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We Need to Get Past the Energy and Environment Debates of the 1970s

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I admit that I do not like the idea of the Keystone pipeline, and I am not crazy about hydraulic fracturing and deep sea oil drilling. But I do like a warm home in winter, recorded music in my living room and a fully charged smart phone. This makes it difficult for me to work up a great deal of righteous fury when the fossil fuel industry tries to do what it tries to do. While I have mixed emotions about these projects, there is no question that these fuel mining, transport and burning processes harm the environment. I find the blithe disregard about trade-offs and risk frequently expressed by some industry leaders and their congressional employees beyond belief. I wonder why these folks aren't honest about the impact of their business. But then, I also wonder about environmentalists who want to stop all energy projects, but do not think about the economic and human impact of rising fuel costs, or about their own dependence on energy.

In this era of extreme partisanship and ideological intensity, I find myself struggling to explain the concepts of environmentalism and sustainability in non-political terms. I don't really understand why safe air, water and land should be a subject of political controversy. I should know better since I am not new to this field of inquiry. I first started studying environmental politics in the fall of 1975, when I walked into the late SUNY Buffalo Professor Lester Milbrath's amazing graduate seminar in environmental politics. At that time, we were working to understand the root causes of the environmental problem and analyzed the newly formed (1970) Environmental Protection Agency designed to help solve it. Like my fellow students, I was not an "environmentalist," just someone interested in understanding why rivers were on fire, toxics were oozing out of the ground, and the air was sometimes orange. Being from Brooklyn, I was not particularly interested in nature. If anything, I was more interested in the decay of cities and the growth of the suburbs. To me, the environmental problem had little to do with preserving nature and more to do with the health of people and their cities. I did not see the environment as an issue of ideology, any more than I thought of cancer treatment as a partisan issue. But as a fledgling political scientist, I came to learn that everything was political.

I learned that the people who made their money by making automobiles, steel and gasoline did not want government to tell them how to make those things. They saw environmental regulation as an inconvenient impediment to production and profit. They did not care about the environmental impact of their businesses and assumed that the planet was big enough to absorb pretty much anything. In response, a growing group of environmental activists came to demonize these business people as evil-doers bent on poisoning people and the planet -- and by the end of the 1970s all of this had hardened into the ideological and often symbolic environmental politics we have endured for decades. It was jobs and industry versus bunnies and clean air -- Then and forever.

Fast forward to 2013, and we see environmental protection as a political issue co-existing with a growing concern for something we call sustainability. With human population topping seven billion and human economic activity at a massive global scale, we are starting to see the emergence of global level environmental challenges. Climate change is the most obvious of these challenges, but it is not the only problem. Our oceans, ecological systems, food supply and drinking water are all threatened by the unforeseen impacts of human technology. Some corporate leaders pretend that these are not real problems and just the invention of some pesky scientists and environmental activists. On the other side, some environmentalists act as if we can simply shut production down and return to nature. Both are wrong, the environmental problems are real, and with seven billion people, half of whom live in cities, we are not about to return to nature.

Here in America, without industrial agriculture most of us would starve. It is silly to pretend that we can live the way we do without damaging the environment. The problems are real, but the solution is not to shut the economy down or pretend we don't have a problem. The solution is that we need to learn how to produce what we need without destroying the planet's resources. We need a sophisticated, science based, approach to sustainably manage our economy. We need to learn how to produce food, water and energy without damaging the planet's ability to provide for us. When I say "we", I mean government, communities and corporations. We need to get past the self-destructive ideological nonsense and learn how to talk and listen to each other.

The people who manage today's corporations now must deal with a more complex set of environmental issues than their predecessors dealt with in the 1970s. More and more of these corporate leaders know that the world has changed and they must become skilled at sustainability management. They know they need to focus on the cost of water, energy, waste treatment, and waste disposal along with the potential liability and costs of environmental damage. Ask the people who run BP if their environmental concerns extend beyond the impact of air pollution from their refineries. They will be paying for ecological impacts in the Gulf of Mexico for many years. Ask the executives of GE what they learned from their experiences with PCBs in the Hudson River. These and many other issues of environmental management are moving to the center of corporate decision-making.

It is time to get over the outmoded ideological framework of the environmental era. There is no trade-off between environment and economic development. We need both. However, we do not yet have the technology, information or management capacity needed to ensure that human economic life does not damage the environment. So there is no pristine way to continue our way of life without damaging the environment. We are going to have to stop this ridiculous bickering and symbolic politics and get real. We need to learn how to develop a high throughput global economy that produces great wealth while preserving the planet's ecosystems, climate and water. We do not know how to do this. We do not have the technology to build a renewable economy. Even if we did, we have no plan to deploy the capital needed to adopt this technology once it is invented. Even if we had the technology and capital, we do not have the organizational capacity and trained people needed to effectively utilize this technology and capital.

The development of the field of sustainability management and the transition to a renewable economy has begun, but it needs to move faster. The outmoded 1970s debate about the environment-economic growth trade-off and the symbolic politics attached to it may be good business for interest groups, but it has us mired down in an irrelevant debate. Decisions about pipelines and fracking should be based on a thorough and objective analysis of all costs and benefits. Not only should the full costs of environmental damage be included, but so too should the impact of rising fuel prices along with an analysis of the fuels that replace the ones that are stopped. Concepts such as risk-benefit and ecological irreversibility should be included in the analysis.

We need to get past the energy and environment debates of the 1970s, learn to drive politics out of the discussion and replace it with a frank and fact based discussion of risks, costs and benefits. I may not like a particular project, but I may need to tolerate it because it is the least bad option available. An energy project may need to be halted because it increases the risk of irreversible damage to a critical ecological resource. It is difficult to have a fact based discussion when money and symbolic politics dominate the debate.

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