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The Unintended Consequences of Our Push for Sustainability

Policy decisions that seem to make sense at the national or regional levels should not sacrifice the environmental quality and economic future of communities directly impacted by them.

Aerial view of a solar installation in Virginia.
A solar farm in Southampton County, Va., build on farmland. A state program aimed at weaning the state from fossil energy is resulting in farmland being converted and forests being cut down for solar installations.
(Photo: Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission)
Last December, President Biden signed Executive Order 14057, entitled “Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability.” The Biden order itself does not define “sustainability.” The most generally accepted definition is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” from the 1987 report of the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission.

As is true of EO 14057, sustainability is most often associated with policy initiatives promoting renewable energy and elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. In the process, however, the term has become over-simplified, overused and inappropriately narrowly applied.

Often, it is the economic dimension of sustainability that receives inadequate attention. Families require jobs to thrive. Rural populations whose economies are tied to agriculture, mining or tourism understand their direct dependence on the resources provided by nature; their urban cousins are more likely to be both physically and intellectually separated from that reality.

Since the majority of the nation’s population lives in cities, the national political balance of power tilts toward the urban voter. This can lead to sustainability policy decisions that seem to make sense at the national or regional levels but that can lead to unsustainable outcomes at the local level.

For instance, a central tenet of conventional sustainability policy is that the combustion of coal must cease to reduce climate change. For the 26 U.S. counties identified by Columbia University as coal-mining dependent, this policy will lead to social disruption, economic devastation and most likely higher rates of suicide, crime and family disintegration. That’s not sustainability for the people in those communities.

The same can be true of other well-intentioned efforts to curb climate change. In Virginia several years ago, for example, the Legislature and the governor decided it would be a good idea if the commonwealth were to wean itself from fossil energy. They enacted the Virginia Clean Economy Act with statutory deadlines for the state’s electric utilities to convert to renewable energy. The law waived a number of requirements that would typically subject new energy projects to rigorous environmental reviews and demonstrations of cost-effectiveness.

This has resulted in a modern-day land rush, with hundreds of solar industrial facilities being proposed, most frequently in poorer parts of the state. Forests in those areas are being cut down and farmland is being converted to solar installations, all in the name of sustainability. Soil erosion and stormwater management in those watersheds is thereby becoming increasingly problematic. Tens of thousands of acres of trees that store carbon may be killed for solar energy facilities — facilities intended to reduce Virginia’s carbon footprint. The economic sustainability of small rural communities is being jeopardized in the process.

Wildfire is another example of how sustainability’s goals can conflict. It is an increasing problem across the United States, particularly in the West. Television and social media focus on the houses burned, people killed or injured, and families evacuated. Protecting homes is the understandable focus of firefighters, because that is where people live and that is what urban firefighting is all about. However, if a wildfire sterilizes the rangeland that feeds the livestock upon which ranching families and their suppliers and customers depend, then the associated community’s sustainability is at risk even if their physical survival is assured.

Similarly, if a landowner had to choose between protecting his house from a wildfire or protecting the forest that has supported his family economically for generations, and potentially for generations to come, what would be the right decision? Houses can be insured and rebuilt, but a 75-year-old stand of trees, once destroyed, is gone for generations, along with the livelihood of the community it supported. From a sustainability point of view, firefighting strategy needs to consider not just the structures to be protected but the long-term economic viability of communities threatened by wildfire.

To be equitable and a net positive in the long run, sustainability policy needs to consider its implications over time and space. Sustainability decisions designed to serve the national or global good should not sacrifice the environmental quality and economic future of communities directly impacted by them, especially when those communities are low-income and more vulnerable than their urban counterparts.

Congress and state legislatures, and the executive branch agencies that implement the laws they pass, need to be mindful of the unintended but often serious locally unsustainable outcomes of policy decisions meant to achieve sustainability at the statewide or national level.

The Brundtland Commission had it right in reminding us that sustainability needs to meet the needs of the present. Local communities that would be harmed by higher-level policy decisions have a right to have their own sustainability considered. Good public policy requires that the needs and aspirations of the people living in these communities not be sacrificed for some kind of inadequately defined “greater good.”

Scott Cameron is a former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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