The possibility that the Salem power plant may close, or be transformed into a natural gas plant or a mixed-use development of some type, offers us a chance to imagine and implement new, more sustainable ways of defining our relationship to nothing less than the future.
That sentence may seem grander than a single city's problem. Salem Harbor Station, after all, is only one coal (and oil) plant among thousands in the world. The carbon dioxide and mercury that it spews into the atmosphere every year are but a miniscule fraction of total global pollution emitted annually.
But change is rarely easy, and transforming a fossil-fuel-based economy into one that runs largely on benign and renewable sources of energy will be an enormous and lengthy task.
There is probably no way — other than one plant at a time — to start the global shift that is required to improve both our energy systems and the long-term health of the environment simultaneously.
Currently, modern nations still rely on economic models and energy systems that more or less ignore the negative health effects and environmental damage that this infrastructure creates. I can safely assert that fact and use the word "ignore," because so often the ill health and various types of pollution that result from traditional economic and industrial activities become the problems of people distant in both time and space from the perpetrators of the insults.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and continuing today, especially with Third World globalization, we have built our prosperity using misleading financial arrangements (half-truths, really) and dangerous fossil-fuel dependencies that are literally — but extremely slowly — sickening and killing both us and the ecosphere.
Thus, we are in a bit of a trap of our own design. The very technologies and economic formulas that have given us wonderful standards of living and awesome levels of progress nonetheless contain within them flaws and distortions that have the potential to destroy the critical natural balances that exist within the ecosphere. Some of our economic accounting — especially that which assigns no dollar cost to loss of species and natural habitats — embodies a sort of supreme delusional fantasy that human civilization can operate safely by its own rules — above and beyond any real consequences that could come from a wounded planet.
The Salem power plant — just one example of millions and millions of mixed, benefit-and-threat deals that we have made with ourselves — is a great place to both see, and act on, the important thresholds that modern man finds himself standing on today.
Built in 1951, Salem Harbor Station has been a stalwart, reliable generator of 745 megawatts of electricity — enough juice to power about 750,000 homes annually. It has provided well-paying jobs to its workers and has contributed enormously to the city's tax base.
On the other hand, for 60 years it has spewed staggering amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, lead, arsenic and other dangerous substances into the atmosphere. In a story duplicated literally millions of times at power plants and industrial sites across the globe for some 250 years, those poisonous chemicals have been making their way into our air, water, soil, plants, bodies and the chemical cycles of the ecosphere.
Now, in a not-unexpected confluence of timing, modernization and globalization have reached every corner of the world while many aspects of the natural kingdom are beginning to show measurable and alarming signs of damage and distress.
The tensions, contradictions and unsustainabilities between the progress of human societies and the health of the multifaceted ecosphere stand fully revealed.
Here in Salem, though we are but one cell in the giant organism of humanity, the potential closing of the power plant thrusts a choice upon us. How will we react?
Will we point to China and India, who may build hundreds of generators, and decide that what we do in Salem is too small to matter? Will we focus on the potential loss of $4.5 million in annual tax revenue and decide that we don't have the time or resources to adopt a slow-growing, mixed-use development to replace the plant?
I have noticed that many city and legislative officials have repeatedly cited the need for "realism" when considering alternatives to the power plant. But their definition of realism is an outdated and incomplete one that is a synonym for prioritizing immediate and significant tax revenue replacement.
The difficult economic challenge facing Salem is the same one facing the globe, and the pain that will be involved in implementing new economic practices and energy systems that reflect very real ecological truths, should be obvious.
Building a gas plant at the harbor site might be a relatively short, easy and comfortable project, with traditional financials, quick tax revenue and a fast payback. But it would saddle Salem with another power plant for 30 years, and it would just re-create the trap into which we'd fallen in the past. It would ask nothing of any of us, and it would not advance us to a new level.
And it is surely time for us to reach for a new level.
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Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.