Resolution for the planet: Protect our fragile globe with concerted effort

With art by Forest Byrd

The polar bear has become a symbol in recent years — a massive symbol of a difficult problem. We human beings are destroying our Earth. The buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere continues to melt the polar ice sheets and irreversibly change our climate. Polar bears become stranded on diminishing ice floats.

Five years ago, the National Academies of Sciences of the eight major industrialized nations issued a joint statement: “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking prompt action.”

Our nation is not taking prompt action. With a lack of meaningful federal legislation to halt our destruction, we Americans who are concerned about the environment have been forced, as the saying goes, to think globally while acting locally.

Being human, we mark time on our calendars. The coming of a new year offers a chance to look back, to evaluate where we’ve been, and, at the same time, it gives us the sense of having a fresh start, a chance to make resolutions, to bring about change, in the year ahead.

We’ve been heartened in recent months by some local trends. The number of people growing vegetables in home gardens has nearly doubled in the last few years, Susan Pezzolla, a consumer horticulturalist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension, told us in September. The requests for soil testing have increased dramatically, ever since the push from the White House for home gardens, she said.

At the same time, there’s been a trend to buy local produce as farmers’ markets sprout in suburban and urban areas and restaurants buy locally, too. This not only means fresher produce, bought from people we know and trust, it means a reduced carbon footprint as the food isn’t transported hundreds of miles. The Helderberg Hilltown Association formed this year to promote local agri-tourism, which bodes well for the future.

And, more people are getting involved in community-supported agriculture. A group organized by the Department of State with representatives from around the world this year toured Raymond and Sarah Luhrman’s small farm in the town of Wright.

Another CSA, Collected Seed Farm in Rensselaerville, offers organic open-pollinated vegetables that are not genetically modified. Those working the farm, which is new this year, don’t till the soil, as this typically requires heavy equipment that burns energy; instead, they build raised beds.

A look at one grass-fed beef operation in Berne highlighted some of the advantages. The cows not only take care of themselves, said Timothy Lippert, but they do a lot of the work that farmers have been doing with machinery, like tilling the soil and spreading manure.

Viable farms, even the small, new niche farms, keep rural land open.

Another encouraging trend we noted this year is embodied in the grants that two of our school districts — Guilderland and Berne-Knox-Westerlo — got from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to install solar panels on their high schools. Developing renewable energy sources is essential if our society is going to survive. And, while the dollar savings from these projects may be small, their value as teaching tools for future generations is invaluable.

Not all kinds of alternative energy are appropriate for all locations. We commend the town of Rensselaerville for its careful consideration of wind power this year. It appointed a committee nearly two years ago after Shell WindEnergy approached private landowners about building 50 industrial turbines on the crest of the Helderbergs. None of the local Hilltown governments had zoning laws that dealt with wind power.

Last summer, Rensselaerville adopted a local law to regulate small, non-commercial windmills and this year adopted a law prohibiting commercial wind turbines. The committee had determined there would be significant health, environmental, and safety concerns while the income to the town would be minimal.

Planning, and then following through with appropriate legislation, is essential. In a home-rule state like New York, municipalities have tremendous power. We urge them to use it and, better yet, to work in consortiums for regional planning. As we’ve stressed repeatedly over the years, sprawl diminishes the quality of life, now and for future generations. Walkable clustered communities that preserve open space are better for both personal health and environmental well-being.

We continue to commend municipalities like Altamont and Guilderland for surveying residents and creating meaningful comprehensive land-use plans. Westerlo is working on its first-ever master plan and Berne is working to update a plan it drafted two decades ago.

New Scotland had a mandate from voters in 2009 to enact a size cap on commercial development but those who took office at the start of 2010 have yet to act on it. Beyond that, as we’ve stressed before, the town needs to take a larger look at its landscape and its future. If water sources are developed, New Scotland can no longer rely on the scarcity of this natural resource to keep the town rural — something the majority of its residents value.

Besides land-use planning, maintaining clean water and containing garbage are other matters that are most effectively dealt with as a region. The Rapp Road landfill — which is used by a consortium of municipalities, including New Scotland, Berne, Knox, Westerlo, Rensselaerville, Voorheesville, and Altamont — is rapidly reaching capacity even after being granted a fifth expansion into the Pine Bush. Guilderland withdrew from the consortium last year and now takes its waste to Colonie, but the town is still affected because its residents feel the ill effects of the dump, including its noxious smells.

Driving west on Washington Avenue Extension, motorists see a mountain of garbage looming on the horizon. We’d like to see a different kind of monument to our humanity. We back two of the proposals made by Clough, Harbour & Associates late last year: To educate residents about reducing their waste, and about collecting and treating food and yard waste separately from general garbage so they can be composted.

The draft plan says that about a quarter of what goes into the Rapp Road landfill now would be able to be composted instead; the goal is to accomplish this by 2018. Municipalities would make money on the front and back ends — charging a tipping fee to accept the composting material and then, once it is converted to rich, black dirt, selling it.

The Stormwater Coalition of Albany County is made up of a dozen local municipalities — Albany County, the towns of Bethlehem, Colonie, Guilderland, and New Scotland; the cities of Albany, Cohoes, and Watervliet; and the villages of Colonie, Green Island, Menands, and Voorheesville — that have sensibly banded together to become better stewards of local water.

“We’re managing stormwater in which the drainage area rarely includes one unique municipality,” said coordinator Nancy Heinzen. “The flowing water picks up a set of pollutants that we’re collectively trying to get rid of. You have to know what’s upstream and what’s downstream. It makes sense to do it together.”

Greater public awareness is the key to success. How many people realize the fertilizer that keeps their perfectly manicured suburban lawns so flawless has nitrates that run off into storm sewers? The water in the sewer is untreated and flows, in Albany County, to the Hudson River. The nitrates deplete oxygen in the water, suffocating aquatic life.

Each one of us can make a difference. We can refrain from tossing cigarette butts. We can pick up our pets’ excrement. We can use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer or none at all. We can plant rain gardens that capture water runoff from roofs and roads, thereby stopping pollutants from reaching waterways.

While we wait for regulations that will force us into action, we, as individuals can make changes in our everyday habits, like unplugging unused appliances — TVs, computers, and phones. Or hanging wash to dry. Or creating yards that have natural plants rather than energy-using landscapes. Or insulating our homes and caulking cracks. Or taking shorter showers and fixing leaky faucets.

Look at our painting of the polar bear, with the backdrop of corporate consumerism behind him. And think of the question posed by Elizabeth Kolbert in her book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe: “As the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest?

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself,” she concludes, “but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

Will polar bears exist just in zoos, or will they, like so many other species, be lost altogether, preserved only in a glass globe? Will humans, too, finally disappear? Our Earth is as magical as a glass globe, and more fragile. We need to preserve it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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