Making Sustainable Choices through Challenges of Time and Circumstances
As I wrote previously, the next step in my personal sustainability journey was to calculate my lifetime carbon footprint and pay to have those emissions removed. This has been pushed back by more urgent concerns, given the constraints of time.
I have been thinking lately a lot about how time, or lack of it, is one of the biggest challenges to anyone making sustainable choices. More often than not, it takes a little extra time to make the most sustainable choice, whether it be to recycle or compost or a big research project into solar panels or calculating one’s lifetime carbon footprint. These things take time and there are only so many hours in the day. In some cases, decisions have to be made quickly with survival as the first priority.
One of the driving factors behind my choice to do the MSt in Sustainability leadership at Cambridge was the front-row view of climate change in my home state of Louisiana. So while my first year projects were work-related, in the second year, my dissertation topic focused on the plans for adaptation or resettlement as a response to climate change in several coastal communities in Louisiana. At the end of August, I sat at my desk in my home in New Orleans, working on my Pecha Kucha presentation for the following month. My presentation covered the work I completed in the first year of the program as well as my plans for the dissertation to be completed throughout the second year.
In one window of my computer, I worked on my slides. These described our coastal loss, a result of generations of oil and gas and shipping activity through precious wetlands, combined with more frequent and stronger hurricanes caused by climate change. In another window, I had the weather radar open, with a view of Hurricane Ida, headed directly for southeast Louisiana.
The storm had strengthened rapidly and increased in speed so quickly that the mayor of New Orleans didn’t have the required 72 hours before landfall to order a mandatory evacuation. I put aside my slides and went outside to secure my patio furniture, trash bins and anything else that could become a dangerous projectile in hurricane force winds. Then, we drove through the night to Lake Charles, avoiding the heavy traffic the next day. We were lucky to have family friends outside the impact of the storm who could take us in, only a few hours from home. With hotels booked up quickly, most others faced long drives of 12–15 hours to find available hotel rooms or family to take them in. But Lake Charles still hadn’t recovered from the brutal hit of category 4 Hurricane Laura a year earlier. Blue tarp-covered roofs were everywhere and in some places, downed trees and rubble from collapsed buildings sat untouched.
We nervously watched the news as the storm made landfall and the city went dark. The next morning we learned that the $14 billion spent after Hurricane Katrina on improvements to the flood prevention systems had proved worthwhile — the city stayed dry. However, all eight transmission lines bringing power into the city of New Orleans had failed, with a tower in the river and the much-lauded brand new natural gas plant in New Orleans East had failed at its most important task — to “blackstart” the city in the event of a major storm disconnecting the city from outside power. More than 1 million households were without power.
Outside the city’s flood protection, the coastal communities suffered catastrophic devastation. Like the residents of New Orleans, those in the coastal communities had no electricity, but they also faced the brunt of the winds (150mph sustained with gusts of 180pmh) and the flooding caused by the storm surge. These areas had in some cases already lost up to 98% of their land and were planning for resettlement (Isle de Jean Charles). In some areas, the wind damage left no structures standing — nothing but debris behind.
Back in New Orleans, where we had the benefit of flood protection systems and reduced wind damage, we heard from our neighbors that their magnolia tree had split under the force of Ida’s winds and fortunately came down directly in between our two houses, the only place it could land without hitting any of the nearby homes. It crushed our fence and pulled down the power lines as it fell, and it would be more than a week before power was restored. But even then, with the tree down and live power lines on the ground, no one could approach the houses to return home or begin cleaning up the debris. Another week passed before the power lines were put back in place. After two weeks, I was able to get a tarp put on my roof to minimise any further damage. A month later, the insurance adjuster finally reached my home to assess the damage (roof, loose siding, damage from everything the tree hit on its way down) and another six weeks after that, I finally got the report from the insurance company. Nearly four months later, everything has been repaired except the roof, because my roof is not the only one waiting to be replaced. Throughout the city, the familiar blue tarps are commonplace. Roof replacement costs have risen 40% or more (though the insurance payouts have not risen in line with these costs). My insurance company sent a renewal letter informing me that my annual premium would increase and that they required a minimum of 25% of their premium earned before a claim could be made, as well as an increased deductible in the case of any claims.
And yet, I know that we are so fortunate. Because we have the means to evacuate, to afford insurance, to afford to make up the difference in what the insurance won’t cover. Because we weren’t sitting in the August heat waiting for the power to come back on while we watch our loved ones suffer and in some cases, die from heat exhaustion or carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper generator usage.
In reflecting on the hurricane and the aftermath, of course I am so incredibly grateful for the relatively minimal effect it had on our lives, compared to others struggling to survive through the storm and recovery afterwards. And yet, even with this minimal effect, the challenges of time meant that things were pushed to the side, as I dealt with the immediate issues. Evacuation, calls and emails to the energy company, insurance company, roofing companies, plumbers and other repair people. These things all take time, and a lot of it, despite the minimal damage to my home and daily life compared to those who faced the worst of the storm.
In the wake of the devastation to coastal communities, my dissertation topic had to change. Approaching people for research in these communities at this time was out of the question — they were struggling to find a way to survive, to recover, to rebuild their communities or move them. I adjusted my dissertation topic to keep a focus on climate and poverty in Louisiana, but shifting to focus on renewable energy initiatives to promote climate resilience and reduce economic inequalities in low income communities.
I had been planning to replace my roof with a metal roof, which is a more sustainable choice than asphalt shingles — better for solar, longer lasting and providing more protection against future storms, but the wait times for metal roofs are so long that the companies could not even give an estimate. The suppliers for metal roofing materials are still backed up following Hurricane Laura the year before. I need a new roof before the next hurricane season begins in June, so I may be forced into taking whatever is available. This may mean choosing a less sustainable choice, but is the best I can do. It is a stark reminder of the challenges placed on us by time and circumstance.
Time and circumstance. These challenges are faced by all, inescapable no matter where we live or what precautions we take. Choices have to be made within these constraints, and these choices can still be sustainable, even if they are not perfect. I am acutely aware that the challenges I face are a tiny fraction of those faced by most others. For me, this is a reminder to be grateful for my own circumstances, however challenging they may be, and to be compassionate with others. In the end, our best is all we can do.