Spectra and the lesson of the spaghetti solution

BY REVEREND DONNA SCHAPER  |  I know I overuse metaphors; I link the unlinkable. But how else to write about invisible, odorless gas on its way from sources unknown to destinations unnamed — or how else to fathom passions and decisions that are beyond logic? As a pastor, I sometimes am called to do marriage counseling that ends in a thud. That is an apt metaphor for last week’s “conversation” between the power utility Spectra and our community.

Another metaphor, an ode, a poem that praises, seems apt.  Sane Energy Project, the Village Independent Democrats and other dedicated volunteers of our neighborhood put together a lawsuit to stop the Spectra Pipeline from delivering unnatural gas. As a result of that suit, the Community Board 2 Committee on Public Health and the Environment drew several hundred people — and four police cars — to a hearing on a cold Tuesday night Dec. 4 at a West Village school.

Each of these accomplishments — the lawsuit, the endless meetings and expense involved in same, the research involved by citizens who are energized but don’t understand this dangerous, new energy’s sources, the actual gathering, which meant two hours times 200 of human energy, or a total of 4,000 hours of human energy on just one night — each of these is worthy of an ode. How else can we find the energy to manage our energy sources than a committee of neighbors, selected by people who have been elected by us?

Local government is a beautiful thing, reminding one of a spider’s web or a cloud sourcing. So an ode to the cloud, the Web, the counseling session. Thank you for a committee’s work on a pipeline, which has suddenly appeared in our community’s consciousness as well as on Gansevoort Peninsula. But metaphors fail, and so does gratitude, because the pipeline is real, as is the community’s horror at gas that will snake into our streets, from our pier, under our homes.

Let’s continue with the metaphor of marriage counseling.  When two parties who love and need each other are estranged, they often seek a third party to mediate their intimacy, to repair what is broken.

Marriage is intimate, like the power that lights our stoves, a tool for nourishment and warmth. In this past hurricane, I was struck by how many people sought long matches to light their gas stoves, and by the creative ways many found to ignite their pilot lights. They used spaghetti, lit by candles, to spark their stovetops to make coffee, soup or whatever when all else was dark. Those who didn’t know about spaghetti sticks asked our church to find long matches. A Sunday school child said we should try spaghetti.

Attending the C.B. 2 committee meeting on fracking — after I walked by four police cars outside a democratic, nonviolent meeting — I thought of the matches and the spaghetti and the need for counseling.

Now let me try to show the links. The meeting was marked by a distinct lack of civility. People from the community, spending their precious time on their precious energy sources, yelled at the throng of paid spokespeople for Spectra and the utility company. The people asked dozens of smart questions. What happens if there is another Sandy? What will happen to the pipeline? What happens to our water and our food sources if fracking continues? What will happen to our children? Why aren’t this money and time being devoted instead to renewable energy?

But counseling needs two parties who can begin to hear each other, and the people representing the power companies and their delivery system did not hear. They offered only facts and numbers.  They offered no acknowledgment of the people’s fears and questions. The people paid to come — in charge of our power and our energy — could not, or simply did not, respond to the emotions that motivated the people who were not paid.

This is a recipe for disaster. No response or acknowledgement of the other’s fears leads to an expensive and painful divorce, with two big losers. And innocents suffer, the children, the friends and the relatives. That is where we are now — in pain and suffering, because people do not listen.

As in marriage counseling, my hope in this dispute is that both sides could find a way to talk to each other.

Nothing can be negotiated in intimate matters unless there is recognition of the emotion in the fight. Negative energy breeds negative energy — and in this fight, negative energy is really the issue.

Likewise, if there is any hope for spaghetti sticks or unique solutions to unique problems, it comes from a recognition that we need to do something different. If the inputs are anger and frustration, the outputs will be the same. An ode is often written when someone has died; I hope that metaphor does not link here. Can anyone — perhaps a governor or a mayor or a judge — get the people with the money to listen to the people with the passions?

A city permit was all that was legally required to lay the pipe; the lawsuit would have been stronger if someone had already died, if a pipe had already exploded, if another hurricane exposed the soggy underside of power for our community.

This is beyond the pastor’s counseling skills; my only hope is that somewhere a more gifted, more powerful counselor is ready.  Because otherwise civil disobedience is our only hope. At least it is better than divorce or unnatural disaster.

Schaper is senior minister, Judson Memorial Church

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