Green Developments

One of the most popular political ideas going around these days is that we can boom and bloom at the same time. We can have economic growth and development without damaging the environment if only we are smart enough, or if we care enough about jobs and trees. Thrown out with the wastewater is the old assumption that there is a trade-off between economic goals and environmental ones. This is a hopeful idea, befitting the optimism of these prosperous times. Politicians love the opportunity to stake out a pro-jobs, pro-environment position, recognizing the extra points one gets in public opinion polls for appearing to be responsibly green. In the march toward the political middle ground, there is good sense in favoring “smart growth.”

Some environmentalists, too, are entranced by a new synthesis. “Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are buzzwords that currently have more buzz than a nest of yellow-jackets. Others are promoting “green development.” Some make the distinction between growth (not necessarily good) and development (which can be good if it’s sustainable). There is a new and potentially fruitful attention among environmentalists to technology, and the search for ways that profitable, marketable technologies can solve environmental problems.

There are, of course, those who remain deeply suspicious of how much environmental progress we can expect from a system driven by Americans’ voracious consumerism and dominated by powerful corporations that are too seldom reined in by a bumbling bureaucracy. We produce this magazine, as it happens, not too many miles away from Woburn, Mass., the site of the now-famous waste-disposal exploits of the W.R. Grace corporation, et. al. It took years of tough negotiations before General Electric agreed to begin cleaning up the PCB-contaminated silt of the Housatonic River near Pittsfield. Activists seem to have made no progress this summer as they urged the Legislature to force the state’s older oil- and coal-burning power plants to meet current air-quality standards. They are exempted because they were built before cleaner technologies came along and it would cost too much to fix them now.

But at the same time, the last 30 years of environmental awareness have taught us a lot about incremental progress. If you go back and look at Barry Commoner’s 1971 book, The Closing Circle, a book that influenced a generation of new environmentalists, you find a gloomy account – a relentless catalogue of the ways the products of industrial society were leading to an “approaching catastrophe.” Commoner concluded by raising the question of “whether the basic operational requirements of the private enterprise economic system are compatible with ecological imperatives.”

That question is less often asked now. It’s moot. In some ways, it was moot when he asked it: It wasn’t a pure private enterprise system that gave us nuclear power or dirty coal power plants – those were (and are) government subsidized and government regulated debacles. In Commoner’s 1990 book, Making Peace with the Planet, the eminent ecologist’s principles have not changed, but his emphasis has. He envisions the ways new technologies, more intensive recycling, and more sensible energy sources could lead to environmental “peace.” “Why should we despair?” he asks. “Has not the sudden dissolution of old Eastern European politics proved that the cold war was a happenstance of a moment in history, not a structural and effectively permanent inevitability? Is not true peace with the planet therefore conceivable?”

Almost all environmentalists who hope for peace with the planet believe that it can’t happen without government playing the leading role. Just as it is an unquestioned role of government to wage war, it should be understood that government is the only entity capable of waging peace – that is, of coordinating a campaign for environmental protection. (This might sound obvious, yet the idea is under constant attack from libertarians, free-market theologists, anti-government cynics, Limbaugh’s legions, and most Republicans outside of New England, which is to say most Republicans.)

But how active will governments be? How re-active? From the people in government and the environmental community I’ve spoken with over the last couple of months, it seems there is a lot of thinking going on about new governmental approaches. Can regulation become less heavy-handed? In addition to regulating, how can governments become more of a steering force, helping to prevent problems from occurring in the first place? Are people in government smart enough? Environmentally aware enough? Creative enough to find market-oriented and ecologically sound solutions?

These are questions that John DeVillars, for example, has been posing since he became the head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office. In an earlier life, DeVillars was the hard-driving secretary of environmental affairs in the Dukakis administration. There are still people in the Massachusetts business community who are recovering from the trauma of those days – they are full of tales of excessive levels of environmental regulation and jumping-through-hoops.

“A better deal for the environment, a better deal for the economy.”

Now the 1980s in Massachusetts are held up as the perfect illustration of how the “command and control” strategy can run amok. DeVillars himself admits it. “We lost sight of the need to work within an economic system and use the economic system to our advantage,” he told me this spring. At the EPA, he has been willing to experiment. He tells of a developer in Wayland who complained about regulations controlling wastewater discharges into the Sudbury River. The EPA proposed a trade. The conditions on the discharge were relaxed in return for the developer helping to hook up some of the town’s residences to sewer lines. The net result, DeVillars says, was three times the reduction of phosphorus into the water, while the developer saved $700,000. “A better deal for the environment, a better deal for the economy,” says DeVillars. It’s part of a process he describes as “seeing the world as less of a black-hat and white-hat world.”

There are some environmental activists, and some within the EPA, who are on guard against such approaches. All the better if it prevents the wrong kind of deals being struck. But what better way for government leaders to start the day than by resolving to get out there and find genuine “win-win” solutions?

Looking for additional examples of the ways economic development and environmental progress can be in harmony, I paid a visit to Douglas Foy, head of the Conservation Law Foundation. CLF, under Foy’s leadership, has been described by both The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald as the most influential environmental group in New England. (I agree, but I have an obvious bias, being married to someone who has worked 11 years at CLF.) The group has been in the middle of the major eco-battles in the region, including the case that forced the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

Foy cites two examples of developments that promise environmental gains and benefits to the economy, as well. One is the renaissance of cities. The kind of redevelopment that is planned for Boston’s Seaport District (the South Boston waterfront) will add housing and office space in a part of the city that is mostly parking lots and warehouses now. Developing and redeveloping urban areas means less need to expand outward, which uses up green space and requires more government expense for infrastructure.

A good deal of what drives development patterns, Foy notes, is the simple matter of where government decides to put roads, rails, and sewer lines. To the degree that development and growth are consciously steered to the cities, he says, “You’re not only consistent with environmental goals, you’re actually promoting environmental goals.” This is the insight that the “smart growth” and anti-sprawl proponents are trying to popularize. Development is not some sort of laissez faire, free-market phenomenon. It involves key public decisions that have important ramifications for the environment, for job creation, and for quality-of-life concerns.

The second example that animates Foy these days is how the energy industry is being restructured. The state decided last year to deregulate the electric utilities, a move CLF supported, though other leading environmental activists did not. Foy believes a new wave of cheaper and cleaner power generators is coming and that the payoff in air quality will be substantial. Of the old, oil- or coal-fired power plants, he says, “In 10 years, they’ll all be gone. By exposing them to competition, we’re going to destroy them.”

Given that one-third of all air pollution is from power plants (another third is from transportation, and the other third is from all other sources), the replacement of the dirty plants by smaller, gas-fired plants will mean a bigger reduction in air pollution in New England than 30 years of the Clean Air Act has brought about, Foy contends. And, he expects the generation cost of electricity to fall from the current level of 4 cents per kilowatt hour to 2.8 cents. That has obvious implications for reducing the cost of living, as well as the cost of doing business.

Good for the economy, good for the ecosphere.

That such a rosy scenario could be achieved is not in dispute. But will it be? For the skeptical view, I dropped in on John O’Connor at his office at Greenworks, Inc., in Cambridge. O’Connor is a radical agitator who doubles (triples?) as an enviro-businessman and an aspiring politician. (Another disclosure: His company is one of many backers of this magazine. He also ran for Congress against, among others, Christopher Gabrieli, who co-chairs the board of MassINC, our publisher.)

O’Connor funded and led an ill-fated campaign at the polls last fall to repeal the utilities deregulation law. He blasted the legislation as a “bailout” for power companies that have made stupid, uneconomic decisions over the last several decades. A curious dynamic here is that O’Connor is a longtime friend of Doug Foy – both men speak warmly about each other – yet they could not see the energy deregulation law more differently.

I wouldn’t begin to try to sort out who is right in this dispute – the details of the deregulation legislation are incomprehensible to the average person. (I do think it was a bailout; we’re all footing the bill for the big utility companies’ bad investments. But, of course, the industry had public approval every step of the way.) On the question of whether the law will lead to cleaner power plants, O’Connor says, “The jury is still out. That could happen. It’s not guaranteed to happen.” It is not the case that the environmental dangers of the region’s nuclear power plants will disappear, he says. Though a few have been closed down, others may have another 20 to 40 years of life, he contends, adding, “If they’d been forced to compete, they’d be out of business by now.”

But on the larger matter of how to make economic development compatible with environmental progress, O’Connor is in the can-do camp with both feet. His own company exists to “incubate” businesses that develop green technologies. He points out that a state study in 1990 found that Massachusetts was home to about 1,300 environmental and energy companies – firms that together had about $9 billion in sales and employed about 55,000 people. One of the most obvious ways to help this sector of green businesses is to step up the export of these technologies to other states and other countries. In a Greenworks study published in 1997, O’Connor (with several co-authors) argued that aggressive state policies to promote environmental technologies and environmental cleanup could result in a net gain of 100,000 private sector jobs over 15 years.

Changing the focus from pollution control to pollution prevention, in other words, can be seen as a pro-business strategy. John DeVillars of the EPA remembers the Massachusetts High Tech Council fighting “tooth and nail” against the state’s toxic-use reduction act in the late 1980s. But now, he says, the law (the first of its kind in the nation) has resulted in reduced business costs, and several other states have followed suit. O’Connor quotes Barry Commoner’s recent work on ways the “technosphere” can be brought into harmony with the ecosphere. It would mean reengineering the factories, the home, and the workplace, with the consistent goals being to save energy, reduce the use of toxic substances, and boost recycling.

That government could lead the way to a cleaner environment is a nice idea. One doesn’t have to look too far for examples of the opposite. One of the biggest messes in New England was created by the federal government – the pollution of the Cape Cod aquifer at the Massachusetts Military Reservation site. Now there are “toxic plumes” spreading underground, and millions of public dollars are being spent to contain the damage that, for some reason, the Environmental Protection Agency only recently began to take seriously.

So it is not surprising that some environmentalists are thinking hard about ways to achieve environmental solutions without relying on governmental wisdom. Can market forces be harnessed to pull toward a greener economy?

On this question, there is a split within the environmental community. The last few years have seen a spate of books arguing that we face a global environmental threat. The planet’s population is ever-increasing. More land is used up as suburbs are built, and more people get in cars to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What will happen when the less-developed world begins to adopt modern, fuel-intensive lifestyles? More CO2. Fewer rainforests. All those Chinese getting automobiles! And all the while, the world’s scientists coming into agreement that, yes, we are beginning to see signs of a greenhouse effect. The ozone hole over the Antarctic is real. Strange things are happening to global weather patterns.

Is sustainable development “wishful thinking”?

In Mark Hertsgaard’s recent book, Earth Odyssey, the late Jacques Cousteau is quoted saying, “Sustainable development is wishful thinking.” There are many environmentalists who share that pessimism. In this view, development is development. It uses up the earth’s limited resources and, in author Bill McKibben’s words, has brought us to “the end of nature.” The problem, of course, is that the radical critique doesn’t lead anywhere. The idea that we could stop development, get people out of their cars, and live by a strict conservationist ethic is wishful thinking, too – or, wishful dreaming. So the future is in bringing our smartest engineers and entrepreneurs together with our best scientists and ecologists. The future is in relentless attention to the technosphere. I believe it is true that the planet is in danger as long as we continue to, mindlessly, burn coal and oil and put more people into bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, which is what we have been doing (half the vehicles on the road in the U.S. now are trucks and sport utility vehicles). But it is demonstrably true that technologies have already been devised to solve these problems.

Few people are as interesting and knowledgeable on these subjects as Amory Lovins, the brilliant engineer who leads the Rocky Mountain Institute, an 18-year-old think tank based in Colorado. With Paul Hawken (the entrepreneur who founded the Smith & Hawken mail-order business), Lovins is coming out with a book this summer called Natural Capitalism. Hawken and Lovins argue that we are on the verge of a major capitalistic reform – one that involves taking into account “natural capital,” i.e., the resources such as clean air and water that have never been properly accounted for in the usual economic calculations.

Lovins has spoken about “designing…free-market incentives.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms, until one concedes that we have never had a real free market in the first place. The choice in the 1960s and 1970s to create nuclear power was a designed solution to the energy problem. Lovins is famous for his analysis that splitting the atom at thousands of degrees to warm people’s houses by 30 degrees in the winter is like “cutting butter with a chainsaw.” The path not taken was to create incentives to make sure that houses were built with the best possible insulation, and with the kind of design that is appropriate for the location and climate.

Instead, we have designed an economy that has assigned an artificially low price to oil and gas and other non-renewable resources. We end up paying eventually, in public expenditures for pollution cleanup, in health costs, and in consumer dollars spent unwisely.

And so we come back to the roles of government and business in leading us toward a productive and environmentally sensitive economy.

The new secretary of environmental affairs in Massachusetts, Robert Durand, has said he would like to make Gov. Paul Cellucci one of the best environmental governors in the country. The administration under William Weld, by most accounts, had an already strong record. Steps were taken to move beyond “command and control” regulation and red tape. But what comes next?

I would suggest that Weld himself had a pretty good answer in his oft-repeated remark that the job of government is “to steer, not row.” But for the federal, state, and local governments to steer in a coordinated way is a tall order. There’s already a lot of steering going on, but when you think of all the planning decisions made at the local level, and all the regulatory decisions made higher up, you wonder if there are not an awful lot of boats going in many different directions.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
The challenge for Durand and Cellucci is to get planners and regulators to steer in unison. This is partly a matter of simple environmental education. As Armando Carbonell, the former director of the Cape Cod Commission, told me this spring, there is a need to bring citizen and professional planners up to speed on the fundamental ecology of their communities – what affects the air quality, how water moves through the area, how it is used as a resource, what roles wetlands play, how settlements are affecting wildlife, and why the diversity of species really matters, etc. etc. Natural ecological systems are the framework to be considered in making development decisions. “Most communities,” he says, “don’t know the answer to the question, ‘Do we have the ability to support the growth that is taking place?'”

We know that the world of politics is full of false choices. It isn’t that the market can’t respect the environment, so government has to force it. It isn’t that government is incompetent, so we should leave it all to the market. It’s that business and government at all levels need to take ecology into consideration. Environmentalists are more inclined than they used to be to think about jobs and development. But likewise, economic development should not be approached, as it usually is, without concern for “natural capital” and the long-term need to be good stewards of the air, land, and water.