In this age of partisan politics, it is oh-so-human to simplify debates into tidy dualities of Us vs. Them or Right vs. Wrong. Mapos is certainly human – just check our 2009 tax returns – but we remain stubbornly optimistic that the human mind is robust enough to embrace the complexity of the times. I am constantly reminded of the scientists who work at the California Academy of Sciences. I had the opportunity to collaborate with them, years ago, in the development of their renovated institution in San Francisco. They were immersed in their fields of study, excited about the future, invested in the process, and cynical of the real-world need for the finality of deadlines. They do not work in the world of absolutes and final solutions. Theirs is a world of theory and continued exploration. It is not a simple world. It is a world of nuance and beauty and multiple opportunities.

A recent article in the Times outlined the development of waste-to-energy power plants in Northern Europe (no surprise there – Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have become the broken record of sustainable heroes) and the continued reluctance in the US to consider a future with logical feedback loops (dare I say cradle-to-cradle) of generation and consumption. We use the attached diagram in presentations to explain just that: let’s consider our own waste as a resource instead of relying on rapidly-depleting natural resources that must be dug out of the ground at great cost. While the Danes are comfortable living next to – and downright proud – of their waste-to-energy plants, the naysayers here in the States claim NIMBYism and the bizarre excuse of “negative public perception,” as reasons for our stagnation. Where, oh where, are leaders who see opportunity in research? When will we stop following the hysteria of the lowest common denominator that invariably thrives on a fear of change? What’s even more baffling is that the self-defined environmentalists are against waste-to-energy plants as well. They believe that the plants will spurn a growth in waste production – the plants have to be continuously fed – and thus de-incentivize recycling. Really? Does it really have to be a Waste vs. Recycling simplification? Is it not possible, in this country of 300 million people that generates 160 million tons of trash a year, that we can’t recycle AND burn trash for energy? In one town in Denmark, 61 percent of the waste is recycled and 34 percent is incinerated at waste-to-energy plants. If they can wrap their heads around the doing BOTH, couldn’t we?

Earlier this week I attended a surprisingly thought provoking symposium at the New School entitled, “Cities Respond to Climate Change: Locating Leadership in an Uncertain World.” It was surprising because most often, these academic get-togethers are nothing more than like-minded intellects talking to each other. While there was plenty of mutual head-nodding, there was room for dissent. Dissent is good. Dissent is healthy. Dissent is democratic. Dissent, however, neatly creates a duality. David Kreutzer of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation argued that cities need to devote their dwindling resources on more pressing needs (crime, housing, e.g.) than sustainable growth initiatives. Others argued that sustainability is the pressing issue that affects everything else. The Us vs. Them rhetoric was tempered somewhat when Francis Murray, the CEO of NYSERDA, suggested that cities could deal with their imminent crises AND think about the future at the same time. Not a bad idea.

Unfortunately, this foray into nuance did not last long. The Mayor of Vancouver – surprise, surprise – discussed how his city has had a plan in place for the past 50 years to ensure sustainable food production for the entire population of British Columbia. If I had heard this from the mayor of Detroit, I’d be impressed. It loses a lot of it’s magic, however, coming from the uber-greenies of the pacific Northwest. (They’re our version of Denmark!) His American counterparts could only gape in wonder at the progressive practices that, once again, put us in our place South of the border. Our follow-the masses mentality is not nimble enough to see that far in the future. All that could be mustered was the familiar refrain that any advancement must be a partnership between government, business, and academia. Will this partnership succumb to partisanship? Based on recent history, most likely. Or maybe the denominator will climb from low to Vancouver.

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