« Return to this article

Know the West

Growth, economics and justice


As I fretted over what to write in my debut post for A Just West, my mind kept returning to a controversy I used to follow in my first two professional journalism jobs. At both the Pacific Coast Business Timeand the Ventura County Reporter, I covered the story of truck traffic from rock aggregate mines in the Los Padres National Forest through the Ojai Valley. For those unfamiliar, Ojai is a small mountain retreat about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Though the valley is famous for movie stars and private boarding schools, it's also home to hardworking families, rustic ranches, and stunning wilderness. In other words, like much of the West, it's a little bit of glitz and a little bit of grit. 

When a few years ago local authorities decided to permit increased trips of trucks carrying rock aggregate (an important component in roads and other construction projects) through the valley, a coalition of environmentalists and local stakeholders complained the move would increase noise, pollution, safety risks, highway damage and other problems. Mine owners and their allies, on the other hand, insisted that the coalition itself posed the environmental danger. If the opponents got their wish, trucks destined for nearby coastal communities would have to be routed so circuitously that each truck would emit hundreds of additional pounds worth of carbon, not to mention adversely impact many more smaller, possibly less well-organized communities they'd pass through.

The point is an important one however, the question rarely answered or asked was why it was an either/or situation. The quick answer at the time was that the region's growth demanded it. If the nearby cities of Oxnard and Ventura didn't buy aggregate from these mines, they'd buy it elsewhere.

Similar controversies aren't isolated to Southern California, but seem to underscore the nature of environmental conflict in the West, as seen in this 2009 story from Seattle. They often play out in scenic regions such as Ojai or Sonoma, where it's easy to cast opponents as NIMBYists eager to foist unpleasant industrial activities on less affluent, and less organized communities or, simply, as opponents of growth and economic vitality.

I thought of the controversy as I read this July 26 Oregonian story about draft environmental permits issued for a plasma gasification plant on a landfill in Eastern Oregon. Backed by Bend, OR.-based InEnTec and Texas-based Waste Management, the project would be eligible for more than $15 million in energy tax credits because it would generate electricity from solid waste. If its backers are correct, it would also be more efficient and less polluting than waste incinerators. On the other hand, critics challenged claims about pollution levels expected from the plant and argued it would be far less efficient than recycling or cutting back on the 4.5 pounds of trash produced by the average American each day. The article described the plan as “The latest attempt to turn the nation's municipal garbage – the titanic jumble of trash from households and businesses – into a resource, make money off it and cut waste going into landfills” and mentioned that it was expected to generate 16 full-time jobs.

That mention then shifts the discussion from one about the energy required to heat the waste to 20,000 degrees or how effectively its backers simultaneously encouraged waste-reduction to one about business and economic recovery. Similar rhetoric peppers arguments for domestic natural gas production. With a report this month from the U.S. Energy Information suggesting that natural gas consumption continues to weaken, why are deals continuously struck in support of gas line construction, often to the detriment of other interests?

Unfettered Growth Forever!

It's because we continue to depict growth as the only path toward economic stability. Rather than pursue better, we act and think quickly and instead pursue more. On the surface, efforts to advocate for less vocal populations, job creation and retention is commendable, but what if when we weighed the impacts on multiple stakeholders we tried to avoid pitting each against another and instead addressed the demand forcing us to make such decisions?

If we measure recovery by how many new, albeit efficient, energy generators we can build, how many raw materials we can consume or how much waste we can manage we'll have learned nothing about this recession. Why not instead shift our attention – and jobs and dollars – to adaptation and reuse? Why not put people to work on a creative reinvention of society, even if that means also employing planners and lawyers to rewrite the rules. A green economy must not simply construct a facade of sustainability over our old models, particularly in the West, where unmanageable growth both ravaged the environment and laid the first precarious foundations of a now collapsed housing market.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.