Seeking a New Normal After Hurricane Sandy

Steve Hiltner

By Steve Hiltner

With each new storm and power outage, it gets harder for Princeton to return to normal. Hurricane Sandy decimated not only trees and powerlines, but a lot of assumptions as well. How could this be, was the recurrent sentiment, that our 21st century civilization hangs literally by a wire? Buffeted by storms of increasing ferocity, we are repeatedly made to feel like refugees in our home town.

Some insights can be found amongst the debris. One is that normal, despite all the wonderful mobility, comforts and conveniences it confers, is not a very smart place to return to. Yes, it’s great to have energy restored, and gas stations functional again. People work hard to attain a level of prosperity, and surely deserve the fruits thereof. But what passes for normal, by spreading the seeds of its own destruction, will eventually make “normal” impossible.

More people understand that now. The storm’s connection to climate change can most simply be explained using a sports analogy. Steroid use among baseball players makes homeruns more likely. The CO2 rising from chimneys, smokestacks and exhaust pipes energizes the atmosphere and warms the oceans, making bigger storms and deeper droughts more likely. Unlike more ephemeral forms of pollution, the fossil carbon extracted from underground storage and exhaled daily by our machines will not dissipate but instead alter the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years.

There remains a disconnect in our minds, however, between laudable intentions–keep ourselves and loved ones comfortable, visit grandma, or just run some errands–and the unintended but very real trail of climate changing gases those actions leave behind. We reap the benefits of fossil fuel-based freedom and abundance, but take no personal or collective responsibility for the consequences.

Last year, when borough mayoral candidates were asked at a debate what they thought Princeton should do to meet the challenge of climate change, the audience snickered. There’s a tendency to shut out unpleasant realities by denying the problem, denying the solution or, failing that, then hiding in the anonymity of 7 billion people, in a global game of chicken. People rally when disasters impose sacrifice, yet shrink from any intentional sacrifice that could help ward off future crises.

Don’t people tire of these bubbles, where laissez faire policies lead to crises that then demand big government bailouts? Hurricane Sandy exposed the irrationality that underlies our superficially rational status quo. When (increasingly unnatural) disasters pull the plug, houses swoon. Helpless to harness energy from the sun, or from the car, or from some sort of house battery that could sustain homes in low-energy mode, we end up with a din of generators. Even homes with solar arrays were powerless, since the solar panels feed the grid, not the home. The solar energy bottled in massive curbside piles of logs and brush is wasted, save for a few gleaners with wood stoves.

Princeton has done normal as well as anyone, but we need a new normal now–one that is better adapted, and less harmful, to the future we all share.

Steve Hiltner is a regular contributor to Planet Princeton. He serves on the Princeton Environmental Commission and is the author of the blog Princeton Primer.