PSTX Seal

Environment and Texas in the Twenty-First Century

 Jim Blackburn

Albert Einstein has stated:

The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.

This is a perfect description of the environmental and economic development situation in Texas today. We Texans will evolve a different way of thinking about these issues in the future. Here are seven aspects of a different way of thinking about environment and development in Texas in the future.

1. Empty Texas vs. Full Texas. Part of the Texas mythology is that it is big and empty, just waiting to be settled. However, many parts of Texas are no longer empty, and we will continue to fill up with more humans and human impacts well into the twenty-first century.

The economist Herman Daly has observed that there is a great difference in empty-world thinking and full-world thinking. His thesis is that today the world is filling up and that we humans now have the ability to transform the natural system with our economic systems, our chemicals, our weapons, and our sheer numbers, yet we still live by values, doctrines, and philosophies that were developed at a time when humans were at the mercy of the natural system rather than vice versa.

Full-world thinking is different from empty-world thinking. Full-world thinking recognizes that ecological limits exist to economic growth and that we can destroy our natural systems if its capacity to assimilate impacts is exceeded. Full-world thinking changes humans from the party affected by the environment to the party with responsibility for the environment.

          Texas must solve water supply crises associated with existing and projected population growth without dewatering our rivers and destroying coastal productivity. We must act to reduce Houston’s ozone air pollution that is now the worst in the United States and prevent Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin air quality from worsening. And how many ranchettes can the Hill Country handle?

By 2010, we will have stepped out of the empty Texas mindset and will be experimenting with full-world thinking.

2. Don’t Mess with the Creation. A quiet revolution has been occurring within organized religion in the last third of the twentieth century. This change has centered around creation theology which asserts that God created the Earth and “. . . saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was good.” (Genesis 1:31, The New Revised Standard Version). Presbyterians now write about Earth keeping, Episcopalians about the environmental metaphor, and Methodists join many other denominations in a commitment to stewardship of the creation. Perhaps most interesting are the statements of the Baptists:

Divine ownership means that the Creator holds property rights to the entire creation. . . . We never own the land. We are simply trustees of it.

The failure to take care of the earth is tied to human sinfulness and issues forth in catastrophe.

Divine ownership of the earth requires that we recognize who holds the property rights, acknowledge that our mission is earth keeping, and get busy tending to our habitat. (The Earth is the Lord’s, a publication of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tennessee).

Creation theology linked to earth keeping has not arrived at the grass roots level in Texas yet. It will arrive before 2010 and the church house on the prairie will never be the same, nor, for that matter, will the Texas legislature.

3. Principles, Taxpayers, and the Role of Government. My father loves the Louis L’Amour paperbacks about the “real west,” where men and women fought and died over principles. What principles are we willing to fight for today? How about the principle that we want as little government as possible?

One of the greatest myths is that Texas businessmen and women, particularly developers, dislike government and want to be rid of it. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Private sector access to governmental powers and bond money is a Texas business tradition. While stating their disdain of government as a matter of principle, developers and industry line up at the public trough like thirsty range cattle seeking highway funds to induce more development and MUD and PUD bonds for water, sewer, and drainage. Our cities, counties, and school districts establish tax increment finance districts to redo shopping centers and vote for tax abatements for corporations whose net worth is larger than many nations’.

Taxpayers and environmentalists acting together will discover that they have a common interest in reforming this Texas tradition. Together, they will lessen our public debt while spending public money in a manner targeted to cause less harm to the creation, all in accordance with the articulated Texas principle of less government.

4. Free Enterprise and Full Cost Pricing. Full-world thinking will require the fusion of economic and environmental thinking. Free enterprise will be the centerpiece of twenty-first century economic thinking as long as prices reflect ecological costs. Ernst von Weizsacker has stated:

Bureaucratic socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. The market economy may ruin the environment and ultimately itself if prices are not allowed to tell the ecological truth.

          Here, the key is to get the price right. The costs of goods such as gasoline and plastics must include the health costs associated with air pollution, estimated in Houston to be at least $3 billion per year, not including effects on children. These products must also bear the costs of the greenhouse gas and CFC emissions to the atmosphere. The free market system of the future, if it is to survive, must generate proper prices, sending realistic signals.

           Similarly, governmental projects in the full world will tell the truth about the ecological consequences of their actions through pricing. The cost of water from a reservoir project must include the harm resulting to coastal fisheries from reduced freshwater, nutrient, and sediment inflows. By setting the price in this manner, alternatives that have minimal ecological costs but high development costs are more fairly evaluated by computing the “full cost.” Ecological destruction in the future will not be subsidized by allowing its cost to be neglected.

           5. Environment as Strategic. Brad Allenby, a vice president with AT&T, has written and talked about the transition in environmental thinking within corporations from end-of-the-pipe to strategic. Here, he is exploring the change whereby corporations are bringing environmental thinking into product decision-making and sales rather than simply considering the environmental department as an add-on, as overhead, at the end of production.

          Assume with me that a company can produce product A or product B at more or less the same cost and that these products are interchangeable. Assume further that to produce product A causes the emission of much more carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and air toxins than to produce B. As a corporate manager deciding to build a new plant, do you choose A or B?

          Currently, most corporations do not maintain this information in an easily accessible format, and the algorithms for assessing product environmental performance—the so-called metrics of sustainability—are only now being developed. However, computer models should be widely available within the next few years and the practice will be to use this information to prioritize new product development such as B above.

          Given the availability of these models, what about the use of these metrics by consumers? Assume that a believer in creation theology wished to buy in an ecologically sound manner and further assume that such information was easily available at the grocery store when they were choosing among competing products. What product would they select? Such purchasing patterns are already evident in Western Europe, a relatively full place, and it will happen in Texas as well.

          6. Cooperation Rather Than Domination. The gunfight of the Old West is alive and well in our legal system today, if nowhere else. However, cooperation rather than domination will be the full-world ethic.

          Imagine a corporation asking a Texas community if they want a new chemical plant, offering both jobs and air pollution? Imagine further that they ask the community to help select the consultants to conduct environmental evaluations and that they offer to open their other corporate facilities to compliance and performance audits conducted jointly by the company and the local community. Imagine further that they ask a member of the community to become a part of the decision-making process regarding the environmental design of the facility.

          Far-fetched? Not in a full Texas. In fact, certain aspects of this scenario have already occurred at Formosa Plastics in Point Comfort in the middle Texas coast. While not a perfect solution by any means, a series of agreements between Formosa and their adversaries have paved the way for cooperative solutions in the future, solutions that take us away from the legal gunfight mentality that represents an empty world’s version of conflict resolution.

          7. Texas as a Place. The greatest mythic strength of Texas is its self-image. Texas clearly exists as a place. Interestingly, one of the most important topics in environmental literature is sense of place, the linkage of person and environment. And while one might argue that the sense of place that we have in Texas is different from that described in books such as Refuge and A Sand County Almanac, we Texans at least have a strong concept of place upon which to graft ecological aspects. Granted, our ecological literacy is low. Most people living in Houston do not realize that they live adjacent to seven uniquely different ecological systems that link Houston with Canada and the Arctic Circle, the tropical forests of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean and Atlantic waters.

          However, there is strength in the self-image. It is difficult to picture Texas, the mythical place, without large open spaces, flowing rivers, and a productive coast. That the stars at night are big and bright implies that they can be seen through the air pollution.

            Texas in 2010 will be interesting. A coalition of taxpayers, conservationists, organized religion, environmentalists, and business people will emerge to fuse economics, ecology, and spirituality. As a result, the moneylenders will be thrown from the Texas temple, protecting the creation and ourselves, as a matter of principle.

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Jim Balckburn is a partner in the law firm of Blackburn & Carter and is a lecturer in environmental law and planning in the Environmental Sciences and Engineering Department at Rice University.