KENNEDY: Failure of imagination could stop here

December 13, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyThere is a fair amount of evidence for the proposition that our fraying social fabric is a consequence of the fear and disorientation produced by ever-more-rapid social change. A significant percentage of the humans occupying our planet—especially in the good old U.S. of A.—were born into a world that looked very different from the one we inhabit now, and people’s tolerance for (let alone acceptance of) those changes varies considerably.

Entrepreneurs understand that changing markets require changing approaches; businesses must be both vigilant and nimble to keep up with morphing public opinion and consumer demand. Even a cursory look down the aisle of your local grocery provides evidence of merchants’ efforts to satisfy increased concern about the environment. For example: The shelves are filled with products proclaiming to be “green.”

Businesses have to be attentive to these concerns, because failure to meet consumer demands can be disastrous for the bottom line. Unfortunately, lawmakers and well-meaning civic organizations face fewer immediate consequences when they fail to adjust to new realities.

The environment is a case in point. The governor and several Hoosier lawmakers are screaming bloody murder over new rules promulgated by the EPA, because they want to protect Indiana coal producers. But even if the rules weren’t in the long-term best interests of all of us—which they are—Indiana already has many more people employed in clean energy production than in coal, and continuation of that trend is inevitable.

Nowhere is the contrast between old understandings and new realities more visible than in the current controversy in Anderson (my hometown), where many citizens want to spur development and the economy by flooding White River to create a reservoir. The project would destroy a bottomland hardwood forest, wetlands and riparian habitats. The Hoosier Environmental Council notes that it would threaten the capacity of our natural resources to protect air and water quality, convert waste back to its natural components, and provide pollination for crops and other plants, among other damages.

These are consequences that my own generation rarely considered, and harms the extent of which we are only now becoming aware.

The HEC is promoting an alternative that is more sensitive to the ecosystem and—interestingly—far more likely to spur economic development: a Mounds Greenway and White River Conservation Area. The greenway would protect the scenic views along the river and the wetlands that help filter polluted runoff before it reaches the river; it would also provide robust recreational opportunities—trail hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, picnicking and similar activities.

Like Indianapolis’ Monon Trail, it would also generate trailside development of everything from restaurants and coffee shops to bed-and-breakfasts and retail outfitters—far more robust economic activity than the sort of residential development likely to surround a reservoir.

I realize that our current level of social discord and unrest makes many of us despair of the prospects for thoughtful collective action, but we really have learned a lot that our forbears didn’t know. As difficult as it can be to accept new information about the natural environment we share, as disorienting as it can be to recognize that older ways of doing things no longer make sense, we need to resist the knee-jerk urge to reject newer approaches, and consider what credible evidence tells us.

A Mounds reservoir would be like taking an analog approach to a digital issue—and would testify to a profound failure of the Hoosier imagination.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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