Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Transition for my town

This is scheduled for the 12/31 issue of the Morgan Hill Times.

The history of the Santa Clara Valley is one of constant transition. Long gone are the days when the Union Pacific RR advertised it as the Valley of the Heart's Delight. Some of the agricultural economy has remained but the structure has radically changed. No longer do we have packing sheds next to the railway. Morgan Hill is not even just a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, as it was when I moved here over 30 years ago. Rather we are transitioning to something new and don't really know just what that will be.

One of the most important drivers for the past transitions has been the value of our land. How do we use it? How do we tax it? Is it more valuable for agriculture or for industrial development. You have only to examine the office parks along Cochrane Rd. to appreciate how we have answered those questions.

It seems obvious that we may not always answer those questions in the same manner, or that we will start asking new question. As our economic life changes, there will be new drivers for local decisions.

In a recent NY Times column, Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman discusses the new economic normal. “Oil is back above $90 a barrel. Copper and cotton have hit record highs. Wheat and corn prices are way up. Over all, world commodity prices have risen by a quarter in the past six months.” With changes like this, perhaps it will become more valuable to maintain agricultural land in close proximity to where we live.

Krugman gets right to the point. “What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices. And America is, for the most part, just a bystander in this story.”

That is a big change from that past vision of America. How do we adapt to the reality of a finite world, one in which resources are limited, access to them is increasingly expensive when transportation costs are added, and America no longer has an inexhaustible supply. Politicians talk about meeting out energy needs through the exploitation of oil shale, but they never mention the costs, direct and indirect, that oil shale operations have. There is probably no single process that would destroy more watershed than a massive exploitation of the shale deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. This is water that would go to the Colorado River and make that water supply unusable.

There are other drivers that we have to consider; a changing climate is just one. The frequency of extreme weather events that we are currently experiencing around the world is on of the predicted results of increased greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere. New York has been hard hit by a blizzard while Greenland continues to warm. In the Southern Hemisphere, South Australia has experienced their worst drought while Queensland had record rainfall and flood this week. It may rival the flood from Pakistan but affect fewer people. Remember: a warmer atmosphere will hold more water and that will fall somewhere.

We can no longer count on our state and federal governments to prevent future catastrophic events, or even to adapt to them after it happens. There is neither the fiscal capacity in either Washington or Sacramento nor the political will act if it costs money. We can only raise taxes so much and I doubt that the incoming Republican House of Representatives, filled as it is with new Tea Party members, is gong to do much of anything productive about energy or climate change.

Morgan Hill has to recognize that the future of this community depends on what we do, collectively, here and now. There is a good model for this cooperative community action in the Morgan Hill Community Emergency Response Team. (http://www.mhcert.com/) This is how we take local action to deal with a sudden emergency because we know that immediate help will not be coming form State or Federal agencies. This is not because those agencies don't want to help, it is because the can't.

How will we deal with events that are not sudden, but rather assert themselves over time. There is a model for this as well. Morgan Hill is uniquely positioned to be a Transition Town, developing a local resilience that will see us through, transitioning to a newer reality. You can find more information about Transition Towns by following Hopedance, an online journal published by Bob Banner of Santa Barbara. (http://bit.ly/huvptZ)

The key objective of a Transition Town is to provide that local resilience. They begin by asking different questions: What is the true cost of consumerism? How willing are we to push down other people in order to maintain our idea of American Exceptionalism? How do we best adapt to this new world we have created? These are moral questions as well as economic ones.

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