January 6, 2002
This opinion column appeared in the Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times.
A monument to the boll weevil stands in Enterprise, Alabama’s town square. It is a robed, Statue of Liberty look-alike holding an enormous black bug over its head. The statue’s head is bowed in somber respect.
The boll weevil ravaged 60 percent of the region’s cotton crop in 1915, and even more the next year, decimating livelihoods and towns. Yet, the inscription on the monument’s base says, “In Profound Appreciation of the Boll Weevil and What It Has Done as the Herald of Prosperity.” The herald of prosperity? The boll weevil?!
In 1917, with their economy and society almost destroyed, the down-and-out farmers of South Alabama were forced to adjust and innovate. Over the next few years, they began diversifying into peanuts and other crops and no longer depended so heavily on cotton. The region’s swift entry into the agricultural revolution of the times helped it thrive when other areas of the South, primarily dependent on cotton, continued to suffer. So several years after hitting bottom, area leaders erected the monument as “a symbol to man’s willingness and ability to adjust to adversity.”
The boll weevil story has a lesson for Asheville: sometimes tackling a big problem head-on can yield extensive, surprising improvements in the long-term. Poor and declining air quality is Asheville’s current big problem — our boll weevil. And committing ourselves to tackle it (for example, via the “early action compact” we recently made with the Environmental Protection Agency) could bring benefits we may not anticipate.
Consider the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act, which will push energy utilities to clean the emissions of fourteen North Carolina coal-fired power plants. Besides improving air quality, the $2.3 billion spent on know-how and technologies will likely boost the development of the state’s (and possibly, our region’s) environmental technology industry — for example, by creating or expanding environmental engineering firms, consulting wings of energy utilities, manufacturers, and skilled construction crews. The resulting cluster of businesses could serve other states as they work to catch up with North Carolina’s utilities.
Now let’s think what else we would be doing if we treated our declining air quality as seriously as the Enterprise farmers had to treat the boll weevil and consider other likely benefits.
- We could use our energy more efficiently, bringing us financial savings. For example, by working with the local Waste Reduction Partners (WRP) and investing in efficient lighting and heating, Warren Wilson College is now saving over $70,000 annually. And WRP has an energy saving plan for Erwin High School that could save Buncombe County Schools over $55,000 annually and pay back the initial investment in less then three years. Beyond improving air quality and saving money, these measures would reduce the greenhouse gasses that are currently changing our global and local climate.
- We would find cleaner transportation options in Asheville and provide them ourselves. In the 1970s, when leaders in Chattanooga, Tennessee, resolved to clean up its polluted downtown, they wanted natural gas shuttle busses. Instead of buying them from elsewhere, they created a local factory to make their own and soon after sold busses to others.
- We would accelerate investment in new cleaner fuels such as hydrogen power and new clean technologies such as fuel cells, and we would work to benefit from the new industries that would provide them. For example, perhaps WNC could boast more companies like Hendersonville’s Porvair and Monroe’s HPower, two players in the growing fuel cell industry.
- We would encourage and support new businesses in clean energy such as solar electricity and solar hot water heaters — businesses like Asheville’s Sundance Power and Thermacraft.
- We as a diverse community — tourist industry, civic leaders, health advocates, and citizens — would push Governor Easley to petition the Environmental Protection Agency and force upwind states such as Tennessee and Georgia to clean up their polluting smokestacks, just as our state is doing. Such an effort could unite a wide range of people here in WNC.
- As our region’s population grows, we would direct development in ways that minimize the need to drive — for example, continuing the current trend of more people living in city centers. Infill, as opposed to sprawl, can reduce the costs of infrastructure and improve quality of life.
- As individual and families, we would learn to walk more, bike more, consume less, and find joy in the unplugged pleasures of life.
The Enterprise farmers learned (the hard way) that crop diversity creates economic resilience. Here in Asheville, poor air quality is teaching us another lesson: cutting waste, avoiding pollution, finding sustainable sources of energy, and staying abreast of business trends — these are good principles for a healthy economy and not just clean air. Who knows, maybe some day we’ll follow the lead of the Enterprise farmers and put up a monument in Pack Square to our region’s unlikely “Heralds of Prosperity” — haze, ozone and smog.