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Aspen’s eco-ethic is right on target

Paul Andersen

Until 1958, the city of Aspen generated all of its own electricity from local hydropower. From ski lifts to streetlights, the city ran on clean, renewable energy.

In 1885, Aspen became the first city west of the Mississippi to harness hydroelectric power for municipal lighting. Hydroelectric power was the legacy of the mining industry, which brought Aspen to prominence in the 1880s and ’90s.

Due to a lack of foresight in the late 1950s, the Aspen City Council decided against repairing and maintaining the rotted wooden flumes and water storage tanks powering the city’s hydroelectric plant beneath the Castle Creek bridge. Aspen joined the electrical grid.

If Aspen had retained the energy infrastructure it inherited from visionaries of the past, the city would be in the enviable position today of generating most of its own electricity, free of greenhouse gases.

The same remorse applies to the city’s two long-gone railroads. If the tracks had not been pulled up, a valleywide railroad could be operating today that would alleviate at least a portion of the automobile traffic that congests downtown and sullies Aspen’s air quality.

In the 1880s, necessity required innovation in bringing electric power to remote locations in the mountains. Hydroelectric power was introduced through portable technologies that could be hauled by wagons over mountain passes and placed where gravity-fed water was the most efficient source of power.

Today, necessity is couched both in pragmatic and ethical terms. We must apply moral considerations to the consumption of energy and natural resources in order to further the practical goals of sustainability and stewardship. We need to honor conservation and efficiency in light of overarching environmental realities and global stability.

Councilman Torre has done just that by launching the initiative for a renewed ecological ethic in Aspen. The time is right for the city to enact responsible programs with a view toward the future. Necessity led to hydroelectric technology in Aspen over a century ago, and it can lead to a new age of green thinking today.

City Council’s brainstorming last week speaks to enlightened action. Hybrid buses, rate surcharges for energy-gluttons, solar hot water installations, wind power subsidies, expanding regional hydroelectric power, stepped up recycling, and biodiesel fuel all speak to community leadership from high moral ground.

Globally, resource allocation has traditionally been based on a Darwinian model where the powerful control resources deemed vital for their self-interests. Witness the U.S. and its strategic positioning for control of global resources and it’s clear that the world’s greatest superpower is still locked in that Darwinian struggle.

If the city of Aspen can become a green leader, then perhaps other communities will follow. Now, if only the citizens of Aspen would approach the issue with the same fervor, we might get somewhere.

It is commendable for City Council to take action on the green front, but where is the matching support from the high-living consumers of Aspen? The city government appears young and idealistic, while the majority of Aspen citizens ignore voluntary simplicity and consume resources with Nero-like abandon.

When citizens fail to govern themselves with wisdom, then it’s up the government to rein in profligate appetites. City leadership on energy and resources is important now in defining Aspen’s role as a global leader.

Paul Andersen hopes we have a more enlightened vision today than we did in the ’50s. His column appears on Mondays.


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