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[Commentary] What role does sustainability have in the future of our city’s government?

June 4, 2015 Category: Purpose

With primary day in Philadelphia behind us, many media outlets and citizens across Philadelphia are beginning to conceive of what a Jim Kenney mayoral administration will mean for our city. In almost the same time frame of the Democratic primary race that started last fall, I have had the privilege of writing this column entitled Thoughts on a Movement, exploring and analyzing the sustainability movement in Philadelphia.

As I take a summer break to focus on a forthcoming novel, I wanted to leave readers with a few thoughts post-election day.

Of course, the actual mayoral election isn’t until November. But in heavily Democrat-leaning Philadelphia, politicos of all stripes will begin addressing the issues of our city based on the May 19 results.

Our entire city government structure—City Council, the Mayor’s Office and the city agencies—will be faced with the ongoing issues of the city’s sustainability, such as fixing our public schools and addressing the trash problem that severely affects many of our municipal operations as well as the quality of life for our residents.

However, I wanted to take this parting article to address an issue that I feel received nominal attention during the mayor’s race—the proposed Energy Hub.

If you’re expecting hard-hitting investigative journalism on this topic or an analysis on Kenney team’s stance on the issue, I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the point of this piece.

For a well written in-depth analysis on the Energy Hub, Philadelphia Magazine’s 2014 article by Patrick Kerkestra deserves a good read. To read about Kenney’s connection to the Energy Hub, check out another Kerkestra article, or one of the many other articles from outlets such as Grid Magazine. These articles have already pointed out Kenney’s connection to Phil Rinaldi as an advisor, who is both the CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions and the main architect of the Energy Hub’s strategy.

Instead, I would like to offer a more philosophical analysis, which seems to have gone out of fashion in this era of cynical responses to mass media saturation and pandering politics. After nine months of writing this series, I have formulated the unwavering belief that sustainability will be the defining issue of the 21st century.

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But I’ll take it one step further and say this:

Sustainability will be to the 21st century what industrialization was to the 20th century.

When the Industrial Revolution began to pick up steam at the end of 19th century, much of the rural United States, and even some more populated areas, still did not have indoor plumbing, electricity or phone lines. As these modern advancements began to become mainstream into the 20th century, more and more people began to acquire them. And today, unless people are living in deep poverty or electively off-the-grid, most residents of the United States enjoy indoor hot showers, electricity that flips on with a switch, modern medicine, mass sanitation and mobile telephones. For many of us, there is no question as to if we live industrially. We just do.

Industrialization has led to an unprecedented increase in the quality of life for the largest segment of population in human history. I’d also like to point out that this incredible achievement was fueled largely in part by democratic principles that developed nations and the industrial workforce, which I also feel is one of the most impressive examples of cooperation in human history.

But both of these examples have not been without their major drawbacks. The raw materials for industrialization were procured by brutal colonialism that relied on the ravaging of non-industrial countries for resources. And even within the industrial system, massive exploitation still exists today, such as the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. And of course, the Industrial Age’s unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels has led to one of the most frightening and dire threats facing our planet today—climate change.

That is why it is my belief that if we are to get through this century, as a global people, while maintaining this modern quality of life for the people who possess it and expand it for the billions more on the earth who deserve it, then sustainability is the only option. As I hope I showed with articles on topics like farming, parenting and economics, sustainability touches every aspect of ensuring that we are treating our planet, our fellow humans and ourselves with equity and respect.

Just as there was really no question as to whether our lives were industrial or not at the end of the 20th century, my vision is that this either/or proposition will disappear when it comes to sustainability at the end of the 21st century. Simply put, in the future, there will be no question as to whether we live sustainably.   If we want to keep this quality of living while not destroying our habitat on this planet, we will have no choice.

So it goes for the Energy Hub, which could be the defining strategy for Philadelphia’s development in the 21st century. Investing our resources in the fossil fuel industry today almost feels like investing more money in the pony express, wood burning stoves or the telegraph at the end of the 19th century. When the time was right and the technology was in place to abandon these antiquated systems for progress, we did.

Progressing from these technologies led us to the industrial splendor that we developed in the 20th century, fueled by advancements like indoor heating, the Internet and interstate trucking. With the alternative fuel industry where it is now as solar panels become increasingly ubiquitous, Tesla prepares to unveil its home battery to store solar power, and Pennsylvania is becoming a leader in wind energy, Philadelphia can be that leader that ensures that there will be no question as to if we are sustainable or not in the future.

Natural gas industry executives that curry favor with city and state politicians may dismiss analysis such as mine as naïve or misinformed. But I have not found a convincing argument as to how this “natural gas boom” will be anything but a temporary lifeline of energy and cash that alleviates our need for foreign oil while the tech industry brings us renewable energy that will power the future of our country. I’m not saying natural gas doesn’t have a role to play in the process. But it can’t be the end game for Philadelphia. The citizens of this city already know what neighborhoods look like when industry shuts down and leaves our workforce and our tax-funded infrastructure behind. Let’s not allow the energy hub to be a short-term bonanza for the fossil fuel industry that suppresses progress for profit.

I hope the next administration truly invests in Philadelphia’s future in preparation for the inevitably of a sustainable economy in the 21st century.

Image via Mo Manklang

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