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America's Farthest Reaching Environmental Issue

America's farthest reaching environmental issue

December 1, 1996 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, two ideas have served as the central organizing principles of American environmentalism. The first is the lesson from Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, that everything in nature is connected. And the second is that there are good guys and bad guys -- the battles over Love Canal and the spotted owl are among the most famous examples.

As environmentalism matures, the Silent Spring lesson is becoming more inclusive. While advocates always have noted that the health of the planet is essential to human health, too often environmentalism has been seen as an elitist cause, something to worry about after more pressing issues like crime, education, job security, housing, and juggling work and family.

A new environmental ethic now is evolving, one that recognizes the importance of economic, social, and cultural connections, as well as natural ones. It comes from a recognition that humans need to be comfortable in their own niche and habitat.

The broadening of environmentalism also means that it no longer is always a good guy/bad guy issue. Groups that in the past might automatically have been considered adversaries now are often effective partners, as they identify practical alternatives to wasteful or polluting methods.

All of these ideas are converging to stimulate debate about America's farthest-reaching environmental issue: suburban sprawl.

Long relegated to the domain of eye-glazing matters like foot-thick zoning ordinances, plat maps, and sewer systems, reining in sprawl is emerging as a central organizing principle.

It is uniting activists, leaders, and concerned citizens from a wide diversity of interests -- from local chambers of commerce, to advocates for affordable housing and mass transit, to farmers getting priced out of business, to local governments trying to finance essential services, to conservationists worried about increased air and water pollution and loss of open space, to soccer moms tired of spending all day in the car.

They are discovering that misguided tax policies, transportation subsidies, and economic incentives have hollowed out cities and paved over farmland. They see that these policies are becoming the primary challenges to safeguarding natural resources, improving air and water quality, and protecting biodiversity.

They are recognizing that the splendid isolation of the conventional suburb is resulting in a loss of community. They also see that sprawl is hampering the economy, and interfering in the nation's sense of well-being.

It's no accident, argues author James Kunstler, that as investment was re-directed outside of cities to the sprawling suburbs, a wave of social problems swamped America: crime, declining education standards, a lack of confidence in government, harried lives, and incivility. Sprawl has become the embodiment of what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bruce Catton, who was raised in Benzonia, called the "fearful heritage" of the 20th Century.

Farmland continues to be paved over for housing developments and parking lots at an astonishing rate. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 1.1 million acres of prime crop land are lost to sprawl every year in the United States. In Michigan, 10 acres are lost each hour, or nearly 100,000 acres a year, according to a recent assess-ment by the state Department of Agriculture.

To understand just how deeply concerns about sprawl are penetrating into communities, consider what is happening in rural northwest Michigan. The very same mixture of economic, technological, and demographic trends that already have overtaken countless places in America are pressuring local leaders. Land is being divided and built out at a dizzying pace. Property values and school enrollment are soaring. National chain retailers are rolling in. Traffic congestion is worsening.

The local conversation is taking into account the inter-relatedness of the issues. For example, residents are worried about water pollution in the sparkling clear inland lakes and rivers. The largest uncontrolled source of water pollution comes from runoff. Addressing the problem means enlarging riparian habitat and wetlands, and slowing the spread of concrete and asphalt -- all of which falls under the heading of land use.

Another concern is about increasing air pollution. There is little chance that air quality will improve unless people drive less. This will not happen while the population of automobiles in northwest Michigan, as in the rest of the nation, is increasing twice as fast as the number of people, and when households generate an average of nine auto trips a day. Despite more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions, the increase in automobile travel is expected to make air pollution considerably worse in 2010 than it is today, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The solution for northwest Michigan will depend on generating the political will to encourage alternatives to cars for people to get where they want to go. It means creating orderly neighborhoods where shopping, services, offices and entertainment are close enough to homes to make walking, biking, ride-sharing, and mass transit more convenient. Again, the answer lies in redefining how land is used.

The discussion about growth also has centered on how to preserve the region's forests, orchards, and small town life. In public meetings, residents predict that sprawling growth will accelerate the pace of life, that crime will rise, that taxes will climb, and that big box superstores will replace family-owned businesses. In effect, they are expressing their deepest fears about the very pattern of civilization that once was held up as the highest attainment of economic progress.

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