Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gratitude for Sustainable Non-Acts of Kindness

On this day of thanksgiving, give thanks to all those sustainable non-acts of kindness. Remember when a gap in traffic finally opened up on Route 1 so you could change lanes? That space happened because someone wasn't using their car that day. And that uncluttered look of the curb on trash collection day? That was because someone didn't put the trash can out because it wasn't full yet. And that wonderful silence a few mornings ago when your neighborhood wasn't plagued by the din of leaf blowers? That was the morning a neighbor didn't hire a landscape crew, and raked their leaves instead.

Thanks to those who don't care that everything they do to make the world less annoying is invisible. It doesn't matter that their house looks the same from outside whether their furnace is running constantly or not. They keep the thermostat lower because it's the right thing to do. They don those slim, ultralight down coats and are as comfortable inside as they would be if the furnace were cranked and great gobs of invisible CO2 spewed from the chimney.

In a strange world where helping to save the planet is completely optional, what we value is made more sustainable by the kindness of strangers, or by what we ourselves do. Treasure those non-acts of kindness, the non-doing that makes the world a little quieter, a little roomier, and makes the life we love last a little longer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Brings Out Crowds, Dogs and Icons to Vote

Please. No accusations of voter fraud. My dog Leo did not vote, although there are times when I think he is the reincarnation of Albert Einstein. Icons, particularly those as thoughtful and wise as Einstein, should be able to come back and vote any time they want.

Another icon, Rosie the Riveter, recently came out of retirement to endorse Hillary Clinton. "Every vote for Hillary is another nail in the coffin of the Trump campaign," she said, rolling up her sleeves. "And that lid needs to be nailed so tight that no one can ever open it up again." She said her decision to return was based on a deepening concern that democracy was coming apart at the seams. "And the only way to hold it together is to vote!" Her steely gaze cut me to the quick.

The vote for Hillary was by far the easiest. As Louis CK said on Conan, "If you vote for Hillary, you're a grownup. If you vote for Trump, you're a sucker. And if you don't vote for anybody, you're an a**#%!e." Being no doubt responsible for making the polling place more crowded than ever before, Trump, with his knack for saying increasingly repulsive things, has clearly been trying to unite the nation, against Trump, whether he's aware of it or not. Tonight we'll find out if he can claim this weird sort of victory through resounding defeat.

Meanwhile, democrats are shoe-ins locally. Leo was at the right height to spot this not so subtle plug for a certain mayoral candidate.

I actually brought Leo along to serve as my advisor on some of the more vexing decisions--the sort that make us hapless citizens wish for a benign dictator, or at least a friend who has the inside story--like who to vote for for schoolboard. And that Public Question #2, about whether the newly added 23 cents per gallon gas tax should be constitutionally required to be spent on roads, bridges and mass transit? My thinking, based on this article, resembles a Gordian Knot.  Some of the money will go to mass transit (good, particularly given Christie's decimation of state support for NJ Transit). But roads and bridges are climate change factories, so why support them? But good maintenance will reduce overall expense in the long run. And if we switch to electric cars and boost wind/solar energy, we won't feel like participants in global terrorism while driving down Route 1. And people prefer the independence of car travel, and trains/buses add to climate change, too. But potentially less so. Constitutional amendments reduce flexibility, but how likely is it that lawmakers will use flexibility wisely? The article says people angry about the gas tax increase are voting no, but taxes on carbon are good, so maybe vote yes just to avoid sounding anti-gas tax. But then there's all those robocalls from "Road to Repair" paid for by the Engineers Labor Cooperative, who claim that groups opposed to the gas tax are voting yes on Public Question #2. Confusing, which is why I brought Leo along, hoping his canine intelligence would cut through all of these layers of complexity.

Wait a minute! Who's supposed to be doing the voting around here? Now you just know somebody's going to say the election was rigged after all.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Upcoming Onstage Community Theater Performances

The community theater group I'm in has a couple public performances coming up. This afternoon, Sunday, Nov. 6, we'll be at the Princeton Public Library Community Room at 3pm, and at Passage Theatre in Trenton at 3pm on Dec. 3. 

The group is based at McCarter Theater, and performs monologues and scenes based on stories collected in the community. It's a real slice of life. Afterwards, there will be a free-ranging discussion in which the audience can ask questions about our process, or tell about their own life experiences that the performance brought to mind.

This from the public library writeup:
The ensemble that creates documentary theater performances that explore the stories and issues of our community presents “First Time for Everything.” Members are all over 55 and perform locally, generating delight, insight, and affirmation about senior memories and experiences. A 30-minute “talk back” session will be held after the performance.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Dumpster Full of Denial

This is what happens when leaders, and the people who enable them, deny the urgency of environmental issues. This dumpster outside Princeton High School is filled with the warped remains of a performing arts stage--a stage my daughter's choir was supposed to perform on this past month. What's the stage doing in a dumpster?

The stage, as explained in another post, was warped by flooding caused by a sudden, intense storm in late July that caught the highschool staff unprepared. The flooding, which caused $150,000 of damage to the school basement, plus the expense of replacing the stage and accompanying disruption of school rehearsals and performances, was avoidable. In fact, a flood in 2009 caused the same destruction, and in the intervening years, I had offered a solution to two superintendents, a facilities director, a schoolboard committee, and town engineers, and urged them to act. Nothing was done, and sure enough, history repeated itself, as can be seen in this video.

I've been told that insurance will cover the expense after a $10,000 deductible, but you'd think the school's insurance rates would rise after recurrent claims.

My habit is to see problems coming--flooding, climate change--and offer practical solutions before it's too late. Oftentimes, those solutions include a way to save tax dollars while becoming more environmentally sustainable. Even so, the solutions tend to be resisted. Princetonians generally don't deny that problems like climate change exist, but there is a widespread denial of urgency. Life goes on with little attention paid to the insidious collateral environmental damage our lifestyles cause, day after day--the climate changing gases rising invisibly from our chimneys and exhaust pipes, the discarded plastics that sneak into stormdrains and waterways. We pretend that good people with good intentions couldn't possibly do harm. And besides, what could our little big town possibly contribute to solving environmental problems that are global in scope?

Interestingly, such problems as racism, child abuse, and bullying are also global problems, and yet we don't excuse those behaviors in Princeton on the premise that any progress we make here would have little global impact. Abuse of the planet, in contrast, is legal and unintentional; it's victims are distant in time and space; they lack names and faces. Some forms of environmental pollution are temporary in impact, but the climate change we feed is forever. Unlike racism and other abuses of humanity, our climate legacy will destabilize civilization and the natural world for 1000s of years. How could leaders who surely care deeply about children, their education and futures, deprioritize such a profound and troubling physical legacy? Each year the town council sets priorities and goals, and each year sustainability slips below the threshold.

What's missing is a deep sense of awareness and caring about the physical world that serves as the foundation for our lives. Is the building safe from inundation? Is our shared atmosphere safe from inundation of fossil carbon?

There is a denial, too, that solutions could actually save money. Inaction, as the high school discovered, can be expensive. Solar is free now. Lease some panels and they'll be installed on the roof for free, and your savings on energy begin on day one. And yet parking lots, school roofs, and residential roofs with good orientation and exposure remain empty. People must think it's too good to be true, or that the predicted consequences of continued dependence on fossil fuels must be too bad to be true.

Though I wasn't invited to attend, school and Westminster Choir College officials met with town engineers after the most recent flood to discuss what to do. Will they build a wetland in Westminster's (apparently unbuildable) field to divert future floodwaters safely away from the school?

In the meantime, sustainability in a prosperous, highly regarded town like Princeton is taking the form of sandbags.