At Your Service: May 5, 2010

Our national economy and a significant portion of the things we take for granted are the result of the developing use of natural resources. Our region’s future continues to hinge on the simple fact that we are in the heart of the New York City Watershed. The tragic collapse of a Gulf of Mexico oil rig and subsequent oil spill remind us that all progress is not forward motion.
I spent a good piece of the last week in the home of my 87-year-old aunt where I could not help but see progress from a different perspective. Reaching into her kitchen cabinet I found, one after another, spice jars with the protective plastic wrappers virtually intact, except for what could be poked through with a knife. My aunt’s arthritic hands make it almost impossible for her to use the many “convenient” pop-up tops, or even get to them through outer seals.
We Americans consume more plastic than the rest of the world combined. It seals almost everything we purchase either in shrink-wrap or simple-wrap form. It is a primary component of almost everything we manufacture and there are many who believe we should replace all metal housings with even more plastic. Plastic is lighter than most metals and increasingly durable making it an alternative that supports efforts to restrict metal extraction and its dangers to the environment. Most plastics are made from oil.
We are in a circular debate about the use of “natural gas” to reduce our dependency on oil. While there are a few places where methane simply erupts from the earth, most of it is extracted by methods that replace it in the earth with water and/or chemicals. Many here have looked forward to gas drilling as a way to make money from once productive farm lands that now lie fallow.
This week the DEC set a different standard for extracting gas from our region because of potential dangers to the water supply. The long and short of it is that it will be almost impossible for anyone to drill for gas within the watershed.
We have developed as a nation and our economy has grown to a significant degree because there was little or no concern for the environment during the period often called the Industrial Revolution. As we have learned more about the impact of extracting natural resources and their general uses, concern has grown over its impact on the future.
If we could go back in time, would we have chosen to not develop rather than create the environmental damage? I think not. Every action has its parallel consequences. It is perhaps the opportunity afforded by progress that it also gives us new information. One hundred and fifty years ago, the ozone layer and its critical role in our environment was not fully appreciated; in order to learn that we had to engage in space exploration (an effort wholly dependent on our use of the earth’s natural resources).
The more we learn, the more we come to appreciate the opportunity before us to discover alternatives to what we have taken for granted. The oil spill is likely to drive gasoline prices up once again. We know from previous experience that the impact to our region can go both ways.
We must give some quick and far reaching thought to what we do in reaction. More than anything, we need to think way outside the bounds of what we have done before in order to enable individuals and their small businesses to thrive in an unknown immediate future.
One answer can be found in my aunt’s cabinet where a minor disability sidestepped various protections. In order to adapt, she has limited her use to that which is most important. She commented that she has never enjoyed cooking more and the simpler recipes are delicious.