Sustainability: Spokane’s Big Disconnect and How to Solve It


Picture by John Speare

I’m happy to report that the Mayor’s Planning for Climate Change and Energy Security event last night was a huge success. The 150 chairs available at the Downtown Library’s first floor conference room filled up quickly and it was standing room only by the time the discussion started.

I’m not going to shock anyone by pointing out that local sustainability stalwarts such as the Community Building’s Jim Sheehan and half the citizens of Peaceful Valley were in attendance. More interestingly, I recognized folks from business and development concerns, including NAI/Black, the Spokane Home Builder’s Association, Greater Spokane Incorporated, and Black Rock Development. Add to the list politicos Steve Corker, Richard Rush, Nancy McLaughlin, and Bonnie Mager and you have a roomful of people with the ability to advance some serious change in this community.

We all sat and listened to a presentation by Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute on how cities can respond to a future filled with climate and energy uncertainty. Now I’m not a big fan of peak oil alarmism. I also think that much of the dialogue about global warming has steered so far into it’s catastrophic world affects that it’s nudging some folks into hopelessness before they can try to do something to stop it. And the first two thirds of Lerch’s presentation was a nice assembly of facts regarding the decline in oil production, our inability to replace oil energy quick enough, and the quickening of trends in global warming, that was nothing new to anyone following these issues closely.

What was exciting was what Lerch spoke of at the end; how cities can address the projected twin crises on a local level. How do we continue to fix streets when asphalt prices triple? How do we feed citizens with only a three-day’s supply of food on our grocery store shelves if a temporary fuel shortage disrupts shipments? How do we deal with smaller snowpack and earlier spring run off? These are not global issues, these are local issues.

Saving the world is the best reason to do something, but it seems to rarely motivate people on a large scale. That is why localizing the problems of peak oil and climate change is so crucial. If I have one idealistic belief it’s that solving worldwide problems almost always has a local benefit. You just don’t want to always present them as global issues. If I can convince someone that building light rail instead on more freeway will make their lives better then global peak oil or climate change impacts just become a fringe benefit. Same for if I convince someone to grow more of their own food use more non-motorized transportation. If I convince them that they will be happier and healthier then the benefits to the greater community are just a byproduct.

Years down the road we might look at the meeting last night as a watershed moment in our community. Even though I was one of the only members of the media in attendance, and even though the meeting was distinguished as much by who wasn’t there as who was, the end result was people signing up to apply for a whole slew of different task forces to address peak oil and climate change in our community. The feeling in the room was that these were not just environmental issues, but economic and community issues.

Which brings me to the disconnect. Or disconnects.

I am certain many in this town think that peak oil and climate change either don’t exist or are overblown. This is unfortunate because it might prevent these citizens from seeing how the solutions to energy and climate uncertainty can benefit them even if the most dire predictions about peak oil and climate change never happen. By contrast I know there were many people at the Planning for Climate Change and Energy Security event last night who feel that it is their life’s work to help correct what they see as a huge imbalance in our relationship to the environment. Someone has to make sure these two disparate camps can communicate with each other. Can Mary Verner be that someone in Spokane? I hope so.

Another disconnect; Lerch pointed out that Spokane is one of the few cities that is tackling the problems of energy uncertainty and climate uncertainty in tandem. Everyone working on these issues in Spokane should remind themselves that we have the potential to be on the true cutting edge in this respect. It’s especially important because some potential solutions for high oil costs negatively affect climate change and vice versa.

Perhaps the biggest disconnect; density is the solution to many problems. City CFO Gavin Cooley laid out in a nutshell Spokane’s biggest hurdle to sustainability which is our lack of density. And he was speaking from purely from a city budget perspective. Cooley asserted that all but the fastest growing cities in the country have a problem with expenses outstripping revenues—a problem unsolvable by any other means than increasing density. Quite simply more people per square mile reduces the cost of city services per person. According to Cooley, Spokane has about 3,000 people per square mile. Seattle has twice that. Chicago has over twice Seattle’s density. New York City has around 26,000 people per square mile—which may be one some have called it the greenest city in America. New York’s energy usage per person is a fraction of smaller cities.

If what Cooley is saying is true we’ve got a lot of work ahead us on the road to sustainability. I’m looking forward to it.

(Last night Verner also introduced Susanne Croft taking a new position to oversee these sustainability initiatives for the next year. She also noted the many other city employees who are working on them and it was also mentioned that the program was begun by former mayor Dennis Hession when he signed the Cool Cities intiative two years ago.)

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