Last week I saw the most remarkable thing while sitting in traffic on Smithfield Street (don’t worry, I drive a Prius so my idling in traffic has less impact on our air quality than most vehicles currently on the road) — a beautiful, large, orange and black butterfly was making its way down the center of the street.
With each of her movements I drew in a sharp breath, half expecting to see her get hit, or as she alighted on the ground, run over; but for the full minute that she was in my line of sight she deftly flitted in and around the heavy traffic and then moved out over the river to apparent safety.
I wondered how many other people in traffic had noticed the butterfly, and, of those, how many stopped what they were doing for a moment to watch as her delicate wings brought a splash of color and a moment of wonder to their otherwise average commute. I hoped that we all did. I wanted to believe that everyone on that street with me got just as tuned in with how connected we all are to everyone and everything else on this planet.
I have spent a lot of time in the last nine months thinking about the dichotomy of the natural gas boom that is confronting southwestern Pennsylvania. (Admittedly, for the two and a half years that I lived in Charlotte, while this industry rapidly exploded onto the scene and into the forefront of controversy, I never really thought about it. Only upon returning to Pittsburgh, where emotions are running extremely high, and signs grace the front yards of my neighbors reading such slogans as “fracking poisons our water” did I begin to pay attention). During this time I have tried to sort out my own feelings and position, balancing those with, and at times against, institutions and organizations that I represent professionally and as a volunteer.
The natural gas industry is enormous, fairly unregulated, and largely unwieldy. The potential long-term effects of extraction using fracking, when considered as a total lifecycle, while uncertain, are distinctly frightening. The immediate and visible impact to the land subjected to drilling platforms is no less than any heavy industry. The idea that our public parks would be turned over to companies that will profit in the short term, leaving behind a depleted recreational and aesthetic experience is disturbing. That our regulatory systems are not doing full-cost accounting of externalities when they formulate taxes, levies and impact fees is baffling.
What really gets to me, though, is that I cannot figure out, for the life of me, why as a society we have not learned to take a long-range view of where we are trying to go, what we want our land, air and water to support and which species we want to cohabitate with, prior to incentivizing any type of resource-extraction, heavy industry based, rush that once started cannot easily (if at all) be turned back. And if I relate this back to my butterfly, who I hope has successfully continued her fall migration, should we not then know as much as we can know about the impacts on those parts of our future that we treasure prior to taking intentional action to disrupt what exists now?
In other words, are we really formulating an intelligent energy policy in which we have carefully calculated the benefits and costs of all of our options, and then, and only then, chosen the one that causes the least overall harm and gets us the most benefits?
I would say, no, we have not. At this point the decision makers seem to only be responding to an immediate economic pressure and corporate interest in quarterly profit and loss statements and share prices. This is not to say that I come down on either side of the debate; trust me, I feel the environmentalists’ dilemma as much as the next intelligent modern-life loving consumer.
I am frozen when asked if I care more about solar energy or desert tortoises. Having spent more than half a decade as a federal regulator, I am no fan of coal and laugh when people claim that it can be “clean” and shudder when I think of what we have done to the Appalachian Mountains. I understand the dangers of nuclear power with its practically eternal threats of devastating contamination. I will never get the images of oil-covered birds and sea life out of my head when I think about gasoline.
I applaud that Citizen Power recently brought to the Pittsburgh market the opportunity to buy 100 percent wind power electricity at a lower rate than most of us currently pay; but I cry for the cruel devastation of beauty and grace lost as eagles (and other birds) migrate along what are now becoming highways of killing wind turbines.
I am thankful for the heat that warms my house on cold days; thankful for the other modern amenities of life that give me easy access to entertainment and communications; and thankful that I can go to Trader Joes and buy a ready-made Tofurky to eat on Thanksgiving.
I sit on a committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which held a Marcellus Shale Open House a week ago at the Jewish Community Center. The purpose of that event was to encourage the community to learn, to think, and then to make intelligent decisions. It was a well-attended affair, graced by the presence of experts working in the industry, in academia, in advocacy, in policy and in the media.
This week, I also had the opportunity to sit down with the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Nancy Sutley, along with 15 other people working in Pittsburgh on sustainable design. The conversation turned to the question of the long-term vision and the policy of our future as a sustainable country, and as a sustainable world. It struck me, in all the conversations that I have on a weekly, or monthly, basis, on all of the committees and boards that I sit on — in all of the environmental and sustainability organizations that I touch, and that touch me, I am not convinced that we have a collective vision for a future that is as good as this one, nor a path-certain to get there. Certainly, we do not have such for a future that is better than now. I am, however, firmly convinced that we have an obligation to come up with one. Tikkun Olam.
Most of us will have spent this past week taking moments out of our day to give thanks for what we have — maybe we should take the moment after that and think about what we want our collective grandchildren to be giving thanks for in the generations to come. Do we want them to inherit the free-flying great-great-great grandchildren of the butterfly that graced our city’s rush hour traffic with its delicate beauty? Do we care if they notice?
(Joy Braunstein, executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association and a member of the environmental subcommittee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, blogs on environmental topics for the Chronicle at thejewishchronicle.net.)