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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.

11 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.

  8. Steve Stollman Steve Stollman Post author | August 18, 2022

    David,

    In fact, it only took you two words to trip on your libertarian oath. If you take the trouble to study the subjects you reference, energy, food and shelter, you will discover that Michele is completely justified in her concern. What is interesting is that she agrees with you, to the extent that she wants to explore why individuals do not realize the consequences of their acts, and does not spend much time castigating the government for its role. In fact (as you like to say), those responsible for helping us to manage our common lives, spaces and resources, have a strong obligation to do their work as well as possible, for our benefit. They seldom do as good a job as anyone would wish for, but it is their job. Your stated right to do whatever you please, regardless of the harm it could cause to others, free of any “interference” by anyone else, is a pathetic bit of antisocial behavior masquerading as pride and independence. Find your own planet please and do as you wish. Worship Musk and probably the Don, your heroes, in peace.

  9. Harriet Harriet August 21, 2022

    The most important things we can do as a city to reduce emissions isn’t planting a vegetable garden, although that’s a wonderful and fulfilling hobby. We need to remove cars from our streets and encourage residents to use alternative forms of transportation. Cars are choking our city with air pollution and they’re killing our country. Besides cars, the other top emissions reducer is our energy inefficient buildings. We need to encourage reconstruction of these old brick buildings, which leak energy like crazy, with Leed certified energy efficient ones. NYC has become so averse to change and improvement these days. If our government would actually do something about these two things instead of letting rich co-op owners call the shots, we would all have a cleaner and greener city. People have confused the word “green” energy efficiency and sustainable, as you say, with the actual color green.

    • LM LM August 22, 2022

      Harriet,
      Actually in NYC it is high-rise buildings (office and luxury residential) that are the most significant contributors to pollution and climate – not vehicles.

      In summary, high-rise buildings use much more energy and resources for construction and then for operation; huge amount of waste, e.g. lights on all night; generate significant emissions; and are the chief cause of “heat islands” –- trapped heat/air.

      As for vehicles, the explosion in e-commerce is a significant factor in the presence of vehicles in Manhattan and of course the “regular” commercial, construction, service vehicles, Uber etc. In fact, much last-mile delivery is via gig workers using personal cars (not commercial plates).

      “Suburban” office workers are not driving in — they are working remotely.

      Although bus and subway mass transit is the backbone of NYC, sadly the City does not support State MTA in the way it should. But that is another story…

  10. LM LM August 22, 2022

    An important essay.

    It is incredible and depressing that so many people – especially educated (and supposedly concerned about climate change LOL) – are OK with relentless consumption in their daily lives like Starbucks/Sweetgreen etc; throwaway fast fashion; Uber; instant gratification e-commerce; leaving lights and air-conditioning on, etc.

    Of course corporations manufacture “demand” – but corporations also take their cues from “consumers.” Folks could actually make salad and coffee at home.

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