By G. Dodd Galbreath, Assistant Professor and Founding Director, Institute for Sustainable Practice
All of my life, I have loved reading history. History to me defines critical moments of action in the lives of people and societies. Sometimes, compelling circumstances force decisions that have to be made. In other cases, decisions are based on a vision of the future, a bold plan, a growing threat, or a set of ideals to correct a current injustice, or “to create a more perfect union”.
Clear and present danger makes our choices a little easier don’t they? We largely descend from the genes of people who survived many dangers of nomadic life, evolving societies, and many wars. Therefore, it is fair to say that humans are naturally wired to act on the stimulus of danger. It is often our first, natural response. But, what if action cannot be catalyzed by danger? What if the threat or opportunity is too complex, too costly, and too uncertain? What if the corresponding risk and payoff is too distant and too uncertain to help us envision the need to act today?
Today, Nashville, TN and the world find itself in a unique place in history. Do we want more transportation choices? Do we want more energy choices? Is climate change a threat to life as we know it?
The first choice responds somewhat well to our genes. Nashville’s leaders (our governor, the Tennessee General Assembly, three Nashville mayors, the vast majority of our city council, many leading businesses, and some of the great corporate and educational institutions in Nashville) have given us the stimulus of a referendum. We also feel the stimulus of traffic congestion and it is clearly much worse than it used to be. Some of us however are asking whether we are willing to invest billions of dollars to keep congestion from just getting worse. After all, growth may take up much of the congestion that mass transit will solve. After all, mass transit in New York and Boston has not eliminated traffic congestion there. But, one could easily assume just how impossible congestion and economic development would be in Boston and New York without its many forms of modern mass transit. In Boston alone, 1.17 million trips occur on mass transit systems each day with 92% reliability on trains, a 90 percent reliability on subways, and interestingly enough, a 62% reliability on buses that run largely on streets.
By the time most of you read this blog, we’ll likely know the choice we have made for transit in Nashville, TN and what choices may need to come next. Did we choose to fund a multi-faceted mass transit vision or did we choose to stick with largely, individually operated automobiles? Do we need to repackage our transit sales pitch for another vote? Did we come up with the best plan to leverage our collective support? Whatever the outcome, I voted yes. If you are reading this before May 1, I hope you will too. I believe the transit vote is not just a vote for a specific plan. Our vote is a vote for a better and more complete vision to transport people, and goods and services that need our roads less congested now and in the future. Our vote is really for an undelayed investment today for an inevitable need.
Our second choice is more complex. This choice will be at least a choice of developed nations and preferably an internationally collaborative choice. Weather has become more erratic all over the world and in Nashville, TN. Perhaps rising seas and squandered investments on low lying coasts will stimulate a collective and consistent national or international response. Perhaps we will view Nashville’s first solar farm and the many success stories of renewable energy all over our globe as a new social norm that makes us coal burning beings in the Southeast, normal again. For example, over ninety cities in Massachusetts already possess some form of a municipal solar farm, far beyond the rich solar intensity of the Southeast.
The transit opportunities and climate challenges that still face Nashville and the world today again guide me back to my interests in history. In one sense, my fascination with history has always been in part, a search for answers and wisdom. This early hobby began with a fascination in people who acted well or people who did so to their or others’ detriment. In recent years, I have turned less to biographies and more to the writings of people who defined and achieved a better future. Sometimes, we need a new lens through which to see success in the world so that a new clarity can define new action. Sometimes we need to look at a successful prior choice, to see a future one.
On Sunday, July 8, 2018, a group of graduate students and I will begin another 7-day intensive study of sustainability in New England. As we have done for several years, we’ll begin with history on our first day at Walden Pond. We’ll listen to the words of Jesus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the apostle Peter. We’ll stroll around Concord, MA and discuss why this town became the birthplace of a new nation, using intense planning for a skirmish that became a “shot heard round the world”. This small community, matured people inspired by a revolution, who wrote books about really experiencing and living with God’s creation so that “God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”