People on the Land: Candidates Need to Step up on ‘Greening’ Infrastructure

The U.S. needs to spend $3.6 trillion dollars by 2020 to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Vital public works projects could create a greener, more sustainable future for all of us. When are the presidential candidates going to start talking about it?

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It’s pretty widely accepted that bridges, roads and other so-called physical infrastructure in the United States have deteriorated and need to be restored or replaced.

A bit more than half of Americans are worried about global warming, according to the Gallup organization.

What’s the connection here?

We need public works that not only consider environmental impacts, but are, in reality, green, built to enhance natural resources and environmental sustainability. We need projects that go beyond shorter-run construction jobs. We need projects that focus on environmental maintenance and protection to create employment. Some projects will necessarily employ the environment for our use. Others might build the environment for future use. Most importantly, we need environmental preservation public works projects that clean and repair the Earth and enrich our human spirits and quality of life.

Global warming is more realistically called climate change. Republican candidates are openly hostile to discussions of carbon output, much less doing anything about the manifestations of climate change. In spite of this viewpoint (and I hope I am not misinterpreting the general thrust of what I understand the candidates are saying), I hope they will not tune this discussion out.

Sadly, crumbling infrastructure and public works programs have not been front burner issues in an already extended presidential election season. I am not the only one to notice this phenomenon, which may be related to Congressional passage late last year of a $305-billion transportation bill.

Last year’s transportation bill only scratches the surface. Our national dialog must extend beyond highly visible roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers recognizes our infrastructure quandary. In its 2013 report card, the society is harsh, giving the country a D overall for our infrastructure, including Ds in most areas related to natural-resource use and protection, such as dams, drinking water, levees, wastewater, and inland waterways, and energy. Public parks and recreation received a C. The society estimates the country needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to deal with our problems.

The civil engineers take a holistic view of infrastructure. The low grades suggest we are a highly wasteful society that is not paying enough attention to the way we handle our natural resources. The society’s scope of infrastructure areas and the work needed makes the transportation bill look teensy-weensy in comparison to what is really needed.

The recent highway bill is a massive public works bill. But it is limited, not only in dollars and cents, but in its goals. It is misdirected because it assumes continued reliance on fossil-based fuels for individualized transportation. Mass transportation takes a back seat. The measure’s main focus is anachronistic, based on a long tradition of federally financed highway-construction policy that expanded dramatically in the 1920s and 1930s.

Our politics and economy and the beliefs behind them reside in a mythical golden past. We think we can continue to operate in the same old growth-based ways that have disrespected the Earth. Many deny the mess we are in now.

On the other hand, those trying to fix the mess from the top down may be creating new problems. The impacts of the recently approved global warming pact are as yet uncertain, but the international, top-down approach may be problematic for communities.

Whatever the potential downside of the global climate agreement, we desperately need a wider dialog in this country, both in rural and urban America, about the future of our nation’s physical infrastructure and how it interacts with our natural resources. The discussion must include an assessment of local community (not individual) concerns and assets and their relationships with the regional, national, and global picture.

Even if communities have limited control over their natural resources—and, too often, this is the case—they remain a starting point for green infrastructure discussions and implementation of projects as part of a nested plan of local, regional, state, and national priorities. Sustainability and environmental concerns are ultimately place based. We need to create green employment in communities, in their back yards, including earthtrepreneurship, an idea I first discussed in the Daily Yonder in 2009.

For what it’s worth, here’s my wish. Discussion of physical infrastructure is good. But the talking needs to extend beyond roads and bridges. During this presidential election year, let’s launch an extended and intelligent discussion of restoring, preserving, and enhancing our country’s natural resource base as part of a discussion of public works.

There’s still time this election season. We deserve it.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
A personal levee protects a home surrounded by floodwater from the Yazoo River flooding in 2011 near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The author calls for infrastructure policy that benefits the whole community, not just individuals. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Let’s consider the broad areas of deteriorating infrastructure our civil engineers have identified and figure out how to bridge perceived disparities between use and preservation. We need more than an environmental impact statement and land mitigation for projects. We need to develop public works projects that are in sync with the environment, projects that restore existing physical infrastructure at the same time they enhance their natural setting. The discussion needs to focus not on “either/or,” but “both.”

Even if some presidential candidates cannot or will not accept the idea of climate change—a sadly misguided position, in my view—we still need to find common ground on natural resource investments that are incorporated into physical infrastructure improvements. The approach might allow benefits to accrue to private property owners and local communities and the larger body politic where public lands are concerned.

Today, the U.S. and the rest of the world face an unfolding environmental crisis whose impacts we are only beginning to understand. The geography of global environmental politics is daunting, but it need not create paralysis. Our national presidential campaign presents a chance to rationally discuss the problem and the opportunities it might create.

We need discussion about continuing commitment at all levels to meet the uncertain future of our environment and economy in ways that spread social and economic benefits more equitably while respecting what the Earth gives to us.

Green infrastructure projects can help us reduce the impacts of our activities on an earth already straining under our growing demands. Green job creation seems a good way to open more access to economic opportunity for the underemployed and the unemployed in our communities.

Rural areas have much to gain from this approach.

Which candidate will take the first step?

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

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