The evolution of environmentalism in Vermont has followed the pattern that has prevailed throughout the world: The creative destruction of the industrial age has provoked an inevitable effort to enhance what is creative and to ameliorate what is destructive.
Vermont’s story is told in a new book by Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey, chronicling Vermont’s efforts to guide the changes that were, perhaps, most emblematically represented by the arrival of the interstate highways. Vermont was and still is a predominantly rural state, but before the construction of the interstates, beginning in the late 1950s, the difficulty of getting from here to there over the state’s mountainous terrain was a substantial obstacle to commerce and travel.
The interstates opened up Chittenden County, in particular, to rapid development. The arrival of IBM in Essex Junction was no coincidence.
But the costs of progress quickly became apparent. Improved roads and the advent of the ski industry exposed Vermont’s mountains to the arrival of thousands of vacationers and the construction of shoddy vacation homes leaking sewage openly into the environment. In response, Republicans and Democrats joined forces to establish a pioneering land-use law, Act 250.
The debate about environmental regulation in Vermont turns on the question of whether regulation places an excessive burden on the economy. Business has long objected to the costs of complying with regulation. But Courtney and Zencey argue that it is altogether proper to build environmental costs into the front end of a development.
The question is how to pay for what are called externalities. A factory that belches pollution into the atmosphere creates a cost that is external to its operation: the cost of caring for citizens with lung disease, for example. A factory that leaves behind toxic pollution creates an externality that has to be cleaned up later by taxpayers. A development that clogs highways with unmanageable traffic creates an externality that may overwhelm a community.
The point of environmental regulation is for these costs to be acknowledged up front and for developers to take responsibility for part of the costs they are creating. Courtney and Zencey call it “a necessary accommodation of private interest to public good.”
Environmentalism has evolved in response to a variety of affronts to the natural world. President Theodore Roosevelt created the national forests in response to the destruction of vast tracts of forestland in the Upper Midwest and West. Urban planning was driven partly in response to the destruction of neighborhoods by developers such as Robert Moses in New York City. Clean water laws followed the poisoning of our waterways, made dramatic when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Clean air laws came in response to the smog choking our cities. Regulations requiring developers to minimize the destruction they cause are a way to make them own up to the externalities.
As environmentalism is an inevitable complement to industrial development, scrutiny of regulation is an inevitable complement to regulation. No one wants an economy rendered sclerotic because of a cumbersome bureaucracy. That’s why policymakers in a new era of environmentalism have sought to harness the economy to achieve environmental goals.
Carbon trading schemes have been devised, with dubious success, for minimizing carbon emissions. It’s important that in trying to make regulation palatable we don’t lose sight of the goals the regulations are meant to achieve.
Vermont’s record is good so far. In the past half century, we have not been befouled by industry or overwhelmed by shoddy development. Vermonters continue to cherish the environment and have shown little sign that they are willing to sacrifice the value of an untrammeled landscape for economic gain. The surge in public opposition to ridgeline wind development suggests that even the goal of reducing carbon emissions does not override Vermonters’ love of their mountains and woodlands.
Vermonters have an intimate, firsthand knowledge of the natural world and are well positioned to pioneer new avenues in facing up to the changes in store.MORE IN Editorials
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