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Stephen Gottlieb: Regionalism vs. The Environment

There’s been news recently about a decline in gas prices. Hallelujah? Or oh my God! Decline in prices means more people will build energy inefficient homes and invest in gas guzzling machinery or businesses. Some will benefit, but the world will suffer. How do we accommodate those inconsistent objectives?

That’s a constant struggle in the environmental movement. Yes there are jobs but I don’t need one. Fracking is bad but it offers some promise of profit to large corporations and many who expect to profit so that they want to frack. Some people have a farm or business in the desert where it puts great stress on the water supply or in climates where they will need to use a great deal of energy to keep their places warm or cool and they don't want to be told it’s in the wrong place for the world or the country – it’s just right for them.

We should be using deserts for wind and solar power. The sun is constant in the deserts. We should be using it to produce the power we need. Solar electricity could produce hydrogen, the ultimate greenhouse gas because it makes water when it burns. And it makes zero sense to try to grow things on the desert, to irrigate with water we need for drinking. We should be growing things on rich farmland, not damming it up or paving it over.

I had a student who was livid about the efforts of the Adirondack Park Agency to prevent locals from building – the fact that what the locals did had an effect on others didn’t impress her at all. I thought perhaps people in the cities are not only more used to regulation but also to the idea that individual desires have to be compromised. We need the trees – to suck in and hold as much carbon as possible.

But there's a problem. Who gets the benefits? In important ways we all benefit. It's good for the environment. It's good for jobs. It's good for our well-being everywhere. But everywhere is nowhere. The constituencies are local. The damage is local. And severe. The benefits are dispersed and only slowly visible. What we don't have are good ways to share the benefits and burdens. So we compete - either NIMBY, not in my back yard; or me me me me, I want it here; or no I don’t want to look at wind turbines or solar panels.

Our separate states may try to protect us but many won't help us organize the national environment sensibly, the who does what where, or invest in what we, as a nation, need to build, and other states can’t because the environmental problem is way beyond our local and state borders. The battle over pollution coming here from the midwest has been going on at least since the 80s – one of my neighbors and one of my students were deeply involved in the litigation with the state of Ohio over what was coming from their power plants that long ago. Canada joined New York in that litigation. But now as the result of almost continuous litigation since the 80s, some thirty years of litigation, we are finally on the verge of dealing with the midwestern power plants.

Environmental sense and environmental justice are possible. The federal tax code and federal regulations can make a big difference. Federal action is critical and an environmentally intelligent Congress is essential. So are our votes.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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