Higher Ground in the Tea Party Sustainable Development Debate

The intense focus on sustainable development by the Tea Party creates a valuable learning opportunity.   It exposes core values and unstated assumptions, forcing us to be honest about our own motivations, hopes and dreams and to learn about the motivations, hopes, dreams, and unstated assumptions of people on the other sides of the debate.  It also provides an opportunity to build strength out of the diversity in our community and pride in the good fortunes we share.

Conflict can be good; it means we are digging into issues that matter and, hopefully, we are about to make important decisions leading to action. Public attention rarely focuses on sustainable development. Local land use planning meetings don’t normally overflow with concerned citizens demanding a voice.  We need take advantage of these opportunities in our communities to engage in and promote deliberation, civility, learning, and action.  Rather than getting mired in analysis paralysis, name calling and grand standing, let’s search for some higher ground.

Higher ground is where resolutions to conflicts exist.  Higher ground moves us beyond the lowest common denominator sometimes produced by compromise.  It is the sought after win-win-win solution that makes everyone better off.  It may be hiding in plain sight or it might be walled off by ideological feuds.  Or it might need to be constructed.  Regardless, finding and building higher ground requires trust, respect, and courage to participate in community deliberations and decision-making—and a willingness to live by the decisions reached through a fair and open process.

Where is the higher ground in the Tea Party – Sustainable Development debate? I suggest we focus on investment: investment in us, in our future, and in our infrastructure.

Sustainable development and smart growth often boil down to making decisions about infrastructure:  How should we build and maintain our communities in a rapidly changing world?  How should we plan to accommodate growth?  How can we do so in ways that don’t burden our future and ensure equal opportunities to the American Dream?

Infrastructure has many types: grey, green, hard, and soft.  It includes the transportation, information, and power systems as well as the food, water and waste systems, as well as finance, governance, and education systems.  Infrastructure creates jobs, not just to build and maintain it but by attracting businesses and residents to use it.  An efficient infrastructure also saves future taxes.  Because transportation, water, and education systems are dearly expensive, we should build them in ways and in locations that minimize their extent, maximize their access, and reduce long-term maintenance costs. For example, The American Society of Civil Engineers reported in Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure that deficiencies in transportation infrastructure cost Americans billions of dollars per year and hundreds of thousands of jobs. As another example of how infrastructure can save money, consider the potential erosion of our green infrastructure, which, up until recently, has protected our family and property from floods, filtered and stored clean drinking water, provided local access to fuel and food, and supplied opportunities for rest and relaxation, all free of charge.

Through wise investments in infrastructure we create jobs, improve human health, make a future for our children, save money, and create a strong America.  Without infrastructure these things are at risk and our communities will wither as hope and opportunities migrate to where better investments in infrastructure are made.

So how much should we invest? In what should we invest? Where should we invest it?  And how can we do this in ways that respect the freedoms and liberties that make America great?  Focusing on these questions will produce productive community deliberations.  Hopefully the answers will lead to higher ground.

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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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