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Lessons from Hastings: no tradeoff between economics and environment; the need for reasoned argument; the goal of sustainable development

The legal and procedural battle behind Atlantic Yards is so fraught--did the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) really withhold the crucial Development Agreement until after oral argument in January regarding the project timetable?--that it's refreshing to see that some people believe in ideals.

A slate of three candidates in the suburban village of Hastings-on-Hudson was elected in March 2009 under the banner Hastings Forward, and a look at their web site (thanks to Google's cache but no longer available), pointed to an essay "Living Well in Our Landscape: Environmental Responsibility and Civic Community in Hastings," by Bruce Jennings.

(Why was I noodling around Hastings Forward? It was supported by Hastings resident Philip Karmel, the ESDC's lead outside lawyer in the Atlantic Yards cases.)

The highlights

Notably, Jennings argues that knotty issues "do not involve a choice between environmental conservation and economic development," since framing a trade-off wrongly "implies that economic development exists somehow in a vacuum unaffected by natural systems."

Rather than pit development against nature, he suggests that the issue is "responsible, careful development and economic improvement within the context of a sustainable relationship between human activity and natural system."

Moreover, a true forum "is not a shouting match, an occasion to assail one’s opponents" but "a space of civic imagination and reasoned, deliberative argument," he writes, suggesting that the result can be "adequately protective and sustainable modes of development."

Does that sound much like the ESDC process?

The essay
The responsible stewardship of our beautiful lower Hudson Valley landscape and the conservation of our open spaces and biodiversity are primary obligations of Hastings Village government. The Hastings Forward team — Peter Swiderski, Meg Walker and Bruce Jennings — is committed to this responsible stewardship as an intrinsic goal and as the touchstone for all the measures of good governance, economic improvement and enhanced quality of life for all of us in the years ahead. In this position paper I would like to address, not specific policies, but my orientation on two matters that are prior to policies, namely vision and community deliberation.

The outcome I would like to see in Hastings over the next few years of course includes specific initiatives and tangible accomplishments—such as beautiful trails, a restored quarry park, “green” requirements in our buildings, safer options for walkability. But I would also like to see, and will work hard to support, the revitalization among us of what I shall call ecological democratic citizenship and the creation of a civic community of conservation. I hope we can open a dialogue in the village and during the 2009 campaign about these goals. They are long-term and will force us to rethink how we conduct politics in the village, but they are so important to the future of our village — to the village our children will inherit.

In my view, we must understand that the issues looming large for Hastings—with our waterfront, with the zoning and planning of the remaining large tracts of private property, with the village comprehensive plan as a whole—do not involve a choice between environmental conservation and economic development. Framing this as a “choice” or a “trade off” implies that economic development exists somehow in a vacuum unaffected by natural systems. This is a misconception.

Human activity and natural systems
Natural systems are the foundation for all economic activity, and indeed all social activity. The question is not development versus nature, but responsible, careful development and economic improvement within the context of a sustainable relationship between human activity and natural systems.

Aldo Leopold, one of the great American conservationists, said that a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. When I was a young teacher in the 1970s, I thought that we were beginning to take seriously this notion of a “biotic community”—nature alive, not simply matter in motion; a biotic community of life and living of which human beings are inter-dependent members, not outsiders.

I remember the first Earth Day; I remember talking with my students and colleagues about the limits of growth, steady state, sustainability, the ecological conscience. And I remember exploring the argument that we could not relate properly to the biotic community without at the same time relating rightly to the social and political community. Living rightly in a biotic landscape, as Leopold would have us do, and living rightly in a moral commonwealth were inseparable. Ecological sanity and social justice go hand in hand.

Time to get back to work
Then, in approximately 1980, we as a people in the United States went to sleep morally, politically, imaginatively. (A hardy band of brave people living in Hastings at the time were an exception.) We are just now waking up.

It is time to get back to work; it is time to rejoin the conversation. The natural realities, constraints, and limits we were beginning to grasp thirty years ago have not gone away. No, on the contrary, they have become more pressing, and we have even less justification now for ignoring them, thanks to the scientific work that has been done in the interval.

I am convinced that Hastings as a community has a golden opportunity to become a leading, progressive forum for nurturing these new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking, for ourselves and our children.

A true 'forum' is not a shouting match
I use the term “forum” advisedly. The kind of forum we should seek is not a shouting match, an occasion to assail one’s opponents, or a sounding board for cynicism, suspicion, and speculation not supported by evidence or facts. Public meetings where that happens are all to easy and frequently achieved. A true forum for ecological democratic citizenship is much more difficult and valuable for any community. But we in Hastings can achieve it.

A true forum is a space of civic imagination and reasoned, deliberative argument. The voices heard there are pragmatic, not dogmatic. They are voices inspired by seriousness of purpose and openness to other perspectives and to new facts. They are voices that speak with urgency, yet are mindful of the complexity we face of the fallibility to which we are prone. Such forums are places where exacting thought is applied to the most serious and crucial of problems, but done in the spirit of camaraderie, mutual respect, care, and joy. Such forums are open and welcoming to all. They thrive on lively debate and constructive disagreement. They do not always require common answers (consensus), but they seek common questions, and they rely on common sense.

Elected officials can get things done
Environmental values and economic interests cannot be well-integrated in policy—in zoning laws or in comprehensive plans or in specific decisions about particular projects and sites—unless they are properly defined and assessed in the first instance. Ecological, scientific literacy and a discourse of civic values are essential to that task. Robust grassroots debate and mutual engagement can create the basis for an entirely new way of thinking and talking about these issues in a given community. The terms of old political animosities and stalemates can be loosened, rethought, and broken down. Pragmatic compromises and adequately protective and sustainable modes of development can be discerned. On this basis, elected officials in our village (and our region) can actually function as leaders that get things done, as builders of consensus and community, and as trustees of the public good.

It is toward this end that, if elected, Peter Swiderski, Meg Walker, and I will strive. Yes, in Hastings this can be done. (12/21/2008)

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