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As EPA Chief, Does Christie Whitman Understand How to Grow?

Hope is former New Jersey governor brings Smart Growth experience to new job

January 17, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

How should the Bush administration direct the future of the nation’s ecological and economic integrity? What role will corporations play in a sustainable society?

Americans really won’t know for weeks. Yet several successful financiers are discovering a profitable new investment niche that will bolster the economy. That niche is filled with socially responsible companies, particularly those that acknowledge the fundamental relationships between their industrial operations and the environment. And it’s one that President-elect Bush and Governor Christine Todd Whitman, the incoming EPA Administrator, ought to pay attention to. 
For encouraging insight into this latest industrial evolution consider Herman Miller, Inc. A leader in the furniture industry, the Grand Rapids-based company continues to take voluntary, affirmative steps toward growing a sustainable society by asking farsighted questions such as "What does it mean to be serious about environmental protection?" "Is regulatory compliance enough?" and, perhaps the most conscientious inquiry, "what can we do?"

In 1995, Herman Miller answered some of these questions with a new manufacturing facility in Holland, MI. The building’s design accounted for, among other things, energy use, resource consumption, and the native rural landscape.

Through such holistic awareness, the company benefited from a seven percent reduction in natural gas use. Water and sewer costs have been cut by 65 percent. Electrical use has dropped 18 percent when compared to the company’s previous facility.

Though some extra expenses were incurred in the initial construction, the result of such innovative design will be cost savings over the life of the facility – music to a prospective investor’s ears.

Monetary profit, however, is just one byproduct of eco-accountability. Keith Winn, an advanced projects manager at Herman Miller, said so-called green building is not just about energy and resource efficiency, it’s about responding to people, and the needs of society.

The appointment of New Jersey Gov. Whitman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unfortunately does not yet answer the question.

New Jersey activists are nervous about Gov. Whitman’s resolve. Though the governor took serious steps to preserve open space and stem urban sprawl in the Garden State, she has also been criticized for catering to conventional corporate interests.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nationally active nonprofit group, surveyed NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employees and found that many believed the DEP de-emphasized environmental laws, masked scientific data, and hid information from the public under Whitman’s watch.

"According to the professional staff who worked under Gov. Whitman, pressure to block enforcement of anti-pollution laws, back-door efforts to gut regulations, and a pervasive fear of retaliation have been the hallmarks of her tenure," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Cozy accommodation of corporate violators appears to be her regulatory style."

If this management style comes to Washington, it could be bad news for an already slowing economy. First, unlike the Cold War era George Bush Sr. presided over, today’s investors demand a free-flow of truthful and timely information to initiate and secure their financial maneuvers.

Second, while corporations have been allowed to skirt eco-regulations on the front end in the past, too many times preventable environmental damage has come back to haunt the earnings potential of successful companies.

Throughout his campaign, George Bush called for a need to balance competing interests, implying that the economy and the environment remain rivals. However, that profitable growth and ecological protection continue as competing social agendas is a crucial misconception the new administration must not embrace.

Indeed, Herman Miller and many others such as Nike, the Gap, and Ford Motor Company are beginning to demonstrate that the economy and the environment have become mutually dependent and profitable allies.

Bush contends that Gov. Whitman is part of a growing consensus that believes environmental policy must move beyond "the old central command and control mindset that believes Washington D.C. has all the answers."

He is exactly right. Solutions to environmental problems will be found at the local level. However government must reward those innovative companies that expand their environmental stewardship, not subsidize the demising traditions of the old industrial revolution that have contributed to our current dilemma.

This is where future energy policy will be key. Will a Bush administration, with its strong ties to the oil industry, advance the nations increasingly unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels? Or will it look to promote cleaner technologies such as wind and solar power so that they may become viable options for consumers, and emerging markets, in the new economy?

Respected analysts contend that every dollar spent on conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy result in far more jobs than the equivalent spent on fossil fuels. Further, every time the nation has made the leap to more efficient, cleaner forms of energy – wood to coal, coal to oil, oil to gas – the nation has prospered financially. Thus, the environmental question of the moment is not one of growth vs. no growth – it’s agreed among rational folk that growth is good. The question is ‘how do we want to grow?’ And right now, every scientific and social indicator says growth that safeguards a nation’s natural resources will only strengthen its economic viability.

Therefore, environmental stewardship is one tool that promises to maintain America’s record economic expansion.

(A version of this article was published in The Paper, a Grand Rapids weekly, on January 4, 2001.)

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