The State of the Union and the environment


When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tomorrow night he'll likely focus much of his attention on the economy and jobs -- and the lack of them in this country. It's also expected that the President will further signal a centrist drift.

It's unlikely the President will spend much time discussing the environment. When he does, expect him to focus heavily on initiatives intended to spur job growth through new energy projects and infrastructure -- think wind turbine manufacturing, solar cell installation and electric cars. I also wouldn't be surprised if there is some talk of building efficiency where it relates to the construction industry. Of course, the President will no doubt acknowledge the damage wrought by last year's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the heart of the President's message will be an emphasis on economic growth. Nothing's wrong with that, but I wouldn't expect much analysis of the relationship between social and environmental justice.

Doing so might admittedly be a little too esoteric for a State of the Union address, but that doesn't mean there isn't an approach to discussing clean energy that won't have implications for people's access to clean, healthy, equitable communities and economic opportunity. That's why I also agree with Andrew Revkin's post in which he suggested that “the national discourse on energy and climate has been left to the loudest voices, many of which, at best, are highly selective in dealing with facts and, at worst, utterly duplicitous.” No one gains from such a shrill discourse, least of all everyday people.

Revkin also said that graduate students in engineering and energy-related sciences should be included in the discussion, as should be “the people in gas country,” which include many in the West seeking more information and a less-obscured dialogue about the impacts of fracking, for example, as well as those in coal country, which could increasingly shift from Appalachia to the West's growing coal operations. Absolutely. Let's also include wage-earners and farmers and tribal representatives and small business owners and the unemployed.

Moreover, any economic growth the President champions must be stable and reach broadly. Growth and job creation that isn't nourished, stable, healthy and well situated in the world in which it occurs won't last. Not only is such short-lived growth unjust to the populations that depend on the economic security it promises, it won't be of any long-term business or political value. That's particularly important in the West because of the fallout we're still dealing with from the housing boom, as I mentioned last summer in my first “A Just West” post.

Following up on his weekend post, Revkin introduces Nobel laureate Richard Smalley who, as Revkin put it, “argued that only an energy quest could simultaneously address nearly all of the challenges attending humanity’s growth spurt,” a quest that would be similar to the multifaceted approach during the space race that was required to make the moon landing a reality. I would add that without such a complete, focused rethinking of the way we acquire and reuse energy any growth, any security that we pursue will be short-lived and no favors are done for our citizens, our communities, our businesses or our planet by directing our efforts and resources to endeavors we know are doomed from the start.

Still, as citizens, we also have a responsibility to be part of any such “quest,” as effectively expressed Monday by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Isabel V. Sawhill in a blog post assessing the economic state of the nation:

“In the meantime, we should call on individuals to fill some of the gap by helping their neighbors, donating to nonprofit organizations, volunteering their time, starting small businesses, learning a new skill, or going back to school.”

We can't expect government alone to solve these problems – and we certainly can't expect governmental actions to assuage our environmental worries. Instead, we must take responsibility for our future.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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.

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