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Promotin’ the General Welfare

New Orleans, Toward Becoming A More Sustainable City

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” was the ominously comical punch line delivered by the mock-maternal figure in Chiffon Margarine commercials of the 1970s.


For the folks living in denial regarding rising sea levels and similar issues related to climate change, maybe the message should be, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.”


Thank goodness Gov. John Bel Edwards was raised right.  When he announced his $50 billion, 50-year master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection, it was clear he was “all in” regarding heeding the warning signs Mother Nature is not too happy with how we’ve handled our lot.  And for those not so keen on accepting the truths about the effects of climate change, hopefully the 2017 version of Tropical Storm Cindy made the case clearer to those doubting Thomases.   


It was 2005’s Tropical Storm Cindy, later reclassified as a hurricane, which preceded the cyclops called Katrina.  Cindy 2005, considered a “tropical cyclone,” brought along its own surprise: an F2 tornado.  At first, the weather-folks either were in denial or not quite sure, but from all reports from folks on the ground in Jefferson Parish, something more than a really bad thunderstorm set down in their neighborhoods.


One doesn’t have run around like a chicken little to show how seriously you take Mother Nature, but far too many live without a healthy respect for Her power.  Perhaps, if more of us kept in mind how closely we live in the midst of Nature daily, we might remember better how it rules over us.


Recently, heading out to a meeting, I did the “French thing” and dabbed cologne on my neck.  On the way to the car, I was targeted by buzzing insects who claim our slightly countrified plot of land heading past New Orleans East.  As I fended off the good-natured buzzers suddenly gone delirious, I was reminded of a day walking up the mountain on campus in Vermont.  That late spring day, I’d made a similar mistake, dabbing on cologne.  Not long after, the whole calamity of nature set upon me, now swatting foolishly at what seemed to be endless squadrons of small bees and sweet flies crashing into my face and neck.  


Nature doesn’t play by our rules nor does it respect our boundaries.  To say that it infringes is to misstate the issue and see things from the wrong perspective.  It is we who inhabit Nature’s space, and it would be wiser for us to recognize who is the lesser power in this coexistence.  


Even before the rains that came recently with Tropical Storm Cindy, water was pooling about the yard.  Being “too wet” made for perfect, nocturnal conditions for the frogs to pop up.  A sure sign that Nature was feeling quite comfortable reclaiming the place was the presence of a black snake or two.        


Ever since it was announced this would be an El Niño year, I knew to expect the kind of unpredictable weather that sends The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore into manic bliss.  Of course, weather events being a common enough occurrence in New Orleans, you shouldn’t need an El Nino to keep you on your toes.


Since we do not live with the luxury of significant distance separating bodies of water, you’d think we’d consider our predicament and plan for the likelihood that waters will rise and wash us out?  After the treacherous floods of 2016, you’d think we’d take note, but somehow we keep living like we’re hardheaded.


If you can’t understand what I’m talking about, try this one day:  take a drive on Paris Road along I-510 heading to St. Bernard Parish.  As you cross the Green Bridge, pay close attention to the network of waterways quickly coming into view from above.  As you’re descending, notice the levees below you, and just as you’re leave the bridge, scan your surroundings:  the waters are right there alongside the road.


Having made the drive quite frequently to do business in St. Bernard Parish, I’ve seen water near overflowing onto the roads from the area called Bayou Bievenue.    


The metropolitan New Orleans region is one that is very dependent on its waterways, but it seems we don’t stop to appreciate fully not only the magnificence but the magnitude of the problem – until the next natural catastrophe threatens.  


As television news reports broadcast images of water washing across the roads down in Golden Meadow, a town located along Route 1 next to Bayou Lafourche, and one of the last stops on the way to Grand Isle, hopefully those watching knew it’s a mere 80-some-odd miles southwest of New Orleans.  Seeing as water doesn’t respect roadways or other human-made barricades and boundaries, that’s not really so far away, especially considering the eastern counterparts just below St. Bernard Parish in Plaquemines Parish.


Let’s face it:  New Orleans is pretty much part of the coastline, so to speak, and we all know there ain’t much of a sturdy coastline to be seen in these parts.


Nature’s quiet dominion rumbles us awake each time it brings its unpredictable havoc.  It neither cooperates nor considers its profound impact, and the end result may not be as severe as a past event, but it’s a reminder to maintain a healthy respect for what could happen and should be a catalyst for us to do our part to take care of the lands we call our home.


This past week, Mayor Mitch showed he was raised right, too.  While in Miami for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he reminded his colleagues of the tremendous responsibility now set before them thanks to the current president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.  It’s now up to governors and mayors to be the best and last defense, and voices of common sense, where it comes to protecting our country and, by extension, the planet.


As the saying goes, geography is fate, and it’s our fate to be ever-vigilant when it comes to knowing what to do when bad weather heads our way.  But how’s about we act like we have some sense and be responsible and proactive in a way that demonstrates genuine concern for the environment?  


If Mayor Mitch is serious about the charge he laid before his colleagues, upon returning home, he should being to develop a multi-pronged strategy that puts us on par with other sustainable cities and the initiatives they’ve undertaken.  


New Orleans continues to have a failing glass recycling plan.  One glance at the research shows that glass recycling is not cheap.  In our case, there exists one city-designated location for glass at the Recycling Center Drop-off.  Other, less-prestigious but conscientious cities have developed a network of recycling centers, especially since investing in recycling machines has proven financially infeasible for some grocery stores.


More importantly, other municipalities, like Spokane, WA, have integrated cullet, the ground-glass product, into their plans to repair streets, improve roadways and create public walkways.


“The city first used glass in a paving project in 2009. Glass was crushed, mixed with sand and gravel and used as a roadbed for Market Street in Hillyard. City Engineer Mike Taylor said the roadbed mixed with glass worked just as well as the usual roadbed.”


To develop a more comprehensive plan, consider San Francisco’s approach to being better stewards of its dominion.  In a June 2015 article published on the website Recycle Nation, titled, “Composting, single-stream recycling part of the road to the zero-waste dream,”  Dave Fidlin writes, “Through a variety of methods – including mandatory recycling and composting programs and vigorous education campaigns – the city of San Francisco has notched an enviable statistic within the realm of local government. In 2013, city officials reported the community was well on its way to achieving the gold standard of zero-waste. 80 percent of the city’s residential, commercial and industrial waste is diverted from landfills and instead recycled, composted or repurposed. The statistic far surpasses what most other communities reported that same year.”


A recent article in the Advocate brought to light promising signs regarding composting here. Titled, “New Orleans composting, recycling efforts promoted to save tax dollars, improve environment,” Katy Reckdahl highlights a composting program, Compost New Orleans Waster (Compost NOW), that does a weekly collection at the Rosa Keller Library.  


That’s an encouraging start.  By comparison, San Francisco maintains three (3) kinds of bins where citizens can engage in responsible recycling.  Fidlin writes,“ Some of San Francisco’s standout policies are plainly noticeable. Case in point: The city has three, rather than the standard two, bins for waste. Blue bins are used for recycling, black for traditional garbage and the more novel green bin for food scraps, organic materials and other items that can be composted.”


New Orleans should consider crafting a Bottle Deposit Bill or ordinance.  Revenue generated from deposit fees becomes the funding for recycling programs elsewhere, and provides incentives to participate across a given community.  According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, “Deposits work because they provide a financial incentive to recycle and a disincentive to litter.  Bottle bills are unique from litter taxes or publicly funded recycling programs in that the money that the buyer pays is returned to them when they recycle the container. Because of the financial benefit, consumers who would ordinarily trash or litter their empty beverage containers may be inspired to take them to a facility for recycling, knowing that they've already paid for the service and that is the only way to get back their money.”


Ultimately, an approach similar to that undertaken in San Francisco may prove most beneficial.   “Innovative policies, financial incentives, as well as outreach and education are all effective tools in our toolbox that have helped San Francisco reach 80 percent diversion.”


A public-private partnership in cooperation with non-profits and the network of farmer’s markets and urban farms might better educate the electorate through dissemination of information as well as setting an example for engaging in and embracing sustainable initiatives by the work they do themselves.


We can’t control what Mother Nature will do.  We can only do our part, and do it better, to improve conditions we can control.  More importantly, doing so begins with small steps, achievable goals which can be accomplished through effective local behavior.  It should be our goal to become a sustainable city.  That would go hand-in-hand with Gov. Edwards’ efforts to make sure there will still be a Louisiana of which we can be a part.  


New Orleans in on the front line, and it may be as important as the battle once fought to save the city in early 18th century, only this time it’s not an enemy we should see in our sights – this time, it’s to save Mother Earth.


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.


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