“Environment Department Bites the Dust” could have been the title of this article. But I am just too honest to want to mimic a tabloid, especially since that headline would have been only a half-truth. Chicago is far too big a stage for current and serious environmental issues to try to oversimplify either the issues or the challenges faced in solving them.
Rahm Emanuel became mayor in the midst of serious recession. With the state budget a shambles of over-borrowing and over-spending and with the city challenged by falling property values and residents strained by the recession, he seeks to discipline Chicago’s internal operations to achieve savings and increase efficiency. One move in this direction was little noticed. The City of Chicago disbanded its Department of Environment at the end of 2011. This decision means that the main operational tasks of the department were divvied up and assigned to other departments. The move is expected to save roughly $3.5 million a year. City departments picking up the former Environment Department’s programs include: General Services (for Sustainability and Energy, Brownfields); Public Health (Permits and Enforcement); Transportation (Clean Vehicles); Family and Human Services (Utility Bill Relief); and Water Management (water issues).
In the bigger picture, Chicago and its approach to environmental issues have widespread importance. Often referred to as a crossroads for the nation, Chicago served as a transportation hub since before engine-powered watercraft and railroads were employed for transport of people and products. Today it sits at the edge of the largest source of fresh water in the world, welcoming ocean vessels via the St. Lawrence Seaway, while its river and canal transport reaches to the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Its airports are among the continent’s busiest, and it is often chosen for business headquarters, trade shows and conventions due to its location and quality of city life. It will soon host two major international intergovernmental conferences.
Given its location and importance as a City, Chicago’s policies and water issues alone are a stage on which conflicts over fresh water supply and use, invasive species, sanitary sewage treatment requirements, water quality and flood control are played out on a regular basis. There are tensions with other states and also with the desire of some in Washington to control what decisions are made about Chicago’s problems. For example the concern over the possibility that certain Asian carp species might invade Lake Michigan from the Mississippi via the Chicago waterway system is getting concerted attention at all levels of government and in court. Solid waste management and recycling questions are alive and very serious, as anyone who has driven the interstates leaving Chicago can attest, given the high number of trucks that ceaselessly transfer waste out of town to rural landfills. Air quality in Chicago has improved greatly, especially since the 1960’s when the first Mayor Daley and the City Council banned the burning of coal for residential and commercial heat. Nevertheless, the continued use of fossil fuels by utilities, and the lack of replacements in recent years for the areas huge but aging nuclear power infrastructure augur continuing controversy. More recently, the hypothesis that human beings are greatly threatening the climate and causing dangerous climate change, while disputed, has prompted adoption by the national administration of a policy that disfavors carbon based fuels and combustion systems that produce carbon dioxide, in favor of so-called “renewable” energy. This “climate consciousness” has affected Chicago too.
In future articles I will try to focus on aspects of each of these serious issues and how they are affecting or playing out in Chicago. Too often, people are given superficial “sound bites” or slogans as explanations for what is good or bad policy, what harm, if any, is occurring, and what the nature of a problem is in fact, science and law. Hopefully I will be able to cut through some of the rhetoric. I plan to be fair, but not always impartial.
As far as administration of environmental policy in Chicago is concerned, it is presently in a state of some flux. This is understandable, in that there’s a new Mayor in town.
Under Mayor Richard M. Daley the City embraced the idea that climate change is a serious problem and that resource usage needs to be rationalized by pursuing the mantra of “sustainability”. The garden on the roof of City Hall is living proof of the seriousness of the belief in energy conservation, since the garden reduces the impact of the sun’s heat inside the building, and results in a lower utility bill. If the amount saved is greater than the amount spent for the garden over time, then, voila, the City’s efforts will be cost effective. The garden also absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, since plants require carbon dioxide in the same fashion as people and animals require oxygen.
The new administration has affirmed a commitment to “sustainability” and being “green”. Those solar compactor garbage cans downtown are some of the evidence. In order to really be invested both intellectually and emotionally in these concepts of green and sustainability however, one needs to believe in more than the concept of cost efficiency. “Cost efficiency” in fact is what business and industry repeatedly seek (unless they are poor businesspeople or dumb industrialists). Sustainability, and what it means, is not something uniformly understood. A common tenet of many of the sustainability folks include that people need to live more frugally and centrally to reduce the use of fossil fuels. One thing that seems clear to me about ‘sustainability’ is that the most vocal of those who profess to understand it too often believe they should control how others conduct their future business.