The critiques of sustainable development by Tea Party activists are many and I review the specifics elsewhere. Here I summarize and critique five deeper issues that seem to simmer just below the surface and motivate many of the concerns:
1) Sustainable development is a socialist wealth redistribution program.
2) Sustainable development gives away local control and private property rights to “experts” from far away, including the federal government and United Nations, that may not have our best interests in mind and have done little of late to generate much confidence in their management skills.
3) Sustainable development elevates nature over humans, nature worship, and indoctrinates children with values inconsistent with Christianity.
4) Sustainable development is a deceptive and incremental strategy to bait communities onto a slippery slope with the promises of “no-strings-attached” money and “voluntary” participation.
5) Sustainable development is an attempt to destroy American Exceptionalism.
Wealth Redistribution: Sustainable development seeks fair distribution of benefits and costs within our community. Economic development projects are unfair if they distribute benefits to a few but distribute costs to others through tax burdens and health risks. Sustainable Development attempts to allocate the costs of development to those who enjoy the benefits, or it redirects development if developers are unwilling to assume the costs. Sprawling suburban development, for example, increases the value of property fortunate to be near public roads and utilities but increases costs of water management to those down stream, requires tax revenue for more police and schools, and increases traffic congestion that lengthens commutes of neighbors.
Sustainable development also seeks fair distribution of benefits and costs with our children’s generation. America is reeling from a spending splurge that produced a national debt so large we can’t figure out how to repay it. We are passing that burden on to our children. We also risk passing forward weakened ecosystem services, depleted natural capital, and decaying infrastructure. Sustainable development plans promotes careful investment in energy, utilities, and transportation infrastructure to replace the benefits we have extracted so that our children have the same opportunities we enjoyed.
Sustainable development also draws explicit attention to worldwide poverty. Several billion people live on just a few dollars a day, without access to clean water, adequate food, hope or dignity. However we chose to govern ourselves and distribute our prosperity, as moral beings we must also aggressively attack poverty. Sustainable development accepts that economic growth is the most successful means of pulling people out of poverty. Where that growth occurs and who benefits from it requires that we address how wealth is distributed.
United Nations Agenda to Take Property Rights: If critics would dig just a little deeper they would see United Nations Agenda 21 is intended to promote economic development, citizen voice and local control—it advocates the same devolution of power from nations and states to local authorities as does the Tea Party. Rather than an agenda to implement centralized planning and UN takeover, Agenda 21 was a response to the growing pressures of globalization that have depleted the resources, finances, and jobs of communities around the world. It is a call to local communities to take control and steer towards a thriving future rather than abandon themselves to the whims of market forces. As its preamble states, Agenda 21 is motivated to achieve the: “fulfillment of basic [human] needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future.” It recognizes that changing environmental conditions and the flight of fickle global capital will benefit some communities and damage others, and it assumes that communities taking an active role in shaping their futures are more likely to prosper than wither.
Assertions that smart growth, transit oriented development, infill, urban growth boundaries and related strategies will force people to abandon their rural or suburban homes and move into small, government-owned, high-rise housing, or hobbit-homes, is rhetorical hogwash. These strategies do not force people to relocate, instead they direct future growth in ways that promote economic prosperity and community vitality. Sustainable development is not about stopping growth, it is about directing how and where development occurs. Opponents of sustainable development need to think about where property “value” comes from. Most of a property’s development potential does not come from the land itself, but from its location relative to investment of infrastructure. Recall the real-estate adage: location, location, location. Property values result from public investment in transportation, energy, water, amenities, safety, and schools. Because of budget limitations, public infrastructure cannot be built near everyone’s property. Therefore not all property owners will benefit equally from public investments. Smart growth and comprehensive planning are efforts to make decisions about infrastructure location more efficient, transparent, participatory, and rational. It does not allocate those decisions to experts from afar but rather encourages communities to adopt strategies that include citizen participation. To do otherwise is to abandon infrastructure development to piecemeal and backroom deals.
Sustainable Development and Christianity: Conservative theologians worry that sustainable development privileges nature over humans, promotes nature worship, questions God’s omnipotence, and teaches children to value environmental concerns over Christian principles. Mother Earth, for example, gets portrayed in environmental messaging as a living, breathing, provider and creator of life, with little or no mention of God or the Bible. This portrayal of humanity’s relationship with God and earth contrasts with fundamental Christianity, as a minister lamented at a local Board of Supervisor’s meeting I recently attended: “Human beings were not created to sustain earth; earth was created to sustain humans.”
Other theologians suggest that human dominion over earth carries with it stewardship obligations to tend and keep creation (i.e., see the Evangelical Environmental Network). Most religious denominations now have policy statements recognizing that sustainable development embraces the Golden Rule: to do onto others as you would have them do onto you (i.e., see the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change). Resource exploitation that causes poverty, toxic pollution that causes illness, and climate change that induces famine are inconsistent with Jesus’ preaching about loving thy neighbor. Unsustainable development distributes burdens on people who did not cause them, often the poorest and least powerful among us.
Paralleling the evolution of environmental Christian theology through the late 20th Century has been a shift in professional environmentalism from environmental sustainability towards sustainable development. More recently, professional environmentalism has been struggling to deal with a self-directed, internal critique, which argues that in order for environmentalism to remain relevant, it needs to move towards a more human-centered agenda that embraces globalism, economic development, technological advancement, and infrastructure investment. The evolutions of environmental and religious thinking creates new common ground for collaboration among people and organizations with environmental, sustainable development, and religious agendas. It also creates a clear role for government leadership in efforts such as regional sustainable development planning.
Incremental Steps Lead Down a Slippery Slope: Sustainable development programs are often presented to local officials as voluntary and not usurping local control. But critics point out that if strings are not attached to the current round of planning grants, they will be attached to implementation grants. The initial grants are strategic ways to manufacture “buy in” at the local level and collect information that can be used further down the road to exert pressure. I don’t know how to refute conspiracy theories. It has been my experience that counter-claims and rebuttals to conspiracy theories just take the argument down another rabbit hole. I will simply state my belief that I do not believe there is a puppeteer manipulating a conspiracy to destroy America. I think it is impossible for anyone to see the entire picture well enough to manipulate a system as large and complex as ours. Instead, I chose to believe that my fellow Americans who advocate sustainable development have our best interests in mind as do my fellow Americans that advocate Tea Party policies. I prefer to place my trust in people in my community who participate in an open, deliberative planning processes—such as those advocated by sustainable development. I believe that decisions need to be made and that an open planning process will help make better decisions. Freedom has obligations, among them collaborating with others to plan a sustainable trajectory into the future.
I will, however, argue against blind fear of incrementalism and for adaptive management. Adaptive management is intentionally incremental. Difficult lessons learned from failed attempts at developing optimal master plans have taught planners to take small steps and evaluate the results before taking next steps. Following the process of adaptive management, a community negotiates which direction the first steps should be taken—towards which social, economic, and environmental conditions, then devises and implements strategies to achieve those goals, then evaluates the results before planning and taking the next step. The evaluations may point out that the strategy did not work, in which case another strategy is devised and implemented rather than throwing good money after bad. Alternatively, the evaluations may point out that the initial goals were achieved but the community may decide it does not like the outcomes as much as it thought it would, so it choses to adapt and use the new information to redirect its development trajectory.
Incremental change can be good. It prevents big mistakes. No one knows in advance which development trajectory is the right one for us to follow, what the future will hold. But one thing we can agree on is that change occurs—our communities will change, they will develop along some trajectory. Adaptive management—and incrementalism—is a process to direct that change through learning my doing.
American Exceptionalism: Times are difficult. Politics are polarizing. The future is uncertain. The Great Recession, mounting federal debt, and protracted wars are humbling. Chinese and Indian economies are creating new world powers. We hear about the rising gap between rich and poor and that our children may be the first American generation not to be better off than its parents. These conditions fuel insecurity and caution about new initiatives and make us susceptible to a rhetoric of fear.
But sustainable development projects should not be feared. They are investments in America’s infrastructure. They will strengthen our competitive advantage, support a stronger economy, promote national security, and reinvigorate pride and patriotism. Some communities will not survive the tests of time. Those communities that invest their resources wisely are more likely to thrive. Sustainable development planning efforts attempt to wisely invest a community’s resources.