Spring 2001 Newsletter

Is a Sustainable Region Possible?
Third & Final Segment by David Kyler
Executive Director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast

Two previous issues (Summer and Fall 2000) featured the first installments of this three-part series looking at regional growth trends, implications, and alternatives. Briefly, highlights of trends already analyzed are as follows:

  • Rapidly expanding areas of disturbed landscape, including use of poorly drained and unsuitable areas;
  • Mounting threats to property from exposure to erosion, flooding, and storms, with related public costs;
  • Increasing discharge of contaminants into air and water, threatening human health and nature-based business;
  • Accelerating costs of public facilities (water & sewer lines, schools, etc.) needed to support continuing growth;
  • Displacement of traditional neighborhoods and cultural groups due to increasing property taxes;
  • Critical limits on water supply for both urban and rural needs, raising disputes among various user groups; and
  • Risks to human health and economy caused by lack of understanding about ecosystem functions and their value.

Regulatory Fragmentation
Environmental regulations are often misunderstood by the public and elected officials, while their enforcement is often criticized for being fragmented and uncoordinated. There are two important implications of these problems.

  • 1. Enforcement is inadequate, with too little field sampling, assessment, and follow-through on permit conditions.

  • 2. Elected officials and regulators continue to make critical decisions based on incomplete, short-term views - with inadequate consideration of the replenishment capacity and other baseline requirements of key resource systems such as rivers, groundwater aquifers, and wetlands.

Local Control vs. Political Reality
Distinctions between the legal authorities granted to state and local levels of government make effective action difficult. For instance, although most water pollution is caused by non-point sources such as building construction, storm-water runoff from parking lots and chemically saturated lawns, and soil erosion, most decisions related to these activities cannot be directly controlled by state environmental agencies. Under Georgia law, cities and counties have exclusive control over land-use decisions, including approval of development projects (location, building density, vegetative buffers, etc.) and supporting infrastructure (roads, water/sewer service, schools, police and fire protection). Furthermore, the technical expertise needed to make such decisions is often lacking at the local level due to funding limitations, and many communities incorrectly fear that setting strict environmental standards will reduce their ability to capture vaguely imagined economic opportunities. Growth indicators can be used to help achieve desired control over community development, but few cities or counties presently use them. (See box.)

Examples of Community Indicators
  • Number/percentage of jobs held by individuals already living in the community; rate of employment.
  • Percentage of local earnings spent within the community.
  • Amount/percentage of employer payrolls spent on training and education.
  • Number/percentage of jobs based on sustainable use of local resources.
  • Number/percentage of existing structures used for new activities (residential/commercial/industrial).
  • Water Conservation: volume of water used per capita; per employee; per unit of product, by industry.
  • Land Use: acres of developed land per capita; per employee; per business; amount/portion of acreage with mature-tree cover; amount/percentage of wetlands/wildlife habitat restored/undisturbed.
  • Number/percentage of water, sediment, and/or tissue samples with excessive contaminant levels.
  • Number/percentage of adults with high school diploma; technical training; college degree; other.
  • Number/percentage of high school drop-outs.
  • Crime rate and number - violent, non-violent.
  • Distribution of income and property ownership by race, national origin.

With adequate staff assistance (and funding), local governments could do a much better job of managing growth by setting development objectives and using critical indicators to measure results. With commitment to locally adopted goals and control devices (reliable land-use ordinances, well-designed and planned public facilities, tree protection, etc.), coastal communities could vastly improve their ability to evaluate and direct local patterns of change. Without such measures being adopted, the region's environment will continue to be subject to isolated decisions that cause loss of community character, erratic economic performance, and jeopardy to natural resources.

The Myth of Technological Solutions
The success of some of our most effective modern technologies has led us to assume that all problems we create have technological solutions - which they most assuredly do not. Among the most difficult challenges to resolve with technology are environmental ones. Additional problems are often created by attempts to engineer solutions to environmental constraints, due to inadequate understanding about how complex natural systems function and the proper conditions needed to sustain them. Decisions made to promote growth, despite mounting indications of problems being caused by growth, are often rationalized by the assumption that technical solutions can be found. Examples of technological failures abound: sea walls, intended to protect ocean-front property, can accelerate shoreline erosion; flood-control projects may eventually create worse flood damage than ever before; and highways built to alleviate traffic may soon generate record-breaking grid lock.

By artificially over-extending the capacity of natural resources to support human activities, we often create still other problems - such as pollution of water and fish from wastewater treatment plant discharges and seepage of septic tank drain-fields, respiratory problems caused by emissions of cars and power plants, and water-supply shortages due to excessive industrial withdrawals. Balancing support of human activities within realistic limits of natural systems is not readily accomplished - but we seem to be unwilling to get serious about it until there is a crisis. We are taking increasing risks by stabbing in the dark, making unwise trade-offs to gain questionable short-term benefits having ominous long-term consequences for this and future generations.

The Precautionary Principle
Despite having limited understanding about certain aspects of environmental conditions and capacities, we know enough to be able to reduce unjustifiable risks. In addition to being more conscientious about using currently available information (water tables, soil permeability, pollution sources, toxic exposure, etc.), we must realize that not every environmental risk is worth taking, and not all development proposals are equally desirable. To ensure that we avoid threats to human health and biological systems, we should adopt policies that prevent actions from being taken whenever their consequences are uncertain but potentially harmful. Comparable to a universal doctrine of medical practice, we must first seek to do no harm as we make decisions affecting our environment.

By adopting this 'precautionary principle' we will accomplish at least two important things. First, we will be placing a premium on practical research and its application in decisions about resource use and protection. By deferring decisions that jeopardize human health and natural resources until there is enough reliable information (to reduce risk to an acceptably low level), there will be greater political and financial support for environmental research, monitoring and assessment. Second, the precautionary policy will bring a shift in the 'burden of proof', requiring those who wish to use or disturb resources to provide impartial, compelling evidence that their activities are benign. Under current practices, in the absence of conclusive proof of adverse effects, an environmental permit is most often issued - meaning that those who think they will be harmed must produce the evidence, an impractical and unfair burden for most at-risk groups. If evidence is gained only after the permit is issued and adverse impacts are incurred, there is sometimes irreversible damage - and in any case, the cumulative public costs may be enormous.

Because the benefits from a specific environmental permit are usually concentrated, typically gained by the permit holder and related business investors in the short-term, while the costs are spread among a multitude of the public over a much longer period, decisions now tend to favor permit applicants. Furthermore, because adverse effects are dispersed over time and space, once they occur they are often extremely difficult to trace to specific polluters or environmental disturbances. Decisions based on undervalued future benefits of natural resources ignore their growing value to society.

For all these reasons, it appears increasingly obvious that we need new ways to predict and evaluate environmental risks, as well as more responsible procedures for avoiding them. To better address such issues, we must change our priorities and practices, based on the realization that protecting our landscape and waterways is in the long term interest of everyone. Redefining self interest in terms of the fundamental value of natural resources is imperative if coastal Georgia is to fulfill it's potential in years to come.

For Series Reprints contact the Center at 912-638-3612

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