Recently, I attended two different economic forecast meetings in the Kanawha Valley and would like to share some thoughts as a small business owner and environmentalist regarding the future of our state. I am sole owner of a professional services company and while the new federal tax law is helping me financially in the short term, tax law in general does not influence my business decisions when it comes to hiring and expanding. Long-term economic growth would be the driving factor, and what I’ve seen forecasted is more of the same level of thinking and keeping of the status quo. That is, the promotion of existing industries with little regard for sustainable, triple bottom line development. Our state leaders seem to favor safe, uninspired solutions to age-old problems with little idea of how to attract young professionals, industries of the future, and a healthy natural environment for all.
Some ideas on how to do that:
We should embrace triple bottom line thinking, which means considering every idea, decision, law, program, etc. from the lenses of environment, economics, and social equity equally. In West Virginia, we are still under the assumption that the economy outweighs all other parts of this “three legged stool,” yet states all around the country have shown how all three work together to improve quality of life. This might mean viewing our natural resources from the perspective of what they offer by staying in tact or being improved rather than what they offer us upon their destruction. This is sometimes referred to as natural capital…the idea that for example, a forest offers us many benefits, including oxygen, ecosystem diversity, structure and stormwater management, a sense of place, and even emotional healing. How often are these figured into the equation when determining the “need” for a new mine site, a new area of clear cut-style forestry, a pipeline, or new retail development? How often is one of these “economic development” projects quickly pushed through, with communities left to shoulder the cost of unstable hillsides, invasive species drowning out natives, “problems” with wildlife due to habitat loss, or the loss of natural environments for kids to play in and learn from? How can we promote all the wonderful things about our mountains, streams, and forests in West Virginia, while at the same time be indifferent to their damage in the name of industry and jobs?
We need to value and improve existing buildings, neighborhoods, and downtowns. I work in downtown Charleston, and everywhere I go I see opportunities in the form of abandoned buildings, empty storefronts, and available infill sites. With statewide population declining, focusing on existing infrastructure and buildings makes sense. Improving downtowns secures our sense of place and the uniqueness of our state. There should be a combination of both development incentives and regulations to encourage reuse of existing sites and discourage projects on undeveloped “greenfield” sites. One idea would be to make sure empty, dilapidated buildings are assessed and listed for sale at current value, rather than their perceived improved value. (For example, I toured an older building in which the roof leaked, the elevator didn’t work, and the electrical system needed replaced, yet the building was listed for sale near $1 million. It is unlikely to sell at that rate with all the additional improvements needed.) The longer old buildings are allowed to sit empty and neglected, the more expensive they are to renovate, so the common complaint that old buildings are too difficult to work with is not necessarily the case. Also, many young people want to live in walkable, thriving downtowns, and there is demand here in Charleston for urban housing. But, I have talked to many folks who don’t have the vision necessary to make this happen because they have a family, several cars, and perhaps prefer a suburban lifestyle. Sure, buying a house in the Kanawha Valley is usually a cost-effective proposition, but how many college graduates have the means to purchase real estate, live in a suburban neighborhood in a four bedroom house with a two-car garage and a big yard to take care of? Why would they want to? Nowadays, many dormitories, where young professionals were perhaps recently living, are nicer than available apartments because universities use the quality of their living spaces and buildings as recruiting tools. It’s time for our cities and towns to do the same.
We must realign our identity as an energy state with future energy sources. Our state leaders and congressional delegation continue to tout fossil fuels as West Virginia’s primary contribution to the nation. And the coal lobby has its grip on the legislature, in part because its job is to hold on to the status quo, yet large corporations and utilities know that the future is in renewables, and most have planned for a price on carbon to address this inevitability. The sooner we can get on board with this the easier the transition will be. Many corporations, states and even nations are decreasing fossil fuel use, some even divesting from mining and drilling, and provide incentives for renewable energy use and development. We need to provide higher education programs and training geared to this new economy while at the same time provide statewide incentives for individuals and companies to purchase renewable energy, improve energy efficiency, even encourage and support entrepreneurship and new businesses. In order to attract say, a solar panel manufacturer or a business start-up making bio-based plastics, we have to have a statewide market for these types of products and services. This would mean strengthening our net metering law rather than weakening it, reinstating the renewable energy requirement for utilities, bringing back solar, wind and other renewable energy tax credits, supporting the Power Purchase Agreement bill in our legislature, supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in Congress, and actively marketing for green, biophilic industries instead of traditional plastics and chemicals. What if we became the number one state in the country for building hydrogen vehicles, or battery storage devices for solar panels, or a new plastic made from bio-based materials, or a brand new material made from recycled glass? We can’t lead in these new ideas while holding on to old, 19th century ideas, but we can still provide the nation with energy in a brand new way and new products for the 21st century.
Are any of these ideas easy to implement? No. Are they quick fixes? No. But they will lead West Virginia into a new era where our forests, rivers, and wildlife are healthy, our people are thriving, and our economy is based on the future instead of the past. This is what the triple bottom line and true sustainability looks like.