In 2009 the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law hosted a symposium entitled “Growing Green Communities: Infrastructure Development and the Environment.” Professor Timothy P. Duane delivered the keynote address, focusing on the challenges of green infrastructure development in Vermont and beyond. Professor Duane’s speech offered perspective on where green infrastructure development is today and where it could go in the future. As Professor Duane noted, infrastructure is inextricably linked with land use and a healthy environment, and so it is worthwhile to take a moment to theoretically explore the concept of infrastructure development.
Professor Duane led the discussion of green infrastructure development by addressing urban sprawl, which had plagued Vermont as well as the rest of the United States. Recognizing that urban sprawl is much less “green” than the walkable model of cities like Amsterdam, Professor Duane questioned whether Americans can change their land use patterns. To inform his discussion, Professor Duane used other experiences from America’s recent past. For example, Professor Duane noted that about 60 years ago in 1948, 30 of the 48 states had miscegenation laws. The rampant discrimination manifested in these laws was slowly eroded—first in the 1948 Perez v. Sharp decision by the California Supreme Court that struck down a miscegenation law, affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Loving v. Virginia. The domino of events that followed further eradicated codified discrimination, including the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act. Forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech “I have a dream,” Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.
Professor Duane discussed these events to give perspective on timeframes: these events radically changed American civil rights in about sixty years. What could we—as residents of Vermont and Americans—do with similar gusto to shape infrastructure development to be green, to promote environmental protection, and foster healthy communities? What are the impediments to achieving these goals?
Professor Duane’s answer to this question is that we could indeed achieve all of these goals. He uses the example of civil rights to identify three lessons we must recognize when working towards these ends:
“One lesson is that cultural values can and indeed do change. . . . The second principle is that it takes an awful long time to change [cultural values]. I don’t want to say, ‘Okay, cultures and values change; therefore, it might take too long to change them to deal with the crises of climate change and some of the other problems we face,’ but I do want to start with the premise that they can change.
A third principle is that power never gives itself up willingly. I wanted to say rarely, but I think never is a more accurate description. There is always something present that changes the power-relationship, and that something present might be political, it might be legal, it might be economic, but something that motivates power giving itself up. The fact that power is entrenched in current systems and patterns of American civilization—in terms of transportation systems, in terms of land use patterns, in terms of energy systems—is something we have to acknowledge directly if we are to see the implementation of all the great ideas that are out there, because to the extent that those great ideas impinge upon power’s prerogatives, power will resist them.
Finally, I think the other principle that I see when thinking about the civil rights experience is that neither politics nor law is sufficient alone to achieve change. Passing a law ultimately depends upon political factors, but it also is insufficient unless you also organize and mobilize the political side of people accepting that those legal changes are in fact valued and maintained and supported over the long term.”
Applying these principles to a timeframe of 20 to 80 years, Professor Duane proposed that the “three dimensions of land use, transportation, and energy” could reduce urban sprawl’s burdens on the earth and communities if addressed through (1) consistent policy dedicated to promoting new technology, and (2) addressing cultural norms.
Professor Duane’s first recommendation was for the implementation of green infrastructure technology in a consistent manner. He illustrates the need for consistency by recounting his own work on alternative energy sources, such as solar panels in 1979, and his writing on the risks of foreign oil dependency in the 1980s. At that time, funding for solar panels was inconsistent, putting the pioneers of renewable technology out of business. No one paid much attention to Professor Duane’s paper on foreign oil dependency, despite the oil price shocks that occurred in the relatively recent past.
To solve the issue of consistent funding for new technology, Profess Duane recommended that American tax policy resemble a relatively simple European tax policy: heavily tax things the government does not want people to do and use the money to reinvest in new technology. Applying such a tax sends price signals that discourage socially detrimental behavior. Professor Duane offers the example of taxing the price of oil as a disincentive to drive cars. But Professor Duane notes that this tax can only achieve green infrastructure goals when reinvested in socially desirable alternatives. In keeping with the transportation example, Professor Duane recognized the challenge of finding an alternative to driving a car in Vermont, where public transportation is minimal—but acknowledged the benefits of carpooling and taking shuttles.
Ultimately, Professor Duane concluded that green infrastructure depends on more than consistent policy and new technology. “Ultimately, I think that my dream . . . depends on more than technology and depends upon more than law; it depends upon fundamental, transformative cultural change.” Thus it is the cultural attitude in Vermont 100 years ago that created the infrastructure in place today, and it will be the cultural attitude in Vermont that maintains this infrastructure—or decides on a new mode of living. Just as some of the greatest strides the in civil rights movement occurred entirely within single lifetimes, green infrastructure development could make momentous steps forward in the lifetime of the readers of this blog. We could see the same dramatic results. But there must be a beginning in order to achieve an end.
For the full keynote address, see Timothy P. Duane, Growing Green Communities: Infrastructure Development and the Environment, 10 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 379 (2009).