Writing and Cashing Checks

I grew up in Queens, NY in the seventies, and came of age, therefore,  during Hollywood’s classic blaxploitation era.  Because we were so cool,  my running buddies and I used to impress ourselves by throwing around phrases that we’d absorbed in the balcony on Friday nights. One of our favorites was from Shaft:  ‘Don’t let your mouth write checks that your ass can’t cash’.

Improbably,  I was reminded of this when I saw the latest report from our friends at the Center for Progressive Reform.  In October of last year, the Center  and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law hosted the annual Ward Kershaw Forum on Friday, October 21, 2011. The event was a day-long exploration of how to ensure that Chesapeake Bay states and the EPA are accountable to each other and the public for Bay restoration efforts, particularly in light of decreased funding levels for permit writing, monitoring, and enforcement and repeated attempts to undercut the Clean Water Act.

We are big supporters of the Center and its allies in the environmental enforcement community (e.g. Environmental Integrity ProjectEarthjusticeChesapeake Waterkeepers, and, of course, the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic). Holding public officials accountable for enforcing the law  doesn’t provide the same thrills as working with those officials to pass the laws in the first place, but it is the venue in which the checks are cashed.

Getting Serious About Saving the Chesapeake Bay”  CPR’s Rena Steinzor, Aimee Simpson, and Yee Huang’s report on the October Kershaw Forum,   focuses on the steps that Maryland needs to take to insure that its environmental enforcement program can cash the checks that it’s legislature writes.

Its worth a read.

Redefining Progress, One State at a Time

What can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed 9 billion people within decades? Do we have a decent vision of prosperity for such a world? Is this vision credible in the face of the available evidence about ecological limits?…The prevailing response to these questions is to cast prosperity in economic terms and to call for continuing economic growth as the means to deliver it. Higher incomes mean increased choices, richer lives, and an improved quality of life for those who benefit from them. This, at least is the conventional wisdom. This formula is cashed out (almost literally) as an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

This passage is excerpted from a groundbreaking work of paradigm shifting economic analysis – Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.   Jackson, a Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, is one of the most well-known and well regarded members of a global network of academics and public intellectuals who are working to develop a new economics – one that proceeds from the premise that the economy is a subset of our ecological system and to be sustainable must operate in ways that respect the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Counter-intuitive as it may be, the opposite proposition – that there are no limits to how much we can and should use and discard of the planet’s resources – has a nearly hegemonic hold on us, with tentacles that intrude into even the most unlikely of places. Some (perhaps most) environmental advocates believe (perhaps correctly) that they have no choice but to frame the value of protecting the environment in terms of how doing so will help to create more new jobs and further grow our economy.

Making it safe to trouble these waters is no small task. Jackson and his fellow apostates recognize, however, that a key point of intervention involves challenging the calculus that equates expanded social prosperity with increased GDP.

Happily Maryland is ground zero for some of the United States’ most forward thinking work of this sort. Maryland is the first state to establish an official complement to the GDP/GSP.  Rather than equating progress with the total amount of economic activity within the state, the Maryland  Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) generates an aggregate measurement of economic, environmental, and social progress, a measurement that parses the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of economic growth, and also embraces value that resides outside of balance sheets.

With our help, the Institute for Policy Studies (a Washington-based think tank) is helping Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to expand awareness of the Maryland GPI, and to deepen its impact.  Their work together will be featured at the upcoming State of the State briefing of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Sean Maguire, at the Office for a Sustainable Future in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, is the Genuine Progress Indicator Program Manager . Sean was recently interviewed on WYPR.

Debunking Myth and Dislodging Ideology

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has recently released a report  – Debunking the Job Killer Myth – describing the various economic benefits that can be expected to flow from implementation of pollution control strategies and measures under the Bay TMDL.  The report also shows how polluters and their allies always claim that environmental regulations will produce job losses – losses that simply do not occur.

We think it is important to diligently contest the lies and inaccuracies that are recycled by polluters and their allies, and we applaud the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for doing so. We also recognize, however, that facts often constitute a feeble defense against ideology.

The impact of what CBF calls the ‘job killer myth’ is a function of how it both confirms and reinforces  a broader ideological narrative about ‘the market’ as the fount of freedom and prosperity and ‘government’ as, at best, a necessary evil. So long as the hold of this narrative persists, the ‘facts’ about the economic impact of environmental regulations  – important as they are – will have limited effect on our fellow citizens.

The fight to save the bay takes place against a potent ideological backdrop. Until we recognize and address that, we will be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.