Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not a Simple Choice
distributed 5/4/07 - ©2007

A few days ago, the City Council in Denver took a strong stand in support of a more sustainable city. Their vote on a controversial zoning matter affirmed the importance of "transit oriented development" -- a legal category that provides for increased housing density near the city's newly-expanded light rail system.

The City Council paid serious attention to -- but finally voted against -- a large, organized and passionate group from the neighborhood near the proposed development. In what was obviously a difficult vote for several of the Council members, they decided for the long-term interests of the city as a whole, instead of the localized interests of those close at hand.

I am not happy. I am one of the neighbors who fought the zoning change.

In the 20 months of neighborhood meetings leading up to Monday's vote, and in the days since, I have struggled with some very mixed emotions, and some very conflicted values. This wasn't a simple choice for or against a sustainable city.

The situation, of course, is more complicated than what I sketched out in the first two paragraphs. This particular proposal has unresolved and complicated issues about substantial parking impacts spreading out into our neighborhood. The student residents of the anticipated apartment complex may not make much use of light rail, so their living next to the train stop may, in fact, do very little to change the city's traffic patterns. There are also lingering questions about preferential opportunities provided to the well-connected developer, and about the use of city-owned land for a private project.

I like to think that my opposition wasn't NIMBY-ism ("Not In My Back Yard"), but I also know that my strong interest comes precisely because the new 11-story building will be just 597 feet from our kitchen door. (See! That's my side yard, not my back yard!)

When I testified at Monday night's Council meeting (which spent 4 hours on this one topic), I said that my opposition did not come easily, because I strongly support sustainability measures such as increased housing density and mass transit. I also named, though, the eco-justice ethical norm of participation, which says that all those who are involved in a situation should have an empowered voice in decision-making. The widespread and strong opposition of the neighborhood to this particular project needed to be heard.

I'm still not pleased with the way the City Council voted. Our side lost in a win-lose situation where meaningful compromises were not available. We were able to speak at the Council meeting, but the Council's vote against our interests was pretty much of a foregone conclusion. In the end, our neighborhood will have to live with some negative impacts, but the developer plans to make a healthy profit. Will it be good for the city? It will be five or ten years before we'll be able to see if this in-fill development actually serves a public good in moving Denver toward sustainability.

My own Council representative gave a long explanation for why she was voting to approve the zoning change that will allow this new apartment building. She acknowledged that these sorts of changes toward a more compact, transit-oriented city will have negative impacts on some neighborhoods. "But if we protect every neighborhood from every impact, then people will continue to sprawl out into the far suburbs."

She's right, of course.

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Those who have been reading Eco-Justice Notes for any length of time know where I stand on sustainability. Our society as a whole must -- absolutely must -- make dramatic changes to reduce our use of energy and other resources. We're way past the point where simple consumer choices (light bulbs!) will make an adequate difference. There is a need for profound changes in our values, social systems and community infrastructure.

It is important to admit -- as some of the City Council members did -- that those dramatic changes toward a more sustainable society have costs, and that there are people who are going to have to bear some of those costs. This transition is not going to be pleasant and painless for everyone. As we change our cities and our society, there will be winners who find new jobs and new opportunities. And there will be losers, whose jobs disappear, or whose communities are transformed.

That's a hard point to concede for some of us who have been advocates for justice. Too often, and for too long, some segments of our society have been told that they need to carry great burdens for the sake of a larger good. Too often, deep-seated racism and classism have been at play in deciding which communities will be sacrificed for that "greater good." Last week's Notes dealt with the continuing reality of environmental racism. Statistically, people of color have been stuck with disproportionate impacts from toxic waste and pollution. That is not fair. It is not just.

But, as my Council representative said, if we never allow impacts that a local community does not want, then we'll never get our society to where we want and need to be. There will be costs as we move toward more sustainable communities, and somebody will have to pay them.

I find that my values conflict with each other. The "eco-" and the "justice" need to be held together, but it is not always an easy or comfortable fit. There are real and difficult questions to be raised about which segments of our society pay the costs for projects that enhance the long-term common good as we try to live in a proper balance with the Earth.

This story about one apartment building in my neighborhood is a small-scale example of a far larger problem. This week's City Council debate has given me an up-close-and-personal taste of national and international conflicts.

On several occasions, President Bush has said something along the lines of, "While I am in office, nobody in America is going to lose their job because of policies to reduce global warming." Mr. Bush's unwillingness to impose some very direct costs on identifiable and vocal constituencies is causing a much greater damage by allowing climate change to accelerate.

As is so often the case, noble principles get tangled up in messy details. Almost everyone thinks "sustainability" is a great idea, but getting there is very difficult. For the sake of the sustainable common good, some people will have to take a painful hit.

We have to deal with these hard and complicated choices. I invite you to join me in sorting out the ethical principles that we should use in making these sorts of practical and political decisions. What are the perspectives and values that you feel we should hold firmly, and what are the places where we could be less adamant? As you have dealt with these sorts of situations, how have you balanced conflicting values?

I invite you to share your stories, personal reflections and descriptions of ethical principles. Drop me a note with your moral guidelines and/or your gut feelings about how to work our way through difficult social changes. I'll draw on your insights when I revisit this topic in another issue of Notes.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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