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.
Posted by Stephen Hiltner