Per Capita Davis: The world needs to reflect resilience, redundancy and cooperative governance
Eventually, on this planet of increasing population and not inexhaustible resources, the issue of sustainability will take center stage. We talk about it now, but my guess is that not too far in the future the discussion will take on a more serious and urgent place in what we do as individuals, and as collections of people in cities, counties, states and nations.
How do we fashion a world in which each of us, from individuals to countries, can set aside self-interest in order to collectively agree on economic, environmental and equitable behaviors, actions and policies that don’t reduce the ability of people in the future to use a given resource, or, more broadly, all resources?
One key, in my view, is to realize and accept that achieving sustainability is not possible in isolation. Sustainability necessarily implies connectivity; relationships with others that provide some of what we need and have no control over ourselves.
One example is electricity. Recent events in Texas provide a stark demonstration of what can happen when we don’t have power. It is not just lights going off, the inconvenience of not being able to watch TV or charge a cell phone. Really essential stuff, like water, also relies on electricity at some point in its journey to our faucets.
Thanks to Valley Clean Energy, our city and much of the county can justifiably claim to be nearly independent of fossil fuels for the production of our electricity. Still, we rely on sources outside the city and county for electricity produced from renewable resources. The sustainability of our electricity supply is dependent on our connectivity to generators of electricity and its transmission and distribution.
Another key element of sustainability is resilience, the ability to anticipate and react positively to disruptions or unforeseen conditions. The recent grounding of a huge container ship in the Suez Canal disrupted the entire world economy due in large part to an economic model of reliance on “just in time” delivery of goods rather than investing in stockpiling enough inventory to ensure supply in the event of a disaster.
Or, another example along the same lines of policies and practices that limit resilience might be automakers shutting down car assembly plants due to a shortage of computer chips caused by people wanting more phones, games and other personal chip-dependent devices while stranded at home in the pandemic.
It may not be possible to anticipate events like a pandemic or a ship blocking a critical shipping lane but resilience would seem to argue for planning for unforeseen circumstances generally.
It would seem reasonable to also presume that sustainability requires building in some level of redundancy, so that if anything goes haywire, be it inside our outside our bubble, we can still count on minimal adverse impact. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Again looking at what could be considered a pillar of sustainability we might consider cooperation. In some cases, cooperation is coerced through laws and regulations, shared rules that provide all parties involved in an interconnected system a stable platform for working together. Another word for this form of cooperation is governance.
One very huge and serious obstacle to sustainability is the current reality, at the global level, of governments more or less pursuing their own self-interest rather than an agreed-upon common good in actions and policies, in effect competing more than cooperating. Of course, the same is true in the private sector; competition and profits are the clear motivators.
It’s hard to envision a sustainable world that doesn’t reflect resilience, redundancy and cooperative governance.
That sounds pretty gloomy, but there is a bright side. There are many examples of governments and companies acting on those three pillars of sustainability. Of course, there is our own Valley Clean Energy, which brings together city and county governments in shared governance of what is essentially, and in many ways formally, a partnership with a private-sector company to provide electricity.
Another example, and one that speaks directly to the issues of resilience and redundancy, is a project in the tiny town of Briceburg near Yosemite in Maricopa County that brings BoxPower Inc., a Grass Valley-based company, together with PG&E to provide a microgrid to that remote area. BoxPower has developed a solar generation unit that fits inside a shipping container and also includes a backup battery. The company intended it for areas in Alaska, where they have set up a microgrid near the city of Deering, as well as Hawaii and Puerto Rico in areas where there is no electrical grid.
This partnership, however, grew out of the disastrous wildfires that have devastated large portions of rural California that have in many cases resulted in interruption of the utility’s ability to provide electricity. According to an article in the Sacramento Business Journal (forwarded to me by a reader, Dan) PG&E is assessing placing “operational remote grids” at 20 sites by the end of 2022 “in high-fire threat districts in El Dorado, Fresno, Tulare, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Yuba and Sierra counties.”
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments, and thoughts, to email@example.com.
Published online on April 7, 2021 | Printed in the April 7, 2021 edition on page A6.
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