Eugene Sustainability Commission

The August 2008 meeting of this commission considered three recommendations for the City Council – the wish that Eugene could become “carbon neutral by 2020” through purchasing carbon credits or offsets; establishing a “triple bottom line” approach to City policies and creating an effort to boost environmental practices in the city.

Here are comments sent to the Commissioners for their failure to recommend specifics that would actually reduce overconsumption. They declined to adopt a recommendation to oppose further highway construction from Commissioner Shawn Boles, who previously was on the City Council.

–It is unfortunate that the City’s Sustainable Commission decided against urging a moratorium on highway expansions even though we are past the “peak” of traffic. Given the backlog of broken bridges, it is surreal that the City, County and State still want to widen highways when there is not enough money to maintain the existing network. There is also not enough money to fund LTD buses despite increased ridership — because local government deliberately ignored countless warnings about Peak Oil and chose not to factor it into their (our) budgets. Now, the City is going to consider the illusion of being “carbon neutral” while continuing business as usual – and hoping that environmentalists don’t cry “foul.”

–I wish I could say that I was wrong in my initial cynicism about the Sustain a Bull commission and that it would recommend even a single policy that would actually make a dent in the enormous interconnected crises we are all now facing – problems made worse by decades of deliberately ignoring them because of denial, vested interest and an economic model dependent on exponential growth on a finite planet. But the central story of the dominant Christian religion is that truth tellers who go downtown to speak the truth get crucified. In our society, the truth tellers merely get ignored and ostracized. But geology is not subject to political correctness – more oil cannot be magically created because people want it to be there.

–The City, County and State (ODOT) have just started a new multi million “study” about widening the Beltline, a project that will likely cost well over a hundred million dollars (assuming it ever happens, which is questionable). While expanding highways to deal with traffic congestion is the equivalent of widening your own Belt Line to reduce obesity, the fact is that with “Peak Traffic” in the future it will be increasingly difficult to find the fuels needed to run the transportation system. The end of cheap oil and the enormous backlog of broken bridges means it is time for transportation triage – there’s not enough money to have every fantasy come to life and it’s time for some serious choices. Unfortunately, the public is not welcome to participate meaningfully in these choices, and worse, geology is being even more ignored by those making the decisions – even though they have all been told repeatedly that Peak Oil means there will be less concentrated fossil fuels for building and operating everything. In other words, ODOT putting up some solar electric panels is virtually irrelevant to the future of the transportation network – running millions of cars and freight delivery trucks and the aviation system and freight trains and container ships requires liquid fuels that are not made by solar electric panels. But since the road construction and sand and gravel companies and financial lenders who think suburbia has a future all have more control over local and regional governments, it is not possible to admit the need to shift course in a substantive way. James Howard Kunstler writes eloquently that America is now like Wile E. Coyote (in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) who has run over the cliff and is now spinning his feet furiously in mid-air, suddenly realizing that a huge fall is imminent. If the $2.5 million for the Belt Line widening were redirected into something that had a prayer of materializing, then I would take the rhetoric of “sustain a bull” more seriously. Until that happens, we could save a few dollars by abolishing the Sustain a Bull office.

–The substitute goal of a “carbon neutral” Eugene would mean zero use of fossil fuels. Giving someone money to pretend that our emissions can be “offset” is ridiculous, even if some well paid people pretend that it means something. There is no way to “offset” the emissions from fossil fuels – the natural sequestering abilities of the biosphere are already absorbing our exhalations, they cannot cope with the vast amount of soot from oil, natural gas, coal and deforestation, among other problems. The oceans are already becoming more acidic via carbonic acid created by absorbing more CO2, so the idea that we can “offset” more fossil fuel farts is delusional, to be polite about it.

–If Eugene really wants to be “carbon neutral” you would have to shut down the airport, close the highways, prohibit construction using concrete (including the U of O sports arenas) and ban the logging industry (one of the biggest climate changers). However, since this is a marketing campaign for someone’s re-election, and not a serious effort to tackle the energy crisis, honesty is unlikely to be seen any time soon. It’s highly unlikely that this public relations will persuade a lot of people, and worse, it will just increase cynicism that the government is not really interested in doing anything substantive.

–The destruction that EWEB is currently doing at Roosevelt and Beltline has a sign proclaiming it is somehow a “green” model for the city — even though a main reason for the project is to help facilitate the future expansion of the city onto nearby farmland (look at the geography and the purpose becomes obvious). Last week, large clouds of dirt and diesel fumes were belching into nearby neighborhoods from this site — the sign advertising the alleged environmental properties of this facility did not impede this air pollution. If EWEB and the City were really interested in the energy crisis, they would be scrambling to build solar hot water and electric panels and to install them on as many buildings as possible over the region. Obviously, more “growth” is more important than renewable energy, which is a primary reason why our society failed to shift course decades ago when the warnings became overwhelming.

–We are going to be “carbon neutral” – in a few decades – whether you want it or not, since as the oil runs out we will all use less carbon dense fuels. Carbon offsets are one of the biggest oxymorons masquerading as dealing with the problems of overshoot. They might persuade some naive and gullible people that they mean anything, but they are just another distraction from honest approaches.

–There is  a long list of things that could have been done, but since there’s no leadership for this shift at any local, regional or national government, vague platitudes seems to be the substitute instead.

–In addition, the “triple bottom line” model sounds nice unless you take a closer look at it. The environment is not equal to the economy and social concerns — in reality, the environment makes society and the economy possible, they are not equal concepts to be given equal weight. In nature, things that are not sustainable do not continue – and we are all going to get a lesson in this natural law. Hopefully, the survivors in future generations will realize that our stubbornness and dysfunctional psychology (denial) led to our downfall and the great catastrophe and they won’t think this way again.

–If the Sustain a Bull commission really wants to change anything, it would recommend structural changes to how the City government operates, since nice words that lack legality are not helpful in a court of law. There are already lots of nice policy statements that are usually ignored when budgets are set by the City Manager and Staff, and then rubber stamped by the City Council. I’ve even seen some of them posted on the wall in the City Council work session room, and have seen the City Council ignore them many times. Hot air is not going to solve climate change or peak oil.