Sustainability? Don’t give up

It’s not by accident that the president of the Seattle City Council is a man whose goal is to save the planet by bringing sustainability to one neighborhood, one city, at a time. For Richard Conlin, life is all about climate change, and he’s wise enough to know that the effort will be successful only if each community pulls together to nourish its own environment back to a healthy exsistence.

Conlin offered a testimony to Seattle’s remake as perhaps the country’s most environmentally conscious city during a Sustainable Bainbridge function this week at IslandWood. The city is far from utopia, he cautions, but there’s no doubt the community has bought into the idea that local sustainability is crucial for the environment and an economy that has been more than just a little self-destructive lately.

As the leader of a powerful nine-member council, Conlin, who started Sustainable Seattle in 1991 and was a co-founder of the Bainbridge-based Yes! magazine, is the driving force in Seattle’s quest to: use less and less energy each year by continuing its long-established conservation program; cut its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050; turn many buildings – public and private – now being constructed, which is good for the economy and provides workers a healthy environment; continue a water program that now has consumption below the city’s 1970s levels; and increase the breadth of the city’s “urban village” strategy, which, like Bainbridge, focuses on urban density while helping residents improve each neighborhood’s quality of life.

And going forward, here’s a good one: the city plans to recycle 60 percent of all waste produced by 2012 and reduce the amount of solid waste disposed by at least 1 percent annually during the next five years. Composting bins are popping up everywhere in Seattle, including at City Hall and many public buildings.

And if that’s not enough, you had to love the council’s resolution that shoppers be hit with 20-cent bag fees in an effort to rid us of our infatuation with plastic. That one will be sent to the voters for a referendum, thanks to the American Chemistry Council dropping a load of money in the area. But is Conlin intimidated? No, he just looks at it as tremendous organizing opportunity.

“Hey, now it’s the people vs. the plastic industry,” he said. “And we think the people will win.”

The way he looks at it, yes, it caused a lot of public angst despite it being a very basic attempt to ban a petroleum product that needs to be eradicated before it gets us first. Overstated? Maybe.

“If they reacted like that to something that simple,” he said, “how are we going to deal with the harder parts? The path to sustainability is a difficult one, but we have to hold together as a community to get what we want.”

Conlin believes the key to success, besides community unity and unflagging tenacity, is that it’s good for the economy in the long run.

Simply put, conservation and sustainability gives you a stronger economy because of the community involvement and sacrifice that people make to have it work. Any such social movement, if that’s what it is, is always driven by countless number of hours donated by volunteers, who quickly take ownership of the campaign.

The city, of course, has to embrace it and, because of the dominance and power most governments have over our lives these days, must show unwavering leadership – like Richard Conlin does – in order for the effort to succeed.

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