Sunday, January 03, 2010

The State of Rochester’s Environment 2009

Summing up the year in a variety of ways (best films, biggest stories, funniest incidents, most tragic, etc.) has become such a tradition in the media at the end of the year that we expect it. It’s fashionable. (Not that this sort of thing is necessary, for has anyone actually forgotten the rotten economy and all the awful wars?) So as long as we are counting our chickens this New Year anyways, why not have a wrap-up about something useful, like the state of our environment? This kind of rundown does matter. We won’t have any more ‘best films’ or ‘most awkward moments’ for the year if our environment crashes.

In truth, I don’t have a lot of space so let me take only one slice of our environment, the one around Rochester, NY. And further, let’s pretend that someone can accurately sum up the state of any one community’s environment by scrutinizing the media on this topic. Admittedly, this is a poor way to go about such an impossibly intricate issue. Because even if one had all the available information on our environment, that still wouldn’t touch the surface of the information we would need to understand exactly what is going on in our ground, air, and water. There are such gargantuan gaps in our knowledge about our environment that we could drive entire planets through them. In short, we’re just trying to get the big picture here, a kind of ballpark assessment of how we are doing on our environment here in the Rochester, NY area.

Climate Change: Our atmosphere is warming up, even in Rochester, despite the ineffectual arguments of the climate change deniers who fail to convince—but who are becoming increasingly angry and vitriolic. Yet, there are signs that Rochester is beginning to ‘get it’ on climate change. New groups have formed for getting the public to monitor and curb their energy consumption, while older established groups provide public events on climate change. Local governments are adopting green divisions and even green web pages on how to become more sustainable communities. Our local institutions of higher learning are creating more courses to prepare students for a greener economy and even providing critical research on better energy efficiency. However, there was a great dearth of media attention on the Copenhagen Climate Change coverage, making us wonder just how much we in Rochester, NY recognize our place in the world environment. The world-wide event also went mostly unnoticed by our media. These blind spots in our media could account for a recent poll that says most Rochesterians don’t think Climate Change is a serious issue.

Recycling: Efforts to get the public to recycle more and more often are getting better. Many businesses are doing what they can in a collapsed recycling market to keep recycling. Similarly, individuals in our area will bring their spent stuff in massive quantities when offered events to dispose of recyclable materials and hazardous waste However, too much garbage is going into our landfills, including over 10% which is food waste that could be composted and sold as fertilizer. In short, we won’t really make any great strides in recycling until we stop recyclable goods from going into our landfills, insuring that all that can be recycled is being recycled by enforcing existing laws, getting all seven plastics recycled (our area only accepts # one and # two plastics) like some surrounding counties are doing. Finally, a major leap forward in Rochester’s recycling would be deconstruction, instead of simply tearing down old buildings and hauling the useful remains to landfills.

Transportation: How we get around has a profound effect on our local (sprawling) environment because a lot of land needs to be paved and most transportation modes pollute, including spewing greenhouse gases into our environment. our local transportation institutions have all they can handle in maintaining the roads and bridges we have, let alone heralding in new transportation corridors—like high speed rail. Much could be done to improve our area’s transportation if the public changed their attitudes: walked more, bicycled more, and operated within existing traffic laws to create safe and environmentally friendly ways to move around.

Water Quality: Because of our area’s many lakes (including the Great Lakes), we have extraordinary water resources. Here in our area, we are taking major steps in preventing pharmaceuticals from going into our lakes and in monitoring phosphorus leaching into our wastewater. Our infrastructure, which tends to release ‘everything’ during a major storm, will never be truly clean until we make sure our waste treatment plants can filter out anything toxic. This year we saw the expanded bottle bill take hold. And while it may have unfairly fallen on small store operators to collect returnable’s, this law has the potential to clean up our trash problem and put our faith back in our municipal water systems. Think about it: If you are not happy with your community’s water you can complain and ask questions. If your water bottling company goes out of business, there’s no regress.

I could go on, (check but I’m running out of space. Like I said above, accurately assessing the state of our environment is impossible at this point. There have not been enough studies to find out how our way of life is affecting our environment. But, we must try. Without an accurate measure of our impact on our environment, we are ‘flying blind.’ Misguided ideology, anger, impatience, and inattention to our environment just won’t do. Nature is a harsh mistress: adapt or perish.

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