March 7, 2008

Sustainability, like God, is many things to many people.

The Leafblower is a phenomenon that involves many aspects of sustainability, as I described several years ago:

Oh No, It's Leafblower Season Again!!

In the good old days, fall meant holiday festivities. Nowadays it's open season on us as we are assaulted by leafblowers, more accurately called dirtblasters, since chasing pavement debris is most common. Particularly nerve-wracking is the questionable sanity of anyone trying to blow anything during high winds or heavy rains.

We're all victims of this urban terrorist device--not just the billowing clouds of smoky exhaust and gutter dust containing everything from dog poop to pesticide runoff, but also NOISE (the orphan form of air pollution) from poorly throttled and muffled 2-stroke engines, as well as from high-pressure fans and powerful airflows.

Clearly, the persistence of such nuisances implies powerful political-economic forces. Locally, bans were proposed, considered, and derailed in 1991 when I was an Environmental Commissioner and in 1997 when I was active in Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento. Thus I encountered many interesting facts and observations surrounding an issue which has so far provoked far too much more heat than light.

Dirtblaster profits go to corporate manufacturers and gasoline retailers, and to landscapers,many with spiffy diesel trucks full of underpaid workers and trailers full of gas-guzzling equipment. But all the external and unaccounted costs--piercing dissonant whines, eye-stinging dustclouds, oily exhaust, depletion of nonrenewable resources, not to mention the average American's flab--are inflicted on innocent bystanders. And people with brooms can't compete with cheap gasoline nor with the pleasingly powerful machines preferred by manly men.

Coincidentally, almost all government protections against noise pollution were disappeared by manly Republicans. Reagan wasted no time deep-sixing USEPA's noise pollution budget and Wilson axed California's program during the recession of the early 1990s. Nowadays, citizens are protected only by marginally enforceable city or county noise ordinances based on the outdated research of vanished state and federal scientific staff. Officials also mistakenly fear increased costs for maintenance and for liability insurance for slip-and-falls if dirtblasters are banned.

Business owners cry the blues claiming dirtblasters are the most cost-effective device for tidying pavements and attracting (deaf?) customers. But there are no meaningful engineering comparisons between dirtblasters and any of a wide range of available alternatives, because no one in charge is insisting on any. So on-the-job training keeps teaching newbies that 'gardening' means using herds of engines to make tidy parking lots and astroturf lawns.

Another inconvenient truth is that gardens don't like dirtblasters chasing away all their nutritious and water-conserving leaf-mulch (mostly just in time for the rainy season) and coating their leaf-lungs with choking dust. Besides, if we just quit over-watering, over-fertilizing, and over-landscaping, our yards and towns could be as beautiful as any scenic wilderness.

Sensible public debate and policy have also been derailed by the jobs/class/color political hot potato. No elected official wants to be seen as taking away the jobs of people who are poor and brown and often indigenous farmers driven from their formerly sustainable homelands  by our foreign policies such as NAFTA. But the dire unemployment predicted by owners of large landscaping companies on behalf of many of the poorest mow-and-blowers with the noisiest dirtblasters, oldest trucks, and darkest skins is flatly contradicted by the market failure experienced by homeowners seeking nonexistent quiet gardeners.

So while chemical air pollution has been kept at bay, noise pollution has been steadily increasing for years, causing stress, increased medical costs, lower student test scores, etc. To an engineer, noise is wasted energy. From Harleys to helicopters,  it's everywhere, and it can really hurt, or even kill, just as a straw can break the camel's back.

When the market fails, it's high time for the government (that's us, folks!) to step in. So let's get together for quiet peaceful towns, mellow neighbors, and happy gardens!

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