Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 9, 2011
Jim Markalunas, in a recent letter to the editor, pointed out the ironies in the proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric plant, an issue that has divided the local environmental community more effectively than any right-wing, conservative Republican strategy ever could.
The benefits of hydro are generally agreed upon, but not the source of water. Castle Creek has become an embattled stream that has eroded a gulf between champions for nature and advocates for green technology. The nuances are more complex, but that’s the gist of it.
Aspen’s hydroelectric history is a fascinating story of applying invention to necessity when, in 1885, Aspen became the first city west of the Mississippi to use hydroelectric power to light streets, homes and businesses. By harnessing the waters of Castle, Maroon and Hunter creeks, Aspen was off the grid, providing clean, sustainable energy until 1958.
The original Castle Creek hydro plant was a state-of-the-art facility in which Jim Markalunas worked as a young man. Hence his support for future hydro projects that could free Aspen from the grid to which it turned 54 years ago when it shortsightedly scrapped the old hydro plant.
Markalunas scratches his head in wonder at a city where a local newspaper prints an editorial denouncing the Castle Creek hydro project and in the same issue runs ads for ostentatious luxury homes: “An excessive lifestyle for sale, illuminated and kept warm by fossil fuels, in the same paper that prints a commentary by a respected environmentalist who wants to save the planet. How ironic!”
I sympathize with Jim. I also sympathize with those sensitive to stream flows and aquatic habitat. Without ironclad assurances for minimum stream flows in Castle Creek, I am just as divided in my technological and naturalist sensibilities as are opposing parties on both sides of this divide.
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Jim’s point about ostentatious luxury homes relying on fossil fuels is perhaps the more salient point, reflecting Aspen’s ongoing conflict between affluence and conscience. Paying the costs of local energy production should force Aspen to examine how grossly our energy is wasted on things like vacant mansions.
In “Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen wrote that “conspicuous consumption” is eclipsed only by “conspicuous waste.” Aspen, which conveys the image of a green city, displays both.
As the hydro debate ensues, plans are on the table for doubling the size of the airport terminal as a faith-based gesture to commercial growth: Build it and they will come. The new terminal will enrich Aspen so that more conspicuous waste can thwart environmental interests that are divided over technology and nature. How ironic!
Pushing commercial growth by expanding the airport ultimately triggers a gag reflex in Aspen over change. Alarm bells ring when a project threatens to alter something with which Aspenites have become familiar.
Last week a letter writer expressed her heartfelt fear over a proposal to tear down Little Annie’s for commercial redevelopment: “I think we have lost enough Aspen landmarks and cozy old places. Please help the council stand up to rampant disregard for the flavor of this town.”
The flavor of Little Annie’s is a big issue for those who savor it. The same dread figures into redevelopment at the base of Lift 1 where there is an undertone against tampering with a corner of town that’s been untouched for decades.
Preserving “Old Aspen” is attractive to some, but how do we measure “old”? Many of us feel reverence for the ramshackle past because it connects us with our younger selves and a younger world. Those who come to town later could care less. How many remember the night they tore down The Little Nell or the day they paved Main Street?
“Bah! It’s all nostalgia,” argue the pragmatists. Still, nostalgia is an emotion that serves as a valuation of history and a preservation criteria that enshrines the past. History holds little sway with developers who look ahead, not behind, so we are divided; pulled by the future and anchored in the past.
Hydro or aquatics? Green or wasteful? Old or new? Progress or preservation? Confounding choices plague us individually and as a community. Through it all runs a welter of conflicts, positions, values, emotions. The newspapers fan the flames daily.
Meanwhile, the pendulum swings back and forth. There are gains and losses. Our hearts twinge. We muddle through. In Aspen, our legacy is accidental, unplanned, spontaneous and impermanent. Like Jim, we scratch our heads in wonder at the ironies.
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