I have been contemplating lately in a deeper and more urgent way, the future of this community… and for the purpose of this piece I will limit my focus to the city of Langley. One, because I know something about how Langley works. And two, because in many ways Langley is a microcosm of the county, the state and the nation.
It’s a community where a good number of folks understand what it means to live harmoniously and responsibly on the planet, how living on an island is different from living on the mainland or in a large urban community, and — most importantly — what might be required of us as individuals and of our public officials, to sustain our community. We can quibble about what it means to be “sustainable.” The word and the concept have come to mean different things to different people. For me, it means making decisions that will support healthy community life and to do so in a way that takes little, if anything, away from the prospects for future generations to do the same. It is easy to imagine that most of us will agree that sustainability of this kind is a worthy and desirable intention and outcome.
That said, I will offer a basic framework for personal and government decision-making and suggest that circumstances in the world compel us to bring our best efforts — as well as public and private resources — to this work very soon. Time has passed for speculation about how and whether changes are going to come. We must shift our thinking, reframe our policies and establish a new vision for what it means to live respectfully and responsibly in this place we have chosen to call home.
This framework is grounded in four elements. While it might be possible to argue that one is more important than another, in this instance, each has equal weight.
Clean, reliable supply of water. How can we know how much we have? How can we know when taking more is too much? The precautionary principle suggests that we should learn more about the limits of this resource rather than continue to plan for and approve new development based on assumptions about the number of hook-ups we can sustain indefinitely. Better not to discover that we have “gone too far” only after we realize that demand has exceeded supply.
Adequate sewage treatment capacity. Likely none of us can imagine a future where our sewage is not transported from our homes to a facility where it is cleaned enough to be conveyed to Saratoga Passage and where the remaining solid residues are mixed with yard waste and other organic materials to create compost. Some believe that the waste treatment facility should be upgraded with technology that will restore water to drinking quality, thereby eliminating discharge of partially-treated sewage into the Sound and allowing the treated water to be utilized in the community. Questions must be asked and answered about current limits to treatment capacity, costs associated with improving existing technology, and how expansion (as needed) or improvements might be funded.
Our other waste stream — including food waste and packaging — is a related issue to be taken up another time. For now, ask yourself if it is prudent, practical, or responsible to support a system that relies upon petroleum-fueled trucks to collect our curbside garbage and dumpsters for subsequent shipment to rural landfills in a neighboring state. How long can this practice be sustained? At what cost? What alternative might we create at the community level?
Reliable supply of electricity. Many are aware that South Whidbey is at the end of a long “extension cord” and subject to service interruptions at numerous points after leaving the substation on the mainland, crossing Deception Pass, and traveling the full length of the island. What can be done to increase reliability? Should we be exploring options for small-scale local generation that will move us in the direction of energy independence? How long can the community trust that electricity will flow from off-island? In this category I also include the good efforts by the city and others to reduce energy use — our carbon footprint — through conservation and increased efficiency and thereby reduce our local contribution to global climate change. Many agree it is important to lower our demand for electricity as costs increase and in preparation for a time when supplies may be interrupted or diminished.
Access to food. This community is almost totally dependent on off-island sources for its food. Yes, local farmers are expanding their seasonal produce offerings, and there are a few local sources of meat and eggs; however, if we are required to “feed ourselves” on relatively short notice — it can be done…learn how Cuba responded when supplies ceased arriving after the fall of the Soviet Union — the community will be challenged to fill in the gap. Without knowing the timing or the cause of a disruption in food deliveries — or the likelihood — it is not possible to imagine how we might respond. But most might agree that there is much this community can do to increase its food self-sufficiency. This makes sense not just because “bad things” might happen in the future, but because the benefits and advantages to the community are well worth the effort and commitment.
So what now and where do we go from here?
Please give more attention to these issues. Engage yourself in the dialogue. Ask good questions. Insist on timely answers. Assess your personal commitment. Ask if there is more you might do. Inquire whether community leaders are sufficiently knowledgeable and taking appropriate actions. Beware of complacency. Seek resiliency. And if you want to learn more, check out Transition Whidbey (http://twhidbey.collectivex.com/main/summary), the Island County Climate Change Coalition (http://sustainablewhidbey.blogspot.com) and WSU Extension (http://www.island.wsu.edu/). Each of these Web sites will lead to other links and resources.
Walt Blackford is an ecological thinker and creative problem-solver with more than 25 years of experience related to creating sustainable community.