The Other Side of the Mountain

All of a sudden it seems to some, if not to those of us who are older, that we have an “energy crisis.” We’ve been living on the edge for years, driving larger and larger cars, building larger and larger homes, and pretending the supply of oil and especially gasoline was unlimited.

Oops: Now the Chinese and Indians want more of that black gold, so there’s less for us. And the price has done what prices will always do when demand outstrips supply—go up and up.

Last week I participated in a telephone poll. I was intrigued by one question: Do you believe the U.S. should emphasize more nuclear energy or more solar and wind energy? I answered “nuclear” at the time but later reconsidered my answer. We need to be investigating all forms of alternative energy. It will take a long time to figure out which of the available alternatives can most successfully complement oil. Which several alternatives, that is: Who says there’s only one? The only one that doesn’t make any long-term sense, it seems, is growing corn to make ethanol to burn in cars.

Work on all the alternatives to oil should start now! The argument that it will take five or 10 or 20 years to make a difference means we should start immediately, not sit on our hands and shout at each other for years and years.

That same argument also applies to drilling for oil. At the very least, we will be employing and paying Americans instead of sending our weak dollars to countries, governments and individuals who aren’t even our friends! Let’s feed our family first.

During the first term of UNCA’s summer school, I took advantage of nearby city buses to go to and from the campus several times. Every time I did this, a tiny bit less CO2 was emitted. Will my riding the bus save the planet? No, but the more of us who do so, the more it will help.

Actually, I enjoyed the experience. My family didn’t have a car until I was a teenager, so city buses are friends from the past. I used them to commute to the elementary school two miles away; I used them to go downtown to the library. Dad always seemed to have a little stack of tokens on his chest of drawers. (For mass transit to be practical, one does need to be able to tell time and have useful activities to pursue at each end of the trip.)

So what are our transportation choices? The obvious ones are buses, gasoline-powered automobiles, the bicycles I see more and more around town, and our own feet. I wear out a pair of sneakers a year, just walking around Asheville. Won’t you join me?

Call me nostalgic, but I fondly remember riding passenger trains. What could be more idyllic—especially if there’s studying or reading to be done. Someone else drives, there’s room to move around, and for shorter trips it’s faster than flying. So don’t be surprised to learn that I’m in favor of restoring passenger rail service to Asheville. For us personally, a quick trip over to the main Amtrak line and then on to Baltimore would put us close to grandchildren about as quickly as we could drive—sparing us the horrors of Interstates 95 and 81 while reducing the sting of rising gas prices.

Four years ago, we on the Civic Center Commission started discussing the need to replace the roof over the arena. I suggested that the cost of replacing the entire roof, including the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, wouldn’t be all that much more than doing only the arena. The response was that the Thomas Wolfe’s roof was good for five more years.

Time has passed at a glacial pace, four more years have elapsed, and there are no signs of a new roof for even the arena, much less the whole building.  We do now know that the arena roof, in its current form, cannot support a green roof, with dirt and grass and twigs. The commission is now urging City Council to get on with a new, environmentally sensitive roof, lest the structure deteriorate still more. The Thomas Wolfe roof? Not even on the radar—and four of the five “last” years of its life have passed!

As for the argument that we should just build a new Civic Center, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has said: “Any new building, no matter how much green technology it incorporates, represents a new impact on the environment. An older building represents a heavy prior investment of resources and energy. If you tear that building down, that investment is wasted—but if you keep the building in use, you’re saving energy and conserving resources. That’s what people mean when they call preservation the ultimate recycling.”

And vis-à-vis the larger question of government’s role in energy, transportation and resource conservation, I would suggest to governments at all levels a strong “Lead, follow or get out of the way!” In my experience, governments are the slowest responders to innovation—and the bigger they are, the slower. As with the city buses, some government participation is essential; but as with our sneakers, some is not. Folks, we should be leading the government—not the other way around.

I suggest working on all forms of alternative energy and all forms of transportation, re-roofing the entire Civic Center, and generally just getting on with it—now!

[George E. Keller chairs the Asheville Civic Center Commission; he’s also an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA and an advocate for downtown Asheville.]

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