Wednesday, January 14, 2009

21stC Transportation and Sustainability

Down at the MetroClub today, listening to a presentation by the Task Force on Ohio's 21stC Transportation Priorities, a Strickland-appointed commission charged with developing a vision for an integrated "multi-modal" transportation system for the state. Big task, and I don't envy Ty Marsh the challenge of trying to herd 61 members into a consensus. Still, it was disappointing to see that their vision statement--by design a bumper-sticker slogan--was the tepid "Moving Ohio to a Prosperous New World."

The Task Force worked for more than 7 months, so it's unfair to point out the irony of releasing a report touting "prosperity" at a moment when the reigning economic model is being held together with glue, staples and wads of cash. Given the make-up of the TF--I count maybe 3 people with a environmental commitments--I doubt whether there was much discussion of what "prosperity" might truly mean these days; the discourse is all about competitiveness, jobs and growth. That's understandable, given the parlous state of Ohio's economy, but it also doesn't qualify as visionary: it's the old-time religion, buffed-up and given a fresh urgency. What sort of jobs? where and when?

As an example of how cloudy the vision of the "new world" is, take the remark at today's forum that the "agricultural industry" is one of the key stakeholders in the transportation plan. Fair enough. But we're told that "agriculture is fundamentally about getting products to market," and that we have to make sure Ohio producers have access to ports so that we can ship more products overseas. Now, it's obvious that Ohio has a huge stake in commodity crops, and it's unlikely that world trade in soybeans and corn is going to evaporate overnight. But it boggles the mind that agriculture is defined in such a way as to exclude the land itself, not to mention the question of food: it is merely one economic sector among others.

Here we have one way in which the call for "prosperity" stands actively in the way of any approach to a "new world." Prosperity is defined in terms of "global competitiveness," and not in terms of local community, cultural vitality, or ecological sustainability. As a result, the vision is simply of more of the same, only improved. As usual, "growth" is taken to be the single, neutral measure of the good, with no questions asked about what sort of growth, or the trade-offs entailed by particular choices.

At the start of the presentation, there was much fanfare about "game-changing strategies," but a certain reticence about what the game is, and how we might want to change it. But suppose, for instance, that we gave a little substance to our conceptions of prosperity, and suggested that developing resilient, sustainable local food systems is one key to prosperity and should figure in the way we approach agriculture. That means support for small-scale, specialized and family farms, more diversified and local markets, and transportation systems geared towards timeliness of delivery rather than distance. The argument here is that post-industrial farms are more environmentally sensitive, local foods more ecologically sustainable, and vibrant rural communities a vital part of the state's social and cultural identity. These are green jobs, and they're local.

What stands in the way of such a commitment? Well, the power of the agricultural lobby, for one. The preference for large-scale investment over diversification. The segmentation of thinking, so that the needs of industry--the logistics of long-distance shipping--colonize the way we talk about agriculture. Long-standing urban bias against farm work--now, hopefully, starting to fade. And, at bottom, a moral cowardice: a reluctance to follow through on our declared vision of the good.

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