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Not sustainable: People won’t take even small steps to help save the planet

BY MICHELE HERMAN | My top issue is how to avoid planetary catastrophe. Everything else is a subset: traffic and transit, bike lanes, the freakish disparities between how the rich and the poor live.

I want you, my elected officials, to move the needle. I want you to push back against the complacency and fatalism I see all around me. I want you to appeal to the better angels of your constituents. I’m hopeful enough to believe that many are secretly waiting to be asked.

Judging by what I see here in the West Village, the most comfortable people don’t yet see that their habits and assumptions are part of the problem. Gut renovations of already renovated apartments: not sustainable. Huge apartments housing one or two people with the AC running 24/7 all summer: not sustainable. Washers and dryers (with their ever-shorter lifespans) in every unit: not sustainable. A new, slightly more cool and clever smartphone every 2.6 years: not sustainable. Even those lifelike cascading flowers (no doubt shipped from Chinese factories) that festoon every dining shed: not sustainable. Instant food delivery made possible by a hustling underclass on speeding e-vehicles in the lawless bike lanes: neither sustainable nor humane.

Here’s a typical story from my neighborhood: A residential building’s spacious lobby grew so impassible with Amazon boxes that the condo had to buy a first-floor apartment to contain them.

Here’s a story from another building: A resident volunteered to buy a small composter, maintain and clean it and teach residents how to use it. The board wouldn’t even give it a try — it might be unsightly, it might smell, it might attract pests. Then the city’s pilot composting project came knocking, offering a sealed bin and regular pickup. Participation was strictly voluntary for residents. The board voted no again. The only reason given: There’s no upside for us. Never mind the fact that the same trash, currently unsorted, goes straight through the chute in the walls to the basement.

This is what the world is up against: Even one tiny, easy step in the right direction feels threatening to people’s property values and aesthetics and expectations of luxury. It’s not that hard to understand or to do: Just look back to how people lived before this calamity, before postwar prosperity and cheap oil.  Aim for one little paper bag of trash a week. Clothes dried on lines and mended to extend their life. Small electric fans. Sweaters in winter. Home-cooked meals. Modest living quarters. Vegetable gardens.

Not a half-mile from here, thousands live in poverty in New York City Housing Authority projects plagued with years of deferred maintenance. Within a block, hundreds live in tenements, many of them no doubt in quiet poverty. These are not the people using more than their share of resources.

Rich or poor, we all live in the flood zone.

I think back to J.F.K.’s famous speech, the one that exhorted Americans to ask what they can do for their country. Naive, quaint, right? I want my politicians to make a similarly bold request, to reframe the whole conversation, to ask us all to look at our lovely, unprecedented comfort and convenience and begin to find it grotesque.

Herman writes essays, fiction and poetry and has two brand-new books out, the novel “Save the Village” and a poetry chapbook, “Just Another Jack: The Private Lives of Nursery Rhymes.” For more information, visit www.micheleherman.com.

This column was submitted as part of a collaboration between The Village Sun and WNYC Public Radio, asking readers to weigh in on what issue or issues are most important to them in the upcoming congressional midterm elections. The essays must be between 400 and 700 words and the submissions cutoff date is Aug. 26. Selected writers will be invited to read their essays on WNYC Public Radio. Send essays to news@thevillagesun.com For more information and submission guidelines, click here.

7 Comments

  1. Wes Wes August 2, 2022

    Thank you.

  2. Guest Guest August 3, 2022

    Thank you!!

  3. Richard C Richard C August 3, 2022

    Thanks for the observations of what should be obvious but is avoided. Easy to blame the oil companies to avoid personal responsibility. Look around — most everything we use involves plastics (from oil) including your very own cell phone. The key is mindfully lowering consumption.

  4. Rico Rico August 3, 2022

    Powerful

  5. LES3025 LES3025 August 3, 2022

    Totally agree on most of the issues. But we can’t rely on individuals changing their habits. Very obvious they won’t do that. Government needs to enact policy that forces people to change behavior.

  6. Richard Richard August 3, 2022

    Key is individual changing habits. Other countries that are much poorer than the USA look at our wealth and consumption and want to emulate. Their governments want the same. Why should they follow if we don’t set example. Everyone has access to internet and can see our consumption lifetimes. It’s like the well-off telling the poor to consume less. So their governments will not make environmental commitments because they do not see sincerity here in USA among most citizens.
    Also, people complain corporations don’t make sincere commitment to reduce carbon footprint. The corporations know most people pay lip service and are not sincere, so they are the same.

  7. david david August 15, 2022

    In fact, our present course of consumption — energy, food, housing, etc — is sustainable. Meanwhile, it is not the business of the government to impose limits on the amount of energy each person should consume. Nor should the government limit someone’s right to own a big apartment, a big house or limit the right to own a big car that burns a lot of gasoline. The climate may be changing — it’s always changing — but that’s not a sufficient basis for the government to impose hardships on citizens.

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