A recent NY Times article discussed the Bush administration’s plan to to issue a new rule that will expand the practice of mountaintop coal mining. The rule change will make it easier for mining companies to engage in the practice, which “is the most common strip mining in central Appalachia, and the most destructive. Ridge tops are flattened with bulldozers and dynamite, clearing all vegetation and, at times, forcing residents to move.” The real goal of the rule change, according to the NY Times article, is to “to make it easier for mining companies to dig more coal to meet growing energy demands and reduce dependence on foreign oil.”
The article got me thinking about the conflict between economic growth and development and environmental and social justice. This is a conflict that William McDonough often addresses in his speeches. Business wants growth, which invariably entails practices such as mountaintop coal mining, and therefore environmentalists want no growth. An environmentalist might ask, “do we really want to bury streams and destroy entire mountain tops just to tap a dirty fuel like coal?” I might ask instead, “why are we wasting our time with this discussion when we could and should be tapping the far more abundant resources of the sun, the wind, energy-efficiency and the creativity of our citizens?”
The other day I attended a meeting of the Greenways Alliance of Rhode Island, (GARI) a group dedicated to “advocacy for Rhode Island’s bike paths, trails and greenspaces.” One thing that came up throughout the meeting was how they (the members of GARI) are constantly having to butt heads with developers and city planners because when they build new projects they don’t plan for green spaces, bike lanes or bike paths, and when they add onto existing development they often disrupt or damage the existing green infrastructure. As I listened to the meeting and admired these average citizens who volunteer their time to make Rhode Island a better place to live, I realized several things.
1)Any time you come across a park or bike path or other green space that is enjoyable to use, it didn’t get there by accident. Almost certainly a dedicated group of volunteers fought hard, against developers and the city, to make sure that the green infrastructure was created or preserved.
2)There are several ways to fight destructive development, be it mountain top coal mining or new housing that is environmentally insensitive; you can file suit; you can lobby the government; you can lobby fellow citizens; or you can work with the developer to either eliminate the need for the development or create a development that enhances or preserves green infrastructure
Going back to the example of the coal mining, how might we prevent the practice of mountain top removal? First of all, we would want to file suit to, at the very least, buy some time. Next, we would lobby fellow citizens by exposing the practice, making use of the latest multimedia (video, blogging, podcasting) to get the message out, and then, with the support of those that we have inspired to act, lobby the government. We can try working with the mining companies to at least make the mountain top removal as benign as possible, though from what I’ve read even the most sensitive mountain top removal results in tons of debris that end up burying streams and rivers. So all throughout this process we would be advocating for the real solution: eliminating the need for that coal in the first place. We can displace the amount of coal that we would remove from the mountain top by implementing cheap and simple efficiency measures first, and then move toward the installation of wind farms (which are already cost-competitive with coal) and so on. Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting op-ed piece about changing incentive structures so that utilities earn money for negawatts: energy they don’t sell thanks to efficiency measures. That article can be read here
In the case of housing development, we’ve got to find a way to change how we build and expand our urban and suburban areas. For instance, a recent Yahoo! green article, discusses the growing movement to build homes and buildings with green roofs. A green roof is exactly what it sounds like: a roof with a drought tolerant species of grass planted on it. The benefits are many: reduced stormwater runoff, a habitat for birds, a decrease in the so-called urban heat island effect and lowered heating and cooling costs. William McDonough imagines cities that lift the original landscape onto their rooftops, providing habitat for animals and a place to do agriculture as well as relax and play. And there are infinitely more ways to grow in ways that are good for everyone. (To name a few: living machines that mimic the ability of wetlands to cleanse water; building materials like straw bale, fly ash from power plants, Forest Stewardship Council Certified wood, geodesic domes, composting toilets, greywater recycling, Energy Star appliances, etc)
The ultimate point here is that growth should be good. The question, as Mr. McDonough asks, is “what do we want to grow?” Prosperity or pollution? Health or toxicity? So while we fight to preserve the natural world and protect the health of our children and the land, we should keep in mind that the big goal is to change how we develop. Once we end the growth/no-growth dichotomy, we can stop trying to derail progress and focus on what we want to grow and how we want to grow it.