Thursday, January 22, 2009

letter to local government

Earlier today I sent this letter to the new Sustainability Manager of my county. It's a recently created position. I'll post any response I get.

A friend asked me to explain the reasoning behind the letter. The broad answer is I'm shifting tactics. In the past I've spent time making fun of the sheer ignorance and willful disillusionment of the general public regarding the problems we face. I've also been know to decry the lack of real leadership on real issues at all levels of government. And I've burned more than a few hours angrily describing the efforts of major social institutions (mainstream media being a favorite target of mine)to infantilize the US population. All of this is great fun of course and therapeutic at some level. It's also unlikely to bring about any change.

My new tactic is to find people in the position to bring about positive change, or more accurately, to identify opportunities for positive change and find the people mostly likely to get that change going and help those people, push & prod those people, lean on them or give them a shove. I've found plenty of work to do both locally and beyond. But I think I can also help others to make the leap.

God knows there's plenty to do. Others are starting to recognize that she's right.

Ok now for my letter.

January 20, 2009

Mr. Kevin Grant

Cabarrus County General Services

Sustainability Manager

242 General Services Drive
P.O. Box 707

Concord, NC 28026-0707

Dear Mr. Grant,

I'm pleased to know that my local government has solidified its commitment to the future of this county and its citizens by hiring you as the first Sustainability Manger of Cabarrus County. Congratulations. Over the past few months I've deliberated on a few ideas I think will strengthen any attempt to establish this county as a leader in the effort to become a more sustainable place to live. It is becoming obvious to many more people that we must consider not only the future of our children and grandchildren who will inherit the decisions we make regarding our care and stewardship of this county but also the health of the local ecological systems on which we all depend for clean water, air and all other aspects of life. I want to share these ideas with you in high hopes they might prove useful to your efforts.

A short side note before I begin. Plenty of people fail to associate the current economic crisis garnering attention across the nation with the crises of energy and environmental issues facing this country. These three are actually more closely linked than might appear at first glance. Our diminished supply of natural resources, most notably our dwindling domestic supply of petroleum, has forced us to switch from a nation that grows stuff, builds things and actually produces objects of real value to a nation with an economic system based on financial speculation using credit to prop up the notion that we’re real not citizens but simply consumers. Hence we’ve been told until mostly recently that oure most important role in society is to shop. Petroleum production peaked in the US 1970 at just less than 10 million barrels a day. Today we stand at less than half that rate of extraction and no amount of offshore drilling or oil shale production will change that. Oil, the lifeblood of our economy, has dropped in price over the past few months largely because of the deleveraging of hedge funds and other financial institutions to cover the recent losses in the stock market. Demand destruction has played its part but the drop in oil use in the US and abroad doesn't begin to match the dramatic drop in the price per barrel of oil. This drop in price is not indicative of the long term price trend based on resource availability.

Global oil production has been leveling off for the past several years for mostly geologic reasons and likely peaked worldwide in production in mid 2008. However the recent drop in the price has caused many oil and natural gas companies to suspend new projects necessary to offset the coming global oil production decline. As an example I offer Mexico's largest oil field Cantarell, the third largest oil field in the world, which saw an annual output decline of about 30% in 2008. Mexico, currently the third largest supplier of crude oil to the United States is declining in production at such an alarming rate that our southern neighbor is scheduled to become a net oil importer within 5 years. A coming resurgence in the price of oil is likely to overwhelm our car dependant county in a way that will dwarf the effects of the high gasoline prices of the summer of 2008.

Similarly, other resource depletion issues, perhaps most notably water availability, are likely to shape the future of this county in ways that seem unimaginable to many of the citizens living here today. The attached report shows the enormous amount of money the natural forest systems of our county previously provided for free, especially in terms of storm water absorption. It would be in our best interests to recognize that what many people think of as purely environmental issues or energy issues are also issues of great financial interest to the citizens of Cabarrus County. As we enter into a period of suspended or even negative economic growth, it is imperative that we recognize the importance of preserving the natural systems that preserve us. We can’t afford, either ecologically or economically, not to.

Ok I'll jump down off my soapbox now and suggest three projects ready for implementation by you the new Sustainability Manager of Cabarrus County.

1. Create a Sustainability Task Force. Call it whatever you'd like, but put together a group of private citizens and formally commission them to envision a more sustainable Cabarrus County both out of imperative and to increase the local quality of life. There are several reasons for creating such a group by selecting citizen volunteers.

The first is that of economic benefit. There are many Cabarrus County citizens willing to volunteer their time, knowledge, experience and effort to create a more sustainable place to live for their families and the families of their children. It makes more sense to utilize the citizens themselves rather than to use their tax dollars to pay other people to do this work.

The second reason is because no major change in the operating procedures of county government or suggested change in the way average citizens live their lives will be accepted without significant public buy-in. If the basis for change comes from a group of average citizens, the general public will be more likely to receive the changes with favorable opinion. If you receive a call from an angry business leader who doesn't understand why a change in policy has been made you'll be able to direct him to a member of the task force who is herself a businesswoman and can help explain the reasoning behind the decision.

Which leads to the third reason for a private citizens’ Sustainability Task Force, political cover. No doubt any sensible outcome from this task force will contain controversial suggestions. The status quo will not cut it moving forward. Politicians and even county employees will not want to take the brunt of the backlash related to particularly controversial suggestions. But if they are able to point to the task force and explain that these changes are part of an overall plan envisioned by citizens themselves, the politicians in particular may be more willing to support the overall plan politically and give it the necessary support such a plan will need to move forward and prove its worth. It’s important to note that because such a task force isn’t directly beholden to the citizens of Cabarrus County for votes or reliant on their tax dollars for a paycheck the Sustainability Task Force will be free to make decisions and suggestions based purely on prudence, common sense and necessity.

The fourth reason for using such a private task force is probably the most germane. I believe average citizens are capable of great accomplishments if given the space and the knowledge necessary to face the challenges of our county and our country at this point in history. Any plan for change should take advantage of the wealth of knowledge, experience, and willingness we have here locally! The key to success is to include a diverse group of citizens. I recommend a group of between 15 and 25 individuals. Represented among them at a minimum of diversity must be Black, White and Hispanic men and women ranging widely in age. I highly suggest at least one college student and one high school student. One middle school representative would be excellent. Young people are less encumbered with the so called realities of life. The decisions made by this task force will also disproportionately affect young people more so than those who are older. Having said that, the wisdom and understanding of our older citizens should definitely be included. I know of several older citizens very interested in these issues. You should include business people, public employees and average workers in the private sector as well as those working in the not-for-profit sector. A wide spectrum of household incomes should be represented as well. If you hope to make substantial change this group will only be effective in doing so if it represents more than a small minority of the citizens whose future such decisions will affect.

I recommend the Transition Handbook as a guide to making changes with sustainability in mind. It could help to give structure to the process of envisioning change and organizing those visions into a successful plan of action for the community. Let me know if you'd like to borrow a copy.

2. Create a Complete Streets program. When my wife and I first moved home to Concord, NC we noticed cars parked on both ends of Union Street every morning and every evening. These cars were parked at places where there was seemingly no reason for large numbers of cars to be park- no shops or stores, only houses. The reason for these impromptu parking lots soon became clear. These people were driving into Concord from surrounding neighborhoods with poor facilities for walking or riding bikes, to take advantage of the beautiful and relatively safe pedestrian environment that exists on the 2.5 miles stretch of Union Street through downtown Concord. Why not take advantage of this and other such locations throughout the county by increasing the level of safety and comfort by removing cars completely from these streets on certain days?

Such a program could be modeled after the Cyclovias of Central and South America or the similar “Summer Streets” program which debuted in New York City in 2008. I'm talking here about the idea of people taking ownership over their streets. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the Cyclovia I have provided references at the end of this letter. In short the idea is to temporarily close certain streets or portions of certain streets to automotive traffic on scheduled days. The country of Columbia, a pioneer of the Cyclovia movement, now regularly closes over 70 miles of its streets to cars in the capital city of Bogotá on a regular basis. The result is hundreds of thousands of citizens walking, running and biking with friends and family. All sorts of classes and presentations are given all along the car-less roadways. It's a low cost form of recreation and entertainment for many families and a way to get great exercise and socialize with others in the community. It would also cost relatively little to support in the way of government funds. The infrastructure to support this sort of activity, namely paved roadways, is already in place. To be sure it would require organization- the closing of streets and the support staff needed to help with promotion and respond to injuries and other safety issues. But the net result would surely be a positive one both in terms of health and human wellness benefits but also in economic terms. Surely the existing businesses and temporary vendors along these car-free routes would benefit from concentrated, slow-moving traffic that doesn't need to search for a parking spot. How much of the necessary coordination could be done with volunteers and might the nearby businesses be willing to sponsor such an event?

This would provide not only wonderful recreational opportunities on a periodic basis but would also help encourage public support for more complete roadways designed to foster automotive traffic and cyclists and pedestrians. As someone who has cycled throughout the county and has commuted to work on a bicycle in this area I can tell you first hand that most of Cabarrus County’s roadways are not friendly to any form of transportation other than automobiles. If more people could experience safe streets it would foster the desire for more such opportunities to walk or ride a bike on a daily basis. Cyclovias are an opportunity to start that dialog and a way to give Cabarrus County residents an opportunity to enjoy more time outside.

3. Transition away from the landscape maintenance programs that include synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. Certainly this is a water quality issue as a large percentage (more than half) of the synthetic Nitrogen used to fertilize playing fields and the chemical pesticides used on municipal recreational landscapes, ends up in local creeks and streams. This is also a human health and wellness issue in that a disproportionate number of the people using these facilities are developing children and what parent wants their kids running, jumping and sliding in chemical agents known to be harmful to humans. But it's also an economic dead-end. The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides locks the county into a never-ending cycle of nourishing the dead soil of these recreational areas and killing the weeds that take advantage of the weak plants and turf associated with a synthetic chemical-based landscape maintenance program. The cost of these fertilizers and pesticides continues to increase meaning an ever-increasing percentage of the budget needed to pay for such maintenance. The result by the way is a lackluster landscape that struggles to survive.

The alternative is to promote healthy, living soils at county facilities that not only look beautiful but out perform conventional synthetic-based maintenance programs. The healthy soils created by such a program will also be much more drought tolerant, a bonus in our area. Such a program would focus on returning carbon to the soil and reestablishing the naturally existing microorganisms that make healthy topsoil the most densely populated ecosystem on the planet. The most wonderful aspect of such a system is that over time, less and less of the organic inputs necessary to start the process will be needed. Each year the county would use less of such products and therefore spend less money each year on landscape maintenance. I suggest this change in county policy because it would reap rewards in terms of a better looking and better performing landscapes, it would provide safer and healthier surfaces for our children to play on and it would greatly reduce the amount of pollution cause by current landscape management practices all while saving the county an increasing amount of money in the coming years. That sort of synergy seems to make such a change unquestionable.

It is these synergies- these overlapping benefits that I think should drive the choices made as Cabarrus County tries to become a more sustainable place to live. It is the reason for these specific suggestions as examples of changes that could help not just in one or two aspects of life in our county but could help in many different ways.

I hope these three suggestions help in your efforts to make Cabarrus County a more sustainable place to live and a model, playing our part to help other areas of the country make similar changes. I speak for those of us who grew up in Cabarrus County when I say we would like to watch our children and our grandchildren share in the same sorts of wonderful experiences we enjoyed. That will only be possible if we being to take seriously the challenges we face and change the way we think about our relationship to each other and the natural environment that supports us all. Best wishes and good luck to you.


Aaron Newton

Cabarrus County Resident

14 Oakland Ave SE

Concord NC 28025


John Day

Pam Dubois

Kylie Bilafer


Peak Oil

Resource Depletion

Transition Handbook


Summer Streets


homebrewlibrarian said...


What a great, well thought out letter. My only comment is that of volume. You may have only three suggestions but the density of information to go with them might be a bit off putting. I'm hoping not. In fact, I'm hoping this new Sustainability Manager will be beside himself and take you up on your offer of help.

You've got me curious to see if my community has created a similar position. Under the prior mayor (Mark Begich, now the newly minted US Senator Mark Begich), it would have been entirely possible but I don't know what's up now that we've got an interim mayor. But I can still check. Might I paraphrase you if there is such a position here in Anchorage, AK?

Kerri in AK

nulinegvgv said...

Kerri you are welcome to paraphrase. You are also welcome to cut and paste the entire thing if you want. Use any of this letter verbatim if it would be helpful to you. That goes for anyone else as well. - Aaron

Bill Real said...

Good work! Look forward to seeing the reply..