21st Century Infrastructure: Builders Wanted

by Carolyn Chase


olitical systems in San Diego are controlled, as in most places, by men - and a few women - of commerce. These people of commerce have a vision of greatness based on what they can build.

Constraints are seen as challenges which must be overcome. If they can conceive it and finance it, it should be their God-given right to make it come to pass. This is what makes America great. This is what makes San Diego great. This is what makes them great. It's all just great.

Except it's degrading and undermining the systems we all ultimately depend upon. Nature is last at the table and, if considered at all, considered manipulable.

The prevailing commercial attitude is that they should be able to build where they want and we'll just move nature someplace else. The problem is, they don't know how to do that. You just can't trade one wetland for another. You just can't grow anything, anywhere. And as we are beginning to realize, you can't use nature as one big waste sink without limits.

Most men of commerce still vehemently dispute that there is anything wrong. It's called denial. Their fortunes and self-identities are built around what they build. So to be confronted with having limits on what they can build, where they can build it and having to be responsible for the resulting air and water pollution, is more than a friendly exercise amongst a community of public and private interests. It becomes an assault on their very being and their efforts to shape the world according to their own desires.

Even when informed by respected scientists that vital nature corridors or wetlands cannot be replaced, their attitude is - we'll find a way. We'll pay you or trade you so that you will see how much else of nature you can save - someplace else - so we can sacrifice this other bit here for this other vision. They refuse to believe that nature cannot be moved or should not be destroyed in order to build their vision.

Surely their 2% impact is low enough to be O.K. Their 2% couldn't possibly be responsible for the problems. But they've been building up 2% impacts on hundreds of projects for fifty years.

Some of us don't want to live in a world where nature is systematically dumped on and eliminated - even for the cash. Some of us realize that ultimately this will catch up to us. Some of us see it catching up to us now.

While the coal and gas industries fund disinformation campaigns, most of us are stuck in traffic listening to the daily news reports on El Niño, La Niña and "freak" weather events. The number of endangered species continues to grow. Even those of us who are technological optimists - and I am one - understand there are consequences and side effects to uncontrolled growth and would like to see a least some respect for precaution emerge.

Those with a more scientific bent usually do admit that we have reached a point where our impacts are becoming globally significant.

The latest issue of "Engineering and Science," published by the California Institute of Technology, contained an article entitled "El Niño and Global Warming: What's Happening to Our Weather" by Dr. Andrew Ingersoll. Ingersoll is Professor of Planetary Science at venerable CalTech, an institution about as renowned and respected for hard science as you can get.

After eight pages of laying out the current state of the science, he concludes: "There's currently a lot of debate about whether we've already seen the signature of global warming. I would say that debate is not a terribly productive one. Global warming may or may not account for the little upturn of the last few decades, but I'm quite confident that we'll see it effect in the next century. The effect is just beginning to rise above the noise of natural planetary variability. If it turns out that the current upturn was because the ocean hiccuped, it doesn't mean that global warming is going to go away....

"I don't think that the scientific issues are as uncertain as the economic and political ones. It's quite possible that in 75 years we will have developed solar energy, clean nuclear fuel, wind power, or who knows what. Then the debate will disappear, because we won't burn coal and oil any longer. In which case, why worry now? Let's just wait for that wonderful future. The other possibility is that we'll be so overrun with much worse problems to worry about. There, too, we don't have to do anything, if we're waiting for the end of the world. It's only as long as we believe in something in between - my children and grandchildren. But on the other hand I like to defer my taxes. I especially don't pay taxes today that I won't owe until 10 years from now - that would be foolish.

"So I think we should start stimulating our economies to develop those wonderful technologies the optimists think might happen. We have to work on conservation and stimulate the marketplace to prepare for limits on combustion by developing other power sources. We could stimulate the marketplace by imposing a tax on people who exceed emissions quotas, or allowing people to sell credits to produce carbon dioxide. Let's not clamp down on the economy and send it into a depression - let's push it a little bit instead so that this wonderful world of cheap, clean energy will actually come to pass."

His analysis of the economic consequences amount to "a few percent of the world economy" versus possible global ecological and economic dislocation. This is an unusually political and strong prescription to come from a hard scientist, but there it is. Will the people of commerce really listen and respond to the people of science?

Really the people of commerce should take heart. The way out is to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st century. This new infrastructure will restore, respect and renew the environment by integrating our activities and learning to live, and indeed thrive within our ecological limits.

Ultimately, we will be required to change because it's simply untrue that nature is last. In reality, nature bats last.