A phalanx of united people

A few days ago, a phalanx of concerned citizens showed up to do the hard-winning work of democracy. We packed the Ferguson Township board meeting to tell them that “enough is enough,” that the proposed Toll Brothers apartment complex on our water recharge area needs to stop. Led off by local muckracker and fellow Water Slate candidate Laura Dininni and spearheaded by longtime community activist Pam Steckler, we questioned the board about the expansion and type of sewage service, outlined the project’s history, called into question the project’s additional land, community, and economic costs and risks, and questioned the integrity of dealings in the past and present. [You can read a short recap of the event from the front page of the Centre Daily Times yesterday.] It was inspiring to be part of a multipartisan throng.

It made me think on three things related to our environmental values, our connections to place, and the possibility of unlikely coalitions. First, there is plenty of talk across the board about how we agree on clean water and air no matter our party affiliation. What’s often overlooked in such talk is that people prioritize things differently. For example, when we think about hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling–fracking for natural gas–people don’t value water the same way. Why? Because they may well be valuing economic potential and personal gain against the value of their water. If they can get water somewhere else and make big bucks, then they’ll do it. There’s no such promise or possibility in the case of the proposed development along Whitehall. No gain. Plenty of pain. Plenty of risk to our water. Additionally, if things go wrong, then we–the taxpayers–are likely to pay.

Second, who pays is connected to place. Yesterday, I quoted Barry Commoner (and a slew of other ecologists and economists) as saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Two of Commoner’s other Four Laws of Ecology are: “There is no such thing as away” or “Everything must go somewhere” and “Everything is connected to everything else.” These are those seemingly trivial but profound truisms that can be no more clear than with water. Without some pretty extraordinary measures to protect against runoff and sinkhole development, the glycol, oil, grease, and so on from the proposed Whitehall development is not going away. It will go into our water. And us. It might be small doses, but more of it nonetheless. Who pays the costs for that development and bears the burden of the risk? Us. The taxpayers. The community.

People could object in at least three ways. Some will say I’ve made a NIMBY (Not in my backyard) argument. Others will say something like, “There’s a ton of development here already. This is just like that.” Still others will say, “There’s herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer runoff from the same piece of land right now.” To the NIMBY objection, I respond by saying this project shouldn’t happen anywhere with comparable conditions. It’s not just my backyard. It’s our backyard and any place that has decent soils, good views, and provides peace of mind should preserved based on those values. It’s kind of a categorical imperative, a principle that places the value of good land above the value of ugly sprawl (more on that below).

The comparable land impact and comparable pollution objections can also be responded to pretty simply. To get at them, I’ll use drinking beer as an example. I like beer. I think it’s good. Give me a Victory Hop Devil, Elk Creek Double Rainbow, or an Otto’s Slab Cabin most days. They are each pretty potent (~7%) India Pale Ales. Plus, they are delicious. They are sort of like development. Awesome if I’m moderated but their returns are diminished if I drink too much (something I, like most of us, have done). If I have a couple beers I talk a little less well and a little more freely than people around me want me to. And that’s not so bad. Another and I definitely shouldn’t drive. Another, I get belligerent. Another one, two, or four and I am a worthless slob lying next to a dumpster. [This has never happened to me FYI.] If I keep up the abusive side of this for weeks, months, or years, I develop liver problems, become obese, harm my memory, and the quality of my life goes down. So too, development. Moderated, limited, and done well, it’s great. But too much too often…declining health.

Take the drinking example again but change the kind of beer I’m drinking. IPAs are pretty strong. Now make them double IPA, a really strong imperial stout, or a barleywine that are 10% to 14% alcohol. If I drink 3 regular IPAs at 7% the effect is quite less than drinking the 14% barleywine ale. Additionally, there are other and more subtle effects of other contents in the beers themselves. To alter it even more, what if we change the beer to gin and tonics or dirty vodka martinis? So though there may be pollution resulting from land use now, it may be different in its potency and effect from the proposed land use. So there may be herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer used there now, that doesn’t mean that the effect of tar runoff, glycol, oil, grease, and other chemicals are equal. At least this comparison has a sense of duty to the land and water and begins the question of relative impact and our responsibility. The previous objection just assumes that since there is some, more is acceptable. But in a connected world, these aren’t just acceptable. And lots of people recognize that.

So third, I’m so glad to see that there is a broad coalition behind this measure. I have had the good fortune now of being part of a group that agrees that we are connected to and by high quality water and the land that makes that water possible. This group includes old hippies and young permaculture fans, conservative gun-loving do-it-your-selfers and financial planners, and anti-nuclear liberals and anti-regulatory conservatives. In a way, we’ve made our own local Green Tea Party. But why?

I think that we know three things. The first is that, as Pam said in her presentation to the board, “Water is our most precious resource.” The second comes from the knowledge that we–the community–will pay the economic and health price for any damages if the service nature provides now for free is compromised or catastrophically damaged. I’m not that risk averse in my personal life. Give me steep fall line singletrack descents on my mountain bike. But I’m not playing with people’s water like that. This is a clear difference between individual risk and collective risk. Third and finally, we know that just as we are fronting the risk and costs, the profits are going elsewhere. You can’t just take.

So this is an exciting time to be here in Ferguson Township. We will keep on pushing to end this project until there is no more recourse one way or another. The takeaway for today is that people with volition who can see their common interests can and will join to fight for them. “The people, united, will never be defeated.” We will keep it up.

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