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Stay in NYC?

[In 2006 Phillip Botwinick helped organize and coordinate the Local Energy Solutions Conference in New York City. His years of research on Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse, as well as his experience as an instructor of Permaculture, superbly qualify him to critique Plan NYC as a public relations pipedream disconnected from current reality.--CB]

 I remember Earth Days in the seventies. It was a big deal. People seemed genuinely interested in saving the planet. As the years passed the crowds got smaller and it became a human interest story for the local media. Until this year. Maybe Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" was a catalyst for many people. Maybe people read more stories about -­Climate Change in papers, magazines. Whatever the reason, I frequently hear conversations about the weather in elevators, on subways and on the street. This year I saw more events, more people and more questions at the Earth Day events I attended.

New York City bureaucrats must have picked up on this increased interest in environmental issues too because they planned a well-publicized and media-saturated event for the culmination of Earth Day ceremonies. That event was the unveiling of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sustainability plan for New York City called PlaNYC which may be viewed at:

(http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/html/home/home.shtml)

I was excited that this was being put out. I had some hope that the city was getting its act together on issues of Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Food Security. I skimmed through it and noticed they used colorful graphs, charts and personal stories from ordinary New Yorkers to illustrate how they would solve growing problems the city faces in the areas of the environment, energy, water, housing, and transportation over the next 20 years. 

What caught my eye, however, was the four page supplement entitled "How To Make Yourself More Sustainable" which contains "10 easy steps" people can take to achieve this goal.  [PDF here] This took me by surprise as there had been no mention of this document in the prior day's reporting of the Earth Day events. I envisioned that these steps would include sustainable habits I was already incorporating into my life like: using canvas bags, installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, and using public transportation more often. But Step 1 stopped me in my tracks.

Stay in NYC. Although it may seem counterintuitive, living in dense, urban cities is one of the best ways to help the environment. Our reliance on mass transit and smaller living spaces have made New York the most energy-efficient city in the United States. 

I should have known better than to assume that New York City officials know what's best for its citizens. They actually want me to believe that remaining in New York City was the sanest and most rational decision I could make. Not only was this against my better judgment, I felt completely manipulated. Manipulation of this sort is a tool of the public relations industry. Public relations professionals are wordsmiths~ possessing skills with vocabulary that are similar to a plastic surgeon's skill with a knife. Once a procedure is performed their finished work is d' nearly impossible to detect. 

Interestingly, the rise of public relations is due in part to the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays. Bernays believed that the opinions of the public needed to be molded and shaped without their knowing it by those who claim to know better. Bernays was famous for having "neutral" third party experts support issues he was hired to promote. His legacy can be seen in paradoxical campaigns such as: "Clean Coal", "No Child Left Behind" and the "Help America Vote Act," encouraging the American public to look favorably on efforts that hurt them. Unfortunately, these campaigns are constructive actions in name only and are more concerned with keeping the public confused and complacent. 

Step 1 does the same thing by telling me that "living in dense urban cities is one of the best ways to help the environment." So essentially, by riding an overcrowded subway I'm helping the environment, but how am I dealing with my anger when I'm pushed up against the person next to me in the tightly packed subway car. And if three policemen searched my backpack on my way into the subway, is that still good for the environment? Does it make me feel safe and secure or anxious and neurotic? What I'm really asking is, does my quality of life suffer by living in the most energy-efficient city in the United States? 

Frankly, I don't really care what the answer is. I already know I don't want to be living in New York City if the economy collapses. But for the sake of those who still have faith in (insert your city here) bureaucrats these are important questions. 

And this is only the first step. Reading steps 2 through 10 makes it clear that New York City officials expect individuals to bear the burden of initiating sustainable habits to help the city become more sustainable. Well, what about all of the companies that are headquartered in the Big Apple? Do they not have plenty of money to use non toxic materials and products (step 3) or reduce energy consumption by controlling the indoor temperature (step 6)? It really is sickening that these steps imply that all the citizens, the majority of whom are middle to low income, are being asked to open up their wallets to help the city become more sustainable when some of the companies that are here make billions of dollars. 

The steps individuals are being asked to take barely scratch the surface of the changes needed to achieve a sustainable city. Steps 1 through 10 claim sustainability can be achieved by installing thermostats, buying light bulbs and appliances and power from a centralized energy company. 

I expected to see steps that ask people to give more of themselves than their money. Why weren't people encouraged to educate themselves about energy? Learn where it comes from. Don't blindly accept proposals offered by government, corporations, or so-called experts. These entities or individuals have a vested interest in keeping tije current system going.

Wouldn't it empower people more to take steps that enlighten them about what is really going on? For example educate themselves about where energy comes from and how we waste it. There are a lot of informative books, articles, and websites about energy that New Yorkers can use to come to their own conclusions about how to use energy sustainably. 

Another empowering step might be to connect energy to other parts of their lives like food. Consider only buying food grown locally like through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or the farmer's market. If you're daring you can try a 100 mile diet. And, if you're C really pumped you could take a Permaculture Design Certificate course. 

Still another empowering step could be to not buy on impulse, but to really look at a product before purchasing it and ask yourself, "Do I need this or do I just want it?" Consider the person who made that item. Where and how do they live? Were they paid a fair wage? Do they have the comforts I do? 

Imagine the sustainable city we could live in if all New Yorkers took these steps. That would mean that New Yorkers would have to turn off their TV s and Ipods, and do a little more thinking for themselves. Would New Yorkers take these steps? I very seriously doubt it. That's why I'm not planning on "Staying in NYC." If these steps are any indication, imagine what's in PlaNYC or more importantly what's not! 

Philip Botwinick was the conference coordinator of the Local Solutions to the Energy Dilemma Conference that took place in NYC in April 2007. He's the cofounder of Local Energy Solutions, a volunteer organization that is working with Green Phoenix Permaculture to offer an affordable Permaculture Design Certificate currently being offered in NYc. He can be reached at phil@localenergysolutions.org

Editorial Notes: Contributor Carolyn Baker (of the site Speaking Truth to Power) writes: Recently Energy Bulletin published Dan Miner's piece supporting Plan NYC [Moving New York City toward sustainable energy independence]. Phillip Botwinick has written an excellent piece defending the opposite point of view. BA: The latest salvo in the ongoing debate about cities and sustainability. Other permaculturalists are more optimistic about cities: Retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability (David Holmgren) Urban vs. Rural Sustainability (Toby Hemenway) Cities, peak oil, and sustainability (Toby Hemenway)

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