How the Shrinking Ozone Hole Is Like the War on Poverty

When we face reality, we take the first step to fixing a problem.
September 17, 2014 AT 9:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Last week, the scientific community had a bit of good environmental news to report -- an occurrence, as we all know, that is not exactly common. The news was this: The hole in the ozone -- which had been growing for decades over Antarctica and exposing Earth to dangerous ultraviolet light -- is shrinking, with the United Nations going so far as to say it’s on track to be completely healed by the middle of this century. Scientists attributed the reversal to worldwide action after the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans. 

While the hole in the ozone may represent a relatively small win in a possibly never-ending war against pollution, it’s significant because it demonstrates what can happen when people face reality, accept a problem and take purposeful strides to remedy it. As I have written before, poverty is a multi-pronged problem and a pervasive ill that seems to get up each time it’s knocked down. Like pollution, even though it plagues people everywhere, it can be difficult to mobilize efforts to combat it or even maintain public perception that it’s a problem that must be addressed.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the City Accelerator initiative is that it has sparked a much-needed time of self-examination, serious introspection and quiet reflection about the negative things. It's easy and beneficial for leaders to focus on the positives -- those qualities that set their cities apart and that help attract businesses, new residents and even tourists. But it’s not so easy (many times it’s downright uncomfortable) to shine a light into the dark corners found in every urban area. That is what is so refreshing about the City Accelerator process. Cities are willing to strip off their media-resistant armor and their promotional plumage and share the naked secrets about things that are not going so well.
For example, in its City Accelerator presentation, San Jose displayed a startling juxtaposition of success and failure that set a high standard for honestly facing reality. Most people don’t know that the gleaming capital of Silicon Valley, with its countless entrepreneurs and millionaires, is also battling homelessness and poverty. In fact, San Jose has one of the largest tent encampments in the United States.
Like the 1984 ozone hole discovery, 45 years ago, my city, Chattanooga, was forced to face a pollution-related reality as well. Pollution from the city’s foundries, coupled with the smoke from steam locomotives and other industry-related chemicals, led to the startling announcement in October 1969 that Chattanooga was the dirtiest city in America. This uncomfortable fact was shared with a national television audience by no less than Walter Cronkite himself.
It was not a proud moment, but like the hole in the ozone, it was a shocking wake-up call and a chance to take collaborative action, albeit on a smaller scale. Up until then -- and even for many years afterward -- some people kept their civic blinders on and continued to defend the dark and gritty air with statements like, “It smells like money to me.” Fortunately, others went directly to work on the problem, established pollution controls and began to change the public attitude about the importance of the environment. Still, as late as the early 1980s, there were those in important positions that warned that Chattanooga should not be too public about its environmental problems and its efforts to enact even more effective measures.
Fast forward to the time from 2005 until today and Chattanooga has scored some of the largest, most enviable economic development wins in recent history, including attracting the U.S. headquarters of Volkswagen Manufacturing and a billion dollar Platinum LEED Certified automobile assembly plant. The transformation of Chattanooga, with its clean environment and its investment in creating a world-class quality of life were cited as reasons for the favorable decisions.
Whether your problems are pollution- or poverty-related, or something else entirely, the simple fact is that facing reality can produce significant positive results. Pollution has been around forever, just like poverty. And yet, with technology, innovation and a willingness to face reality, we have made significant progress. Old, dirty jobs are being replaced by new, cleaner jobs. It stands to reason that by applying new technology, new ways of thinking and new ways of utilizing resources we can make some progress against poverty.
In San Jose, Lea King, executive director of Silicon Valley Talent Partnership is recruiting data professionals as volunteers to help the poor and homeless. The distinction in this instance is that she wants them to use their exceptional technical capabilities to attack these old and persistent problems in new and different ways. She wants these highly skilled, technically trained and digitally oriented professionals to do what they do best everyday -- not just the usual volunteer work for such causes.  
Progress in addressing poverty starts with facing the harsh realities of poverty’s existence. Rep Paul Ryan’s proposal to consolidate a number of federal programs into a block grant -- thereby enabling states to try new and different things -- may or may not have merit, but it has certainly helped spur much-needed conversations. The half century since President Johnson declared “The War on Poverty” has shown us what doesn’t work. We know that we have new tools and new opportunities, but we must also face reality and continue to have a willingness to think in new ways, try new things and recommit to a responsibility of coming together to solve this significant challenge.
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.