are the trees. They are cut down and removed, the result of which is that instead of 20% reaching the ground and eventually feeding the rivers and aquifers, 100% of the rain reaches the ground. Because the area has been paved over or "rebuilt" for homes and offices, all this water is siphoned off into the sewer system or routed directly to the rivers, bypassing the natural (read FREE) filtering system. This has caused increased flooding issues and the necessity to have human facilities filter and clean the water. ( Guess what that costs? Money, via taxes. )

And as this expansion happens, the infratructure to support these needs to be developed, i.e, water systems, sewage systems, police and fire departments etc. All costing money via taxes, plus the economic incentives to build new homes (cowboy paradigm). As my brother says, economically "it's crazy!". And if you are a card carrying member of the GOP, listen carefully, by maintaining a cowboy mentality you are causing the number one thing you say you are against - taxes.

George suggests, and this is where we come back to the burning of the Cuyahoga River, that we can in fact change this problem by tilting the incentives back to developing in cities where the infrastructure is already in place. He points to the fact that the burning of the Cuyahoga River was event that directly lead to the creation of the Clean Water act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. And that these have been successfull. While I wouldn't want to suggest that the Cuyahoga is a crystal clear mountain spring like river, apparently fish have returned to it, so that's a lot of progress. Unfortunately, current environmental laws are designed to fix the issues that lead to the burning of the Cuyahoga River, not control or manage sprawl and the destruction of our free water filitering system. (Take not GOPers, free water filtering).

So are you a cowboy or a spacemean?

P.S. It is now two weeks after George's presentation, so it's even fuzzier now than when I started from memory, but that's the gist of it. Any mistakes are mine and not his. I would really like to see some organization like Green City Blue Lake bring him in for the same presentation for a larger audience.

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