As Hurricane Sandy clearly showed, we are living in an age of unprecedented violent change. It is an era in which three highly disruptive crises – global economic instability, climate change, and peak everything – are converging insidiously to shred the fabric of society.
The coming shocks: international financial collapse, epic flood and drought, energy and natural resource shortages, and extreme price spikes are likely to be catastrophic if we do not prepare. The New York City Bioregion – an area covering parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania – is especially vulnerable to these disruptive changes.
Economic Instability: The “old” economy of the last century is proving itself to be a flimsy house of cards, sustained largely by the illusion that our financial system can operate without ecological, economic, and social limits or foundations. The 2008 housing bubble collapse, the meltdown of big banks, big insurance, and Wall Street all made it abundantly clear that the prosperity of our Bioregion remains largely dependent on, and vulnerable to the wellbeing of the financial industry. Any number of future financial shocks – the collapse of the European Union, a major Mideast War, fear over the federal debt, or any other unforeseen economic panic, could shatter Wall Street and big finance, toppling the dominoes of the New York City financial, real estate, insurance, restaurant-hotel, port, tourism, and service industries.
Peak Oil and Peak Everything: Our metropolis produces almost none of its own energy, food, or natural resources to provide for people’s basic human needs. This puts our city and surrounding communities – more than 15 million people – in serious jeopardy. Rather, the New York City Bioregion is connected to the rest of the world by thousands of fragile lifelines, including a war-threatened oil supply; an aging and increasingly failure-prone power grid; an aging and leaky water system; and a vast network of roads, rails, shipping and air routes that rely exclusively on increasingly costly fossil fuels. Like a patient on intravenous life support, any major interruption in the flow of energy, resources, food or water to our Bioregion could hamstring or permanently harm its economy and people. With global production declines, shortages and price spikes forecast for everything from oil to uranium and rare earth metals vital to our techno economy, this collapse becomes not a question of if, but when.
Climate Change: The impacts and recovery from the “new normal” super storm Sandy are unfolding as I write. First estimates say Sandy’s costs could top $50 billion. But that’s nothing compared to the deaths caused directly and indirectly by the storm, the suffering of 8 million left without power; tens of thousands left homeless; and seniors, the sick and children forced into evacuation centers. Compare that $50 billion price tag now with the more modest $10 billion to construct wetlands and oyster reefs, enforce flood hazard building restrictions, plan for a retreat from flood hazard areas, and appropriately place sea gates needed to protect New York City’s vulnerable infrastructure. Other major cities around the world have implemented these protections but not here. New York City, being an island metropolis, is projected to be one of the five U.S. cities hardest hit by climate change and most vulnerable to rising sea levels. As the Northern Atlantic warms and rises, and extreme weather worsens, we can expect to see storms like Sandy, or worse coming ashore regularly. But don’t expect the Tea Party Congress to protect us. They won’t vote for “more government” to mitigate climate change or even harden our infrastructure or our energy, transportation and communication systems against an unimaginable future we know is coming. So much for “National Security.”
What is certain is that these already rapid, violent changes are accelerating. With government, big business and the media doing little to address the unfolding crises, the opportunity to make our Bioregion more resilient in this time of turmoil could easily be lost. We must act now. The incomprehensible tragedy caused by the “new normal” and super storm Sandy must be a wakeup call for our Bioregion. Sandy’s unprecedented destruction stands as an indisputable fact to convince and move even the most apathetic, complacent and skeptical among us to action.
Of course, the critical and immediate question is – what, exactly should we do: How can the New York City Bioregion respond productively to so many seemingly insurmountable crises? Also, how do we finance the major enhancements that must be made to the natural and human landscape for our Bioregion to survive and prosper? Finally, how can you and I, and other private citizens, join together to hospice the decline of the current system, and midwife the transformation into A Bright Green Future for the New York City Bioregion?
Choosing sustainability is clearly a first vital step away from “business as usual,” but it is only the first step leading us to true Transition. To become a working Bioregional community, we will have to relearn to survive and thrive on our own local resources, to create a democratic, fair and equitable society in which both people and nature benefit.
Any vision for A Bright Green New York City Bioregion must be built on three pillars:
• Redevelopment for resilient economic prosperity – We must quickly create a locally focused process for continuous improvement by design to natural, built, economic and social systems, enhancing resiliency and productivity; increasing efficiency; using renewable resources; and eliminating waste. We must learn to stretch every gallon of water, joule of energy and pound of materials to meet our needs, while localizing our energy supply and achieving zero-waste.
• Social justice – Any plan for a resilient Bioregional economy must insure that everyone has fundamental needs met for nutritious food, shelter, healthcare, education, and ecosystem services as a non-negotiable condition. This means such things as converting urban brownfields to greenfields, ensuring affordable housing, improving work opportunities for disadvantaged groups, and allowing seniors and children to play useful civic roles.
• Human and ecological health – To be truly sustainable we must be responsive to the finite limits of ecological systems, while fostering the limitless opportunities of democracy in which all people are allowed to contribute ideas and effort. This future vision includes a major role for creative entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and government. One key to ecological resilience is a self-contained economy with resources – especially food – sourced largely within the region.
A society built on these three pillars will result in a New Economy that produces the highest possible quality of life for the most people in the best possible environment. It will be driven by innovative new tax and investment structures and incentives meant to promote resiliency, democracy, and equality. A Bright Green New York City Bioregion may sound like an Ecotopian vision, but it is not. It is a necessity if we are to thrive in “the new normal.” If we can agree on a way forward, and cooperate, our Bioregion can thrive in a time of global crisis.
Here is what the New Economy for our Bioregion might look like: It will prosper through an eclectic amalgam of business, nonprofit and government innovation, including rooftop solar warehouses, wind farms, and tidal energy producers; urban and rural farmers, and rooftop apiaries; commercial fishermen, fish mongers, and fish farmers; local farmers markets, shoreline farmers, and seafood markets; a local water-based transportation system to bring goods to market; suburbia converted to interconnected “front yard” farms; a local currency used to pay for local commodities; buying and hiring locally; restored and created wetlands serving as nurseries for fish and wildlife and where blueberries and other produce can be sustainably harvested; sustainable forests that are logged selectively with an eye on future production; public works projects such as sea walls and sea gates as required to protect communities and valuable infrastructure against sea level rise; an economy of local businesses and micro-industries, including everything from brewers and butchers to cheese makers and toolmakers; from ship builders to bicycle builders; local wind turbine, solar collector, and tidal generator manufacturers and installers; shoemakers and fix it shops; composters and oil recyclers.
Our Bright Green Future will re-create self-sufficiency for the New York City Bioregion, with a mutually supportive connection to the surrounding New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut farms, fisheries, communities and the bounty of preserved wetlands, forests, mountains, bays, and the sea.
How do we create this New Economy and new culture? It is long past time to gather the brightest most committed people from all parts of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut/and Pennsylvania Bioregion for a charrette, an open space dialogue and analysis, to discuss the best, most pragmatic route to a better future for our communities. Working together, we can develop a blueprint, an implementable comprehensive plan based on vibrant sustainable, slow money, small business, main street economy, focused on local energy and local food, with all of the resulting positive economic, social, and environmental outcomes.
The participants in this great gathering must be many, varied and inclusive. We must invite entrepreneurs and social venture capital investors; planners and co-housing/eco village developers; Transition Town advocates, Permaculture practitioners and foodshed advocates; charitable foundation directors and futurists; students and union members; fishermen, environmentalists and economists; organic and biodynamic, rural, suburban, and urban farmers; academics, government officials, and local business people. All points of view will be needed to come up with implementable visionary ideas that can lead us safely through the impending crises and into A Bright Green Future.
The two seminal questions for the first proposed charrette will be:
1. How can the New York City metropolitan area community develop a food security plan to feed itself from farms within 100 miles of the Battery?
2. Should we commit $10-15 billion to construct wetlands and oyster reefs, enforce flood hazard building restrictions, plan for a retreat from flood hazard areas, and appropriately place “hard infrastructure” needed to protect New York City, coastal New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut’s vulnerable infrastructure?
Luckily, we needn’t start from scratch. Many in our region have thought hard on these issues, and begun to puzzle out solutions. The global Transition movement also offers us models for local sustainability, and represents a promising way of engaging people and communities to take the far-reaching actions necessary to move beyond peak oil, climate change and economic crisis.
Though the path ahead may seem daunting, it is important to remember the past. Not so long ago, New York City and its Bioregion fed itself. Daily, wagonloads of produce rumbled from farms along dirt tracks to ferries, and fishing boats docked at wharves, all bringing seafood, meat, vegetables, milk, rum, cheese, and apples to Manhattan markets. The New Economy we create for our Bioregion will likely resemble in some ways that diverse and prosperous regionally self-sufficient economy.
Time is short. If we are to be the designers and stewards of our community’s future – rather than the victims of crises – we must move quickly and decisively to begin shaping the transition of the New York City Bioregion. Together we can seed a post-growth/post-carbon economy that serves and benefits all people and all of nature, a Bioregional re-localized economy based on renewable resources harvested at nature’s rates of replenishment.
I look forward to your response and feedback to this proposal, to your creative ideas and input, and to your participation in one of the greatest adventures of our time, as we seek to make a better life for ourselves, our families, our communities and our Bioregion.
Andrew Willner is an independent sustainability consultant, for almost twenty years he was the Executive Director and Baykeeper at NY/NJ Baykeeper. Mr. Willner is spearheading an effort to create A Bright Green Future for the New York City Bioregion.