The word sustainability has been used so frequently and slapped onto so many programs that sometimes we forget what it means. In college, sustainability was explained to me as a three-legged stool. The three pillars needed to keep the stool in balance are long-term social, environmental and economic feasibility.
I think we’ve been rocking precariously on a two-legged stool.
We can feel that wobbling stool in some of the fiercely debated projects taking place in Minnesota right now. Specifically, the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project and the PolyMet NorthMet copper-nickel mine near Duluth are contentious development projects.
In order to weigh their pros and cons and determine their sustainability, we’ve got to set them on the stool and see if they pass the test. Do they make sense socially, environmentally and economically? Do the benefits in one pillar outweigh the costs in another? But when we have these debates, the discussions begin to sound…well, repetitive.
Here’s how it usually looks.
In any given controversial project, Company X claims that 1. Their project will boost the local economy and 2. Their project follows the most stringent environmental codes. Then, the resistance claims the purported economic gains are outweighed by the still-present environmental risks, and photos of oil-stained turtles circulate Facebook.
We discuss the economy -- we love talking about the economy. We discuss the felled trees, the risk of oil spills, the threat to the Clean Water and Air Acts. We teeter on these two pillars: economy and environment, going around in circles.
Usually, Company X’s proposal goes forward despite the friction.
But what about the people? We don’t ask questions about miners’ health in 50 years, or what the demographic of those miners will likely be. We have forgotten the social pillar. Will there be jobs after the mine or pipeline closes up? Will people flourish in these places?
Consider, for example, the discourse around the Line 3 pipeline replacement. Economically speaking, its construction will employ workers who may frequent local motels, diners and casinos. This raises the Gross Domestic Product, but the GDP can’t be our only measurement of success.
Think about it: just as constructing a pipeline raises the GDP, so too does paying to clean up an oil spill. Any economic activity, good or bad, raises the GDP. Building a pipeline might raise it, but so do funerals and divorces. What is good for the economy is not always good for humanity. Certainly, we must avoid conflating economic prosperity with human prosperity.
A coal plant that increases asthma "improves" the economy as the energy company profits and inhaler sales go up. The health of our economy is not a stand-in as a measure for that social facet of sustainability.
To continue the example, we go on to analyze the environmental risks of Line 3. It’s generally true that pipelines are a safer way to transport oil and natural gas than trains and trucks. So, that's a point for pipelines. Alternatively, environmental advocates may call for more drastic environmental action, deploring our use of non-renewable resources and demanding the abandonment of oil and gas altogether. They use charismatic endangered species to cement their points.
Again, as we dissect the environmental costs and benefits, we assume that what is good for the planet is good for people. We conflate the environmental pillar for the social pillar without pointing out that most of us still don’t want a pipeline near our drinking water. No one wants to be the next Flint, Mich.
The not-in-my-backyard mentality rears its ugly head as affluent, whiter, more powerful communities have pipelines re-routed around them. Line 3 was supposed to go through Beltrami County; now it’s destined for Hubbard and Cass Counties. In a supposed attempt to re-route around Native American territory, it seems these "objective" environmental decisions may revolve more around class and race. Again, the stool wobbles.
This is where the term 'environmental justice" comes into play. Climate change does not affect everyone equally. For example, island nations are going to struggle if sea levels rise in ways Minnesotans will never experience. Women are often affected more by radiation and certain chemicals than men. Black Minnesotans are six times more likely to die of asthma under the age of 65 than white Minnesotans. Indigenous women often go missing when pipelines are being built, highlighting a significant problem concerning pipeline construction in this area.
All I ask is that we bring nuance back to our developmental project debates. When a certain demographic is speaking out against the sustainability of a project -- whether that is the elderly, the Indigenous water protectors, moms, student activists, or whomever -- we cannot silence them with environmental or economic excuses.
They, too, need a voice, and a seat at the table. A three-legged seat, that is. Whether it’s a mine, a pipeline, or whatever project comes next, we need to ask: who is paying the toll and who is reaping the benefits? Schools? Mothers? Reservations? Teenagers? Infants? Farmers? Communities?
Finding solutions to our ongoing energy and material needs is challenging. I can see why we want to rush ahead and go forward with projects that have been in development for years. But we can’t keep putting them in other people’s backyards. To begin factoring in the social pillar into our conversations, consider reading the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice from the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The social pillar isn’t the only pillar, but it’s one we far too often factor out of the discussion.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.