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Fall 2007 | Volume 3 | Issue 2

Policy Debate

Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability by Alan D. Hecht & William H. Sanders III

David N. Pellow
Ethnic Studies Department, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093 USA (email:

Citation: Pellow, D. 2007. Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 3(2):50-51.

Published online December 18, 2007

At long last, officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offer a coherent statement on urban sustainability. Many policy makers, environmentalists, and denizens of urban communities across the nation will surely welcome this development. The guiding questions in the article are well crafted and are of critical importance. For example, as Alan Hecht & William Sanders contend, it would be wonderful if EPA could move the nation toward ecological sustainability, rather than simply pushing a command and control approach to regulation. I personally believe EPA should do both sustainability work and regulation. Unfortunately, the plan suggests that the latter is largely off the table. Regulation is not on the agenda because EPA operates under a framework that endorses rather than confronts the current political and economic system. Another guiding question that emerges from the plan concerns whether EPA can articulate and develop integrated practices that move beyond the agency’s traditionally fragmented efforts at addressing pollution based on particular environmental media (i.e., air, land, and water). This also is laudable, but unfortunately is moot if the first problem is not addressed.

One reason why Hecht & Sanders’ plan is not likely to achieve a shift toward sustainability is because it embraces sustained growth rather than adopting a creative approach to the very idea of economic growth. What I call the economic growth imperative is deeply rooted in capitalist cultures; it is a nearly religious mandate with an abiding expectation that markets must continue to expand because this process will naturally benefit all social strata. Whether it is Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or Thomas Friedman, most luminaries who have had the ear of governments and media outlets over the generations have proselytized this market model. Again, why not think in a truly innovative way and get us past the growth imperative? Here I would invoke a bumper sticker displayed by a neighbor of mine that reads, “Change is inevitable, growth is optional.” Instead of uncritically accepting the axiom that growth is inexorable and inherently good, why not consider “steady state” economic models aimed at maintaining markets in ways that provide for people’s needs without increasing the volume of commercial activity above what is ecologically sustainable? And if we insist on growth, then how about growing something else? Why not consider qualitative growth paradigms that would strive for an increase in the number of healthy communities or healthy sustainable business practices and in income/wealth/social equality? A redistribution of existing resources (e.g., public dollars, land) might be a good place to begin. In a nation that spends more than 50% of its federal discretionary budget on military operations, yet has 450,000 brownfields, failing public school systems, 47 million people without health insurance, and the greatest class disparities in 80 years, a plan that enhances economic growth while essentially praying for ecological salvation will almost certainly increase strains on ecosystems and widen social inequalities (see Appleby, 2006; Gould, 2007; Ip, 2007).

The authors seem to miss the social and cultural factors that contribute to both ecological harm and sustainability. It is not clear whether the plan’s green building-design initiatives recognize that the buildings need to be constructed and maintained in an equitable fashion—for example via contracts that are fair and open to women and people of color, by union contractors, in consultation with surrounding communities, and with an understanding as to how they affect the surrounding ecology and contribute to the community. In other words, what is it about green buildings (or any initiative in the plan) that could take us above and beyond a “techno-fix” approach to environmental solutions?

It is also striking that Hecht & Sanders give the impression that EPA no longer practices regulation. It appears that the agency has decided to adopt an “all carrot and no stick” stance on environmental protection. Building on the troubling trajectory of the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years of deregulation and voluntary initiatives, EPA of today marches on, blindly confident that laissez-faire diplomacy will yield results. I defy anyone to show me how this would improve the nation’s ecological systems. The plan reveals how EPA’s WaterSense program relies on good faith, on voluntary methods for protecting and sustaining water quality. I live in a part of the country that is experiencing its worst drought in 500 years, yet the response has been little more than occasional timid public pleas for residents to voluntarily conserve water. It does not work. The ENERGY STAR program follows the same logic. This initiative began with a focus on computers and other electronics and has since expanded. The electronics industry is the world’s largest and fastest growing manufacturing sector and is responsible for polluting watersheds, air, and land and threatens worker and residential health on an international scale. Voluntary initiatives have done little to temper the tide of this sector’s globalized scorched earth practices (see Pellow 1999a; 1999b). What has worked are the sustained local, national, and global campaigns by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to pressure the industry into phasing out or reducing particularly toxic chemicals and adopting extended producer-responsibility protocols. And NGOs have had to act because governments like the United States’ have refused to do so.

In short, Hecht & Sanders’ perspective is virtually indistinguishable from the garden-variety environmental sustainability plan of any Fortune 500 corporation. Given that government has a primary obligation to regulate, control, and guide corporate behavior vis-à-vis the environment, this paradigm is disappointing indeed. Partnerships with corporations are fine as long as they do not substitute for regulation.

What is so problematic about these so-called voluntary approaches to regulation is that they assume that power is distributed evenly among stakeholders. More to the point, few people choose to live and labor under environmentally hazardous conditions. Many tribal communities and neighborhoods where people of color and working-class populations live face extraordinary pollution exposures associated with oil refineries, highways, and chemical-plant clusters. While some community leaders may welcome such public-health and ecosystem-threatening projects in the name of economic development, few residents do, and they are rarely fully informed as to the risks they will incur. So for EPA to adopt a voluntary approach to remediating environmental injustices that have been forced upon many populations is simply unacceptable.

While it goes without saying that EPA is just a single agency with a limited mandate and authority, the real problem here is the framework under which officials operate. That institutional context begins and ends with a commitment to sustaining market forces, not ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. The framework is explicit in ensuring that profit making will never be challenged in the interest of ecosystems or human rights. The organizational structure is also explicit in its deafening silence on the question of reversing the social and political inequalities that are, in my estimation, the root of the ecological crisis. And on that note, Hecht & Sanders display little sense of crisis or urgency. So there is no point in quibbling about technical details or how one might strengthen or reform a particular policy initiative, because the agency’s overall mission and foundation steer clear of addressing the root problems in the first place. If EPA is unwilling to transform itself and raise these critical questions, I urge policy makers, environmentalists, and urban residents across the nation to stand up and take up that task, for all our sakes.


Appleby, J. 2006. Ranks of uninsured Americans grow. USA Today. August 29.

Gould, K. 2007. The ecological costs of militarization. Peace Review 19(3):331–334.

Ip, G. 2007. Income-inequality gap widens. The Wall Street Journal. October 12.

Pellow, D. 1999a. Negotiation and confrontation: environmental policy-making through consensus. Society and Natural Resources 12(3):189–203.

Pellow, D. 1999b. Framing emerging environmental movement tactics: mobilizing consensus, demobilizing conflict. Sociological Forum 14(4):659–683.

© 2007 Pellow

Published by ProQuest