Thursday, September 27, 2007

Should Yellow Springs Decide Right Now to Sign on to a 50-Year Commitment to a Pulverized Coal Power Plant?

THE SHORT ANSWER: No. The contract is of extremely long duration at this critical moment in our history, when the future costs of coal-fired power are virtually unknowable. It's the wrong time for more coal. But, most importantly, we have not had an adequate process to answer this vital question with democratic integrity.

What We've Done To Research This Issue So Far: We've invited three detailed lectures from Village Staff and AMP-OH Executives, all helpful, but all supporting the AMP-Ohio position
Important Things We Haven't Done Yet: Conclusion: We Need To Take More Time on This Question

WHAT WE'VE DONE TO RESEARCH THIS QUESTION: During the past month, I have listened carefully to three, helpful and extensive presentations sponsored by the Village Council, all of which have suggested that we have little choice but to support AMP-Ohio's plan to build another, new 1,000 MW pulverized-coal power plant in Meigs County, along the Ohio River. We've had two 45-minute powerpoint lectures by our village manager on the basics of baseload power, and he used his presentation to strongly advise the village to pursue the development of this plant and to do so without delay. Most recently, on Thursday the 27th, representatives of AMP-Ohio (the non-profit electric power cooperative that represents us and over a hundred other municipalities in our region) offered a nearly two-hour long powerpoint presentation aimed at building our support for the plant.

I have learned a great deal from these presentations. I appreciate the time and expertise involved in them. I do not claim to know everything yet that there is to know. From these presentations, and from doing my own research into the issues, I do understand that the issues are complex, and people of good will can and will disagree about them. We have to consider competing values of affordability and environmental responsibility, and the data are complex. I do not believe that the people who support this plant are all "bad" people or right-wingers.

But, I've sat on two juries in my life, and read a lot of complex arguments in my day. In court, especially, I've learned that prosecutors can make a very good case, making their client's view of things sound sound water-tight, a no-brainer! But then defense attorneys can still undermine that case by discussing things that the prosecutor may be deliberately avoiding. And vice versa. It's only by hearing advocates from at least two sides of any controversial issue that we really come to a decision that has integrity. Even if you "don't like lawyers," even if the narrow decision being focused on, e.g., whether to sign on to this contract, winds up being the same in the end, it's still the right thing to do. The learning process may help us shape better future policies, as we move to related issues.

We've heard from AMP-Ohio's attorneys, marketers, and engineers, and they are professionals. They've made a compelling case, and I believe them to be people of good will and fair intentions. It has been made quite clear that we may very well be dependent on coal for the next 15-20 years to provide some significant part of our baseload power needs. It is also clear that we will still be using coal-fired technology every time we switch the lights on or our furnaces or A/C units kick in whether we sign on or not, at least for awhile. I understand that we are a more vulnerable to market-pricing and profit-making companies when we are not buying direct from our non-profit electricity co-op, and that concerns me as we keep an eye on affordability. We also know there is no "pure" place in this debate, unless we work to get off the grid altogether, and we're not there yet as a people. We will always have some "footprint." All that is clear.


LET'S HEAR WHAT THE NRDC HAS TO SAY: As was noted in the Yellow Springs News, the Natural Resources Defense Council has offered to send environmental attorneys from its Chicago office to give a presention on the risks of this plant, yet the village council has not made time for them, or any comparable presentations from any of the people of good will who are opposed to this plan--including the local, state, regional and national environmental groups who are planning to fight this plant's construction, or from the local citizens in Meigs County who are concerned about the cumulative effects of having additional power plants constructed in their region.

WHY 50 YEARS?I am concerned that we are being pressured to commit to a 50-year contract to build and maintain a coal plant at this time, when we are every day coming to an awareness of just how calamitous human activities are becoming to our global environment. Even President Bush now finally accepts that human beings are changing the global climate in dramatic ways. We will be required to support this plant, even if it never gets built or it gets taken off line due early to new environmental policies that may develop as the situation becomes more chaotic. That could be very expensive, but we'll be stuck with a 50-year mortgage.

REGULATIONS ON COAL ARE IN A STATE OF FLUX: I am especially concerned that this is happening at a time when 1) laws and regulations around fossil-fuel energy are in a serious state of flux, and 2) our planet may, in fact, be reaching a crisis point in terms of its ability to sustain human life. AMP-Ohio admitted in its presentation that it hasn't done much, and could do a lot more to encourage conservation. Indeed, local resident Bob Brecha pointed out that California residents use 40% less energy per capita than do people in the rest of the United States, partly as a result of the devastating Enron scandal (see article and graph). This plant would provide only about 10% of our needs. We can do better. Imagine if AMP-Ohio invested $4 billion dollars into serious conservation measures? Would we still need such a huge, coal burning plant?

I and many other local residents are concerned about several issues that we feel have not been adequately explored, especially from perspectives besides those who are already committed to building the new plant. Residents of Yellow Springs deserve to hear directly from the environmental and citizens groups who are expressing legitimate concerns about the feasibility of the AMP-Ohio plan. We need to know whether its ultimate costs to ratepayers have been fully estimated, what its impact on the atmosphere at this critical juncture in our world's history will be (especially in terms of carbon emissions, which were basically simply not included in the otherwise very detailed discussion offered by AMP-Ohio), and whether alternatives for baseload power, coupled with serious conservation efforts, are really as unreliable and impractical as has been suggested for making up the difference that refusing to sign on for more coal would represent.

The presentations by both the village manager and AMP-Ohio all also seem to assume that the energy market will remain completely unregulated, when serious re-regulation efforts are clearly underway. While complex in the details, re-regulation is supported by virtually everyone on all sides of the question: Everyone in Ohio, Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry leaders, all agree that energy deregulation has been a complete failure. The regulation landscape is going to change, and soon, and that will almost certainly take some of the pressures off our current exposure to the open market, as it will make the long-term contracts we're losing again desireable to energy vendors.

MEIGS COUNTY: Additionally, we have NOT been informed that there is opposition from at least some residents in Meigs County, where the plant is proposed. Yellow Springs residents should know that there are currently 4 major, coal-fired plants within a 20-mile radius of the Meigs sites being proposed for new coal plants by both AMP and AEP--the corporation that so contaminated the air, water, and soil of Cheshire, Ohio, that it was forced to buy out the homes of most of the residents there. And currently several more plants, including AMP-Ohio's, are now on the table for the same small area of Ohio/West Virginia, plus at least one new mining operation for Meigs County itself.

Immediately across the river from Meigs, in fact, are the scarred, dead landscapes left where West Virginia mountaintops used to be; mountaintops that have been blown off in the pursuit of the low-sulfur coal under them. The environmental devastation left behind has been incaculable. Currently, AMP-Ohio has admitted that it has no policy regarding Mountaintop coal. They are suggesting that by signing on, we could, as participants, be part of a process that might, or might not, demand that no mountaintop coal be used. But so far the process has been very focused on short-term economic cost analyses.

While, of course, some governmental officials and economic interests in the area of this proposed plant are clamouring for the jobs, other Meigs county residents like farmer Elisa Young (whose family has farmed in Meigs County for seven generations), point out that the cumulative effects and potentially devastating consequences of having so many coal plants and coal mining operations in and around Meigs County have not been fully explored or understood. Young says, "My view is if power plants create jobs, and we have four that you can throw a rock and hit, we should be rolling in prosperity." Instead, Meigs is one of the poorest counties in Ohio--with 26.30% of all children living below the poverty line and amongst the highest rates of asthma, heart disease, and lung diseases in the state. The people there are wiping grit off their windows every morning, and wondering if they're going to be the next Cheshire.

CONCLUSION: We cannot in good conscience decide to go forward with this project without taking the time to become fully aware of these issues, and facing head on the complex impact that such a plant may have on the lives of our neighbors and our grandchildren. We have not yet done so. We ourselves may not be directly "downwind" of this southeast Ohio plant and the 6-8 other coal related industries that may potentially be operating there in 10 years or so, but millions of other people are, and, because the gases in the atmosphere eventually spread to everyone, our grandchildren will all live "downwind" from these plants.

I cannot support the one-sided process we've seen so far. While clearly we must make a decision in a reasonably timely fashion, certainly before March 1, we have access to resources that can help us make a better decision by that time. At this point, those resources are not being adequately invited in. We can do better. We are small, but our decision still has global impact. We must be better informed than we currently are about our alternatives.

One thing that is clear to me, if these "cleaner" plants are built with or without our further support, it's clear that we have already been a part of that process and we have an obligation to remain aware of its developments. We are amongst those communities who supported AMP-Ohio's process of exploring and proposing this plant. At the bare minimum, then, it's our ethical duty to insist that the older and even dirtier plants are in fact actually shut down--which, despite promises, has not been the pattern that most coal-powered entities have followed. The process has, instead, been largely additive--with new plants simply adding their tons of carbon and their more carefully regulated but still significant emissions of NOx and SO2 to the mix, with very few of the older plants being really taken off-line. Our grandchildren deserve a liveable planet if it is in our power to provide it for them. We must do our best for them.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

My Vision for the Village: A Work in Progress

Conservative? Me? You? What?
In many ways I am "conservative." Ok, yes, I am different kind of conservative. What I mean by using this term is that, as a baseline for all my decisions, I will strive to conserve, nurture, and build on the resources that our village already has, here and now, including:
  • Our Human Resources: We must nurture the skills and abilities of all the individual members of our village. Obviously, this includes the work-related skills and talents that every village resident brings to our life together. Less obviously, these human resources include our local knowledge of the community as a specific place, our sense of our own history and traditions, and our knowledge of one another.
  1. It is in our best interests, as a village, to use our resources prudently, as we seek to discern and nurture these abilities, skills, and knowledges, in every one of us.
  2. It is in our best interests to facilitate the fullest expression of these abilities in all our residents--regardless of any "disability" that any one of us may have, and absolutely regardless of the stereotypes about race, gender, class, age, income or background, that too often distort our views of each other. These distortions keep us from noticing the skills that residents have, skills we may desperately need. As a teacher, I believe we must become aware of the distorting stereotypes and ideologies that often almost invisibly divide us, so we can be vigilant to their distortions, and learn to see around them. For our own good.
  • Our Social and Institutional Resources: We must do what we can to sustain the social organizations that have been developed over time, because they help develop the human resources of the community. These include the businesses located in Yellow Springs, both profit-based and non-profit businesses, as well as the educational, healing, spiritual, recreational, and other organizations that support our community's life.

    Over the years I have been active in the Community Choir, the Emporium, the Wednesday Morning Meditation/Writing Group at the Friends Meeting House, sent my children to Friends Music Camp and supported their annual concert, the drive to Save Whitehall Farm, and, most recently, the campaign to keep Antioch College alive. I am a supporting member of WYSO, the Tecumseh Land Trust, Home, Inc., and the Glen Helen Association. I value and believe my life benefits from the work of all these institutions, big and small.

  • Our Natural Resources: We must make thoughtful use of the land, energy sources, and natural beauty to which the Yellow Springs community and our social institutions are fortunate to have access, and over which we exercise some degree of control. Our continued existence depends upon our careful stewardship of these resources.

When I witness or, alas, participate in a process that unnecessarily wastes human, institutional, or natural resources,
it saddens me.
When institutions and infrastructure that we depend on in our daily lives make it nearly inevitable that any of these resources will be wasted or, worse yet, destroyed,
it frustrates me.
When such wastefulness happens consistently and avoidably--or, worst of all, deliberately--
it angers me.

This "conservativism," call it what you will, is what drives me.

Counting Our Blessings, Honoring Our Legacies
Yellow Springs faces serious concerns, problems, and even crises regarding our use and development of virtually all of these resources. Yet we must not lose sight of, or cease to honor and protect, the powerful resources that we do have. Only by regularly reminding ourselves of what we are blessed to have, will we be able to determine a responsible way forward.

We have a noble history of being a community that nurtures our landscape and faciliates the creative expression of local skills, talents, muscles, and different forms of knowledge. Our elders and ancestors--and all those who have worked in recent years to sustain the powerful visions that have shaped this place--have granted all of us rare gifts. Their work and vision and humor have made us heirs to a beautiful village, composed of diverse individuals drawn here from the furthest corners of the globe, all nestled in a lovely location.

We have been gifted excellent schools
(and the educators and young people who sustain them),
We have been gifted a vibrant artistic community
(and the artists and businesses who sustain that artistic life),
We have been gifted access to Glen Helen, with all its spiritual and environmental resources
(and the skilled staff that runs its educational outreach on a tight budget),
We have been gifted access to safe and healthful watershed, air that is not congested with visible smog, and land that is rich and fruitful
(and skilled people working to preserve these elements, and responsibly produce the food and other good things we need each day),
We have been gifted a wonderful public library
(and skilled librarians who keep it well-stocked and interesting),
We have been gifted to have in our presence a college founded by visionaries and dedicated to nurturing both practical skills and social justice
(and the energetic students, faculty, and staff who keep it running, even in hard times).
We have been gifted a thriving spiritual community
(and the leaders and deep wisdom that sustains them),
We have been gifted a lively downtown and business community with spaces for communal interactions and mutual growth
(and the creative entrepreneurs who sustain it)
We have been gifted a functioning democracy
(and those who direct their efforts to making it real by voting, attending meetings, protesting, petitioning, and running for office).
. . . and that's just the beginning.

We have the responsibility, and it can be a joyous one, to honor those gifts by carefully building on them.

We can only do this if we continually remind ourselves that these are gifts, they are vulnerable to being taken for granted and neglected. In such cases, it is easy for individuals motivated by greed and self-interest to steal them away from us.

Counting our blessings is not just patting ourselves on the back. It's a necessary practice for thoughtful growth and change.

The Seductions of the Big Boxes

Too many communities in the United States have been seduced or intimidated into a false economy, based on an ill-conceived sense of "efficiency," and by a spurious notion that it is only "practical" to put (quarterly) profitability before the needs and longterm interests of their residents.

That movement is deadly to places like Yellow Springs.

The harm from this process happens both on a global scale and on very subtle, individual levels every single day.

In this country, for example, we readily slip into calling ourselves "consumers," rather than seeing ourselves as, say, citizens, workers, or simply as human beings. When I hear that word, "consumer," I feel myself being reduced to an open mouth, taking in whatever is on offer. The "consumer" label offers no room for me to see myself as a creator. Or as a visionary. Certainly not as a grower of my own food, a creator of my own art, or even, really, a negotiator of my own business decisions.

At best I can only hope to be a "smart consumer"--someone who occassionally shuts her mouth, when what's on offer seems to be toxic. That is a poor wealth.

This is a very convenient and profitable way to perceive a human being, or it wouldn't be so prevalent. But it only works in the short term, and it primarily serves those who want to profit from other people as their first and foremost priority. It benefits exploiters.

That consumerist ideology is deeply resisted by the Yellow Springs I know and love. We know that this "consumer" view of ourselves deeply harms all of us, as surely as racism and sexism and age-discrimination do. My life is dedicated to resisting this and all other forms of dehumanization.

The very act of entering a political race, of putting myself forth as a candidate, is an act that reminds myself and other people that we are all so much more than mere consumers: we are citizens in a democracy. Democracy. Another hard-won human resource that I hate to see squandered and subsumed, as it surely is being squandered in our public life today. Corporate powers, and top-down decision-making structures in many human structures, have increasing control over human lives today, at the expense of democratic institutions and processes.

Top-down, non-democratic structures inevitably squander human, social, and natural resources, and they do so remorselessly.

We must teach ourselves and our children to see ourselves, instead, as fully human: as creative individuals with valuable skills that are needed by the world. We are not just consumers. We are creators. We are teachers and students of each other. We are citizens.

This I know: Our best hope for maintaining and sustaining and nurturing our village's resources will come from carefully attending to our marvellously quirky, individual capacities. If we do this with joy and humor, intelligence and moral seriousness, I know that our efforts will not be in vain.

I know, too, that these efforts will inevitably result in a little funky town that will not look like every other place.

Because, make no mistake, other communities are buying, wholesale, into this consumer-based vision, the vision I believe is killing us. They are doing so because it feels good, short-term. And they feel they "have to" buy this vision, to compete; that they'd be "stupid not to." And because they see few, or no, viable alternatives.

We Can Be An Alternative.

Shabby, Charming, Funky Yellow Springs. We love it.

Yellow Springs, as it is--warts and cracked streets and all--attracts and interests people. Tourists are drawn to our funky shops, our festivals, and fairs. Our houses are relatively expensive, even when some of them have peeling paint, and our property values are high for this region (if quite affordable by comparison to many college/arts towns and metropolitan zones), because many people, like me, move into the region and want to live here, and are willing to pay a bit more for the privilege. This creates opportunities, and challenges, particularly in creating affordable housing options.

And, yes, we are, and probably always will be, the butt of local, regional, and even national jokes as "that hippie town."

We will never attract all people--or even, perhaps, the majority of people in this region, at least not to live or spend significant portions of their weekly lives here. We are all swimming in, trained by, and at least superficially content in the current consumerist environment. It's difficult even for the most ardent of Yellow Springers to resist the siren calls of Sam's Club or Target. We do not exist completely apart from that world. But...

FACT 1: There are plenty of places that are designed to cater to the lowest-common denominator needs of a consumerist population.

FACT 2: We cannot compete with those places, even if we wanted to.

SO THEREFORE: We must not lose sight of the fact that, unlike many places, we still attract artists and educators, healers and experimenters, skateboarders and tennis players, lovers of trees and haters of "sprawl" . . . and all kinds of people who want to live in (and complain about and propose new visions for and argue about the future of) a walkable community that operates on a human scale.

These people want to live, and if they can, to work, in and for Yellow Springs. We should do our best to craft public policies to make it possible for people of all incomes who are attracted to Yellow Springs to live and work here.

It's my sense that these people who are attracted to Yellow Springs are, by and large, the kind of folks who will, if forced, choose to nuture their loved ones and the needs of the human spirit over keeping up a perfectly tidy house or maintaining an impeccably manicured lawn at all times. They'll fingerpaint a picture with a four-year old while dust bunnies form in their closets. They'll teach a bunch of kids to play T-Ball (and write joyously about it in the paper each week during the summer) before they kill the dandelions growing in the cracks of their driveway. They sing in the local choir, attend village meetings, dance in the Antioch amphitheater . . . and notice later that their socks don't match.

This is a powerful, active, and engaged constituency, in this village. They should be viewed as a strength. Not as a problem. Not as an annoyance. Not as cranky foot-draggers. This group believes we must, when push comes to shove, prioritize actions in the village that are key to sustaining a healthy and creative, inclusive human community in a healthful setting, first and foremost.

They are not mere "consumers."

This constituency will resist calls for repairs and ordinances that they perceive are being done more out of an effort to "market" Yellow Springs to fit the needs and interests of the wider consumerist culture, at the expense of the human beings who live here.

Bottom line, as they say: Yellow Springs will not be or look like Beavercreek, ever. And most of us don't want to.

That does NOT mean, however, that we are "anti-growth," or "stuck in the 60s."

Growth, Technology, Modernity: Not The Enemy.

Indeed, we insist on growth. We insist on staying alive--that's the whole point of all this nurturing and sustaining of resources! To be alive!

To be alive is to grow.

But, as I have argued, to be alive is not simply to be a "consumer," even simply a "smart consumer" of anything that comes along.

We have to be creators. We have to be, literally, creative.

We want intelligent, socially and environmentally just growth that fits our community. It's a tall order, but we should aim to meet that high standard. I believe we have or can access the resources to make it happen. We must attempt to develop a practical and attractive vision to make it so.

We understand that the kinds of businesses who are going to insist upon a Beavercreek-style location are never going to move their operations here--and we should not waste our precious resources by trying to lure them.

We must be more creative--not less--in attracting and supporting the viable businesses and organizations that will most help to sustain our community.

We must work harder and more creatively. If our labors are done with joy and humor and good will, it's a good thing.

Because of the dominance of the consumerist ideology in the broader world, there are fewer, perhaps no, pre-fabricated blue prints for a town that is truly putting the growth and sustenance of wholly-human beings first, in all our quirkiness, through generations.

We can and we must examine creative solutions developed by other municipalities in the U.S., particularly by other small college towns, in the face of dilemmas similar to those that we face.

We can and we must find ways of best utilizing our limited resources to achieve those goals.

Conflicts Can Generate Light as Well as Heat

OK. Let me be clear. This is not to say that there are not real and genuine conflicts that occasionally arise as our values collide. For instance, at a recent village council meeting it became quite clear that most of us love trees, and we do, truly, love our community members who confront limitations on their mobility in a world designed for those of us who are currently not disabled.

Those of us who use wheelchairs (and some of us do so dazzlingly) or who regularly need to push small children in strollers need really good, functional sidewalks.

Yet many of our lovely trees are cracking and deforming the sidewalks that our fellow citizens depend on in order to access the resources our village has to offer them, and to offer their own human resources back to us.

Many of us who understandably love our bikes and skateboards, thoughtlessly block wheelchair users from our downtown sidewalks.

We cannot afford NOT to address these problems. We are wasting needed human resources by delaying any effective response. We must keep our sidewalks in good repair so that those community members who most depend upon them feel welcome here. We must be thoughtful of the needs of everyone to move through the village, and keep the ways clear for them, even as we enjoy hanging out down town. Even as we preserve as much as we can of our "tree wealth," the green and growing legacy of generations of Yellow Springs tree planters. Likewise, if our cracked streets are in such bad repair that they become dangerous, particularly for emergency vehicles, then we need to attend to them--in ways that are fiscally responsible, cost-effective over the long-term.

We need to work to see these problems clearly--not to exaggerate the problems nor to minimize them--so that we can make frugal use of our funds, with an eye toward the long-term, whenever possible.

I believe we can make these hard decisions. I know we must make them in a spirit of mutual care and compromise--and with the patience to genuinely listen to citizens and to explain to citizens the challenges we are addressing. To make sure they have the opportunity to understand the value systems we are using to set our priorities.

Our other problems--e.g., the problems at Antioch, our rising energy costs and the dangers of global warming at a time when we must find alternative sources of electrical power to the village, the lack of really affordable housing for younger and older singles, couples, and families--are even more complex. They are already generating conflicts, and they will require even more of our sustained attention and consideration. We will not all think alike on these issues. We will need to listen to one another, and seek to learn even from those ideas and perspectives that make us angry--no matter what side of the various fences we are on.

We need leaders who will remain grounded in the "conservative" values I have here outlined, and who will use those values to wrestle with competing solutions to the challenging questions that we are facing now, and that we will continue to face in the years ahead. We need leaders who will explore these problems and implement "conservative" solutions with grace, generosity of spirit, fiscal sobreity, attentive research, ethical seriousness, joy, and good humor. Only by doing so, will we have a hope of preserving, sustaining, and growing all the miraculous human and natural resources that Yellow Springs has to offer.