Minding Our R’s and E’s: Earth Day 2010

Apr 23, 2010   //   by PlanSmart NJ   //   Speaks Out Blog  //  Comments Off on Minding Our R’s and E’s: Earth Day 2010

by Dianne Brake

There is a useful conservation mantra: Reduce, Recycle, Re-use! There is also a nifty definition of sustainability: the nexus of Economy, Environment, and Equity. In honor of the Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary, PlanSmartNJ proposes to add one more “R” and one more “E” to these mnemonic messages. Each addition is intended to provide a unifying and forward-thinking focus.

The original “R’s” of conservation: Of course, we can all easily agree that we must reduce pollution (air, water, soil) and reduce waste(solid, water, energy, land). We can also agree that we must reduce the cost of living so that we have more money to restore damaged resources.

But there are other aspects of “reduce” that are more difficult: We must reduce auto-dependency so that we can reduce energy and land consumption and clean up the air. And, hardest of all, we must reduce disparities among people and communities that limit the access of people of color and low income to better opportunities and a cleaner environment.

As for re-use: our country was founded on the idea that the continent would provide an inexhaustible supply of land, water and resources. This legacy makes re-use a difficult concept for many. Our “slash and burn” culture, however, has hit the proverbial brick wall in New Jersey, since it is the state closest to build-out: all of its land is either developed or preserved. If we want to rebuild our former economic prosperity here, we must figure out how to re-use land, buildings and other resources. And we must do it now.

Although recycling products is important and something most of us are comfortable with, we must also learn to recycle land and other resources. Unlike re-use, recycling means finding new uses for these resources. Examples include recycling a factory by changing it into housing, or recycling an office park or shopping center by adding housing and making each place a compact, mixed-use center.

Of course, recycling also applies to recycling water, putting dirty water to new uses as flushing toilets and fertilizing lawns (promote the use of “grey water“, “black water” and “purple pipes“).

Recycling can also be applied in industry: eco-industrial parks are places where clusters of companies use each others’ waste. This is an important, but often overlooked part of “greening” the economy.

Adding the fourth “R” for “Restore”: Although it is clear we must conserve and protect natural resources through Reduce, Recycle, Reuse, we must also strive to restore conditions in many areas to achieve the best environmental outcomes that we can.

Restoring stream banks to natural conditions, for example, means providing multiple benefits – it can improve filtering of pollutants and provide better habitat conditions and flood control. Restoring the stream itself through “daylighting”, which means uncovering a stream that has been buried under a road or city block, also has multiple benefits to the health of the water’s eco-system as well as to the prosperity of the neighborhood through which it passes.

In spite of the benefits of restoration, our land use decision-making system – our plans, policies, regulations and investments – are designed to protect us from bad things rather than to make them better. Highways, for example, are designed to avoid congestion, not provide an efficient base for public transportation. A rule that requires a 300′ buffer uniformly is designed to protect water from development, not improve conditions in the watershed. Instead, we should focus on optimizing results, a better way to pursue conservation as well as a better quality of life for all who share the planet.

The original sustainability “E’s”: Trying to optimize results is a good segue into “sustainability”, a watchword on Earth Day since the world Earth Summit in 1992. Sustainability is often visually described as a Venn Diagram of three overlapping circles representing the Economy, the Environment, and Equity(conditions of social justice). The center where the three “E” circles overlap is where sustainability lies. Sustainability considers each of the “E’s” as equally important: optimizing results is what sustainability seeks.

Adding the fourth “E” for “Efficiency”: The concept of Efficiency brings to the concept of sustainability what Restore brings to conservation – it provides a focus on optimization of a number of goals, rather than maximization of any one. In this case, efficiency means getting from each “E” as much benefit as possible without waste and without interfering with the advancement of the others.

Seeing sustainability in this way advances another definition that some use for sustainability: having each generation pursue its goals in ways that will allow future generations to pursue theirs. It focuses on seeking multiple benefits and respecting the interconnectedness of all things, including the present to the future.

On this 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, let’s review our R’s and E’s and consider how we can change our thinking, our behavior and our attitudes to honor the world around us. And let’s apply it in our system of land use decision-making as well as in our daily lives.

Dianne Brake is currently President of PlanSmart NJ, Founded in 1968, PlanSmartNJ is a Trenton-based statewide not-for-profit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. PlanSmart NJ aims to renew the landscape so that communities in the future will have a sustainable economy and environment, based on strategic approaches for resource efficiency and social equity. Email her at dbrake@plansmartnj.org

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