Sunday, January 06, 2013

Santa, Claws, and the Annual Street Leaves Rant

(Santa, and the annual street leaf rant, are making a late appearance this winter, due to having been misplaced for several weeks in the draft folder.)

I was surprised to see Santa driving a Claw on Christmas Day. He must have noticed we had a few leaves left to collect when he came through on Christmas Eve, and was nice enough to return after he was done with his delivery gig to help out. Santa's amazingly generous with his time, but I guess that's what being Santa is all about.

It may be, too, that he's checking out other lines of work, given that diminishing snow supplies are really posing a challenge for his sleigh/reindeer setup, and let's face it, in a couple decades his home at the North Pole will completely liquify every summer. New Jerseyans along the shore can relate to that.

Usually around late fall, I summon considerable verbiage to rail against the custom of dumping leaves in the street. Over the years, I have documented in photos the mess, the hazard, the collective indifference to town ordinance, the cold-hearted rejection of nature's fertilizer, and the expensive dislocation of what should be the soil's protective blanket.

Last year, I was even moved to verse, in an updated version of The Night Before Christmas.

Yet each year, as one neighbor copies another, there are more leaves, until this year the streets were seamlessly lined in a "Me, too" tutti of rejected plant tissue.
It doesn't help that the alternative behavior, raking leaves to a back corner of the yard rather than hauling them out to the street, is not visible to the public and therefore cannot spread through imitation. (Note, 1/15: Thorstein Veblen might have called this "inconspicuous non-consumption".)

If it were a matter of aesthetics, if homeowners thought leaf piles to be unattractive, then the last place to put them is out on the curb where everyone has to look at them.

With Hurricane Sandy's devastation added in, it seemed like the municipal powers that be could simply convert the streets into a composting operation, with windrows of plant matter already in place. It reportedly cost some $900,000 to haul 5000 tons of tree debris out of town.

It's time to connect some dots. We have a scarcity of ethical energy. The energy we currently use seems clean, but is raising sea levels, acidifying the oceans, and radicalizing the weather. Warming of the planet leads to more energized atmosphere, stronger winds, and more trees down.

We should be desperately seeking alternative sources to provide us with heat and electricity. Those 5000 tons of tree debris have a lot of energy locked up in their carbon bonds. The trees' carbon comes from the air, not from ancient underground deposits, so burning it releases no new carbon into the atmosphere. Instead of utilizing this climate-friendly fuel, however, we use more fossil fuel to grind it all up and dissipate all that energy in the composting process. Not only are the streets a perpetual mess, but the climate system becomes increasingly messed up as well.

So let me slip into an imaginary world where people see the public space not as a dumping ground for leaves--and by extension, debt and climate-radicalizing pollution--but as something to cherish and care for. One small example: My neighbor, apparently animated by public spirit, raked leaves out of the curb rather than into it, and her portion of the street remained clean all fall.

Right now, we have neither clean streets nor climate-friendly energy to show for the mess. The municipal workers, and apparently Santa as well, were heroic in their efforts to clean up after the hurricane. The compost at the Ecological Center has its uses. But by dumping yardwaste year-round on the streets and pumping ancient underground carbon into the atmosphere, the message is that we don't care about our shared spaces and our shared destiny. It's hard to believe that's how people really feel.

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