Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Sustainability" Re-defined

I try to attend events such as the Sustainability Conference yesterday at UNLV because I care about sustainability and stuff, but when I learned that it was co-sponsored and organized by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, I had second thoughts. I've had to listen to Pat Mulroy, water czarina, on a number of occasions recently and if I had to hear her ONE MORE TIME tell us that global warming is forcing us to defoliate the Great Basin and that the parasitical plants and animals up there deserve what they get, my head would explode.
So I had a friend who is also a pesky environmentalist attend in my stead and take the rhetorical bullet.

The idea that a sustainability discussion would occur in Las Vegas at UNLV was great news to me and my friends. We looked forward to a lively conversation about energy efficiency and water conservation. We were absolutely giddy about the prospect of smart growth and urban re-development being the topic of the day. The opening remarks were given to a crowd of about 200 or so, many of us arriving early to connect with other "sustainable-minded" attendees.

The various municipal and agency staff were there, as well as a fair number from the academic community (go figure), but there were also others, including Mayor Oscar Goodman. He is not what most would consider a spokesperson for sustainable practices, though he did manage to make the audience laugh by poking fun at his mob background being full of "green in paper bags."

The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Arthur Nelson, an "expert" on urban affairs and planning from Virginia. He really blew us away with his numbers: America is growing faster than every country in the world other than India & Pakistan. Las Vegas will have 3.4 million people living in the valley by 2030. That in the next 20 years we will have added 450,000 new homes and rebuild 150,000 additional homes in the valley.

Wait a minute - Is this the keynote address for a Sustainability Conference or a Chamber of Commerce event? What gives with the numbers? Are we to believe that we are growing so fast that there is nothing we can do, so we must just accept it and figure out how do it without our entire community collapsing?

Apparently Dr. Nelson thinks so, and he even had some pretty slides of "green building" to support his point, sort of. And by the way, he believes we will have to keep building coal plants to meet our energy needs.

I should mention at this point that any thoughts of sustainability quickly receded in my mind, leaving me to ask, what am I doing at this conference? Did someone make a mistake when booking Dr. Nelson? Did he bring the wrong presentation by mistake?

Lunch could not have come any sooner. I spoke with my colleagues and friends about the remarks we had heard earlier and wondered aloud if we were suppose to just accept the figures. Perhaps I could go speak with Dr. Nelson myself, ask him a few questions that were not raised during the Q&A. Maybe I would be relieved to hear that his presentation was meant to challenge us, to make us demand the political will that would be needed from our elected officials to tackle these issues. But alas, I did not pursue him. I am not that forward of a person, and besides, I should feel more enriched after his presentation, right?

I would like to say the afternoon was full of experts and scholars speaking on the issues of sustainable growth and energy, the likes of which would bring real focus to our community's problems. I wish I could tell you that the Q&A was lively and robust, that the audience asked tough questions and were given real answers - to be fair, there were some excellent points raised by the academics on the panel, but they were really overshadowed by the presence of a few individuals not exactly viewed as "pillars of sustainability" in our community.

When asked by the moderator to explain what his definition of sustainability was, Michael Yackira, CEO of Sierra Pacific Resources (YES, HE WAS A PANELIST) went directly to the playbook: "...1.2 million customers... keep our costs low... cfl's... blah blah blah.... renewable energy blah blah blah... more conventional forms of power production..."

WHAT DID HE JUST SAY? The man said it, on the ENVIRONMENTAL PANEL at the SUSTAINABILITY CONFERENCE. Indeed friends, we are going to need coal to be sustainable. This was perfect, the icing on my cake today, the perfect response to such an easy question... Moderator: "What is your definition of sustainability?" Yackira: "Coal."

I wish I could tell you that the audience was able to respond to Yackira and that he fielded tough questions from myself and others. That we cornered him and he gave in, telling us that the Governor was making him do it to satisfy his cronies in Washington that need a victory for coal in Harry Reid's back yard. But the time ran out after each of the EIGHT panelists had their say.

Again, to be fair, some of the remarks were excellent, insightful, and worth the price of admission... but none could really stand up to Mr. Yackira's statement.

So needless to say, I can't wait until next year. Maybe they'll have Dick Cheney talk about renewable energy.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

My professor rated the sustainability conference a two on a scale of ten with the two representing the lack of credibility of the conference. "But at least the mayor showed up." Student: "Was he drunk?"