Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stuff Is Real, Y'all

Yes, it's been a while.  Enough about that.  Back to blogging about physics and the environment, y'all.  This stuff is for real. 

A friend of mine alerted me today to a Bloomberg article about a proposed bill in Kansas to "outlaw sustainability."  Now, a title like that makes you do a double take, but a good critic of science journalism always hesitates to take a sensational title too seriously, so I found the actual house bill, proposed by state congressman Hedke after, according to the Bloomberg article, "maybe a dozen" people had approached him about it.

(Man, I want to propose some bills in my own state, too! I want to propose one outlawing congressional stupidity!  Maybe I should get twelve of my closest friends to give my congressman a call and he'll work something up...oh wait.  Twelve of my friends aren't oil and gas lobbyists.) 

Anyway, I was correct in my skepticism that "outlawing sustainability" is not exactly what this bill does--but in its own way, what the bill is actually doing is much worse.  And, contrary to most hopelessly incomprehensible piece of legislation, it's also a surprising short, plain, and easy read.  I've quoted it in it's entirely below, with emphasis on the things that especially stood out to me.

Kansas House Bill No. 2366

"Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Kansas:

Section 1. (a) No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development."

This seems like the backlash to the big Solyndra and other scandals involving federal dollars put toward "sustainable" technologies  As such, although I completely, fundamentally disagree, I can at least understand the argument.  The government should not pick winners and losers, they say.  Let the free market be the arbiter of the type of technology and development that we should have.  We've already seen that the free market just doesn't have a way to cope with externalizes or the "tragedy of the commons"--but as a political argument goes, I can understand a stated desire, perhaps even for budgetary reasons, to limit government funding for a particular reason or other, even if I disagree

But the wording for this bill, it is broad-based and blunt.  The government can't indirectly fund sustainable development either--wait, what does that mean?  We'll see some examples below, unfortunately.   And whoa.  You can't even use government funds to plan for sustainable development?  The government cannot participate in it in any way?  This is potentially saying that if voters later decide they want their government buildings, agencies, etc, to fulfill some sustainable vision, too bad, it violates the law for the government to use sustainable development in its own operations.  

This prohibition on the use of public funds shall apply to:

 (1) Any activity by any state governmental entity or municipality;

(2) the payment of membership dues to any association;

(3) employing or contracting for the service of any person or entity;

So any government in the state of Kansas falls under this provision, no matter what they're doing.  Combine that with the prohibition on "planning for" mentioned above and you've got a scary problem.  Does this mean that no municipal government, anywhere in Kansas, be it the City Hall of Topeka or the Building Department of Salina can be involved in sustainable development in any way?  What if somebody wants a building permit for a "sustainable" house? If some developer wants to develop a sustainable community on his or her own without spending a single dime of the government's money?  It says that any activity by any municipality falls under this rule, and if the government can't plan for sustainability, do all building permits for anything self-described as "sustainable" get denied?  Suddenly, it seems an awful lot like the government is picking winners and losers.  And it clear who the winners and losers are.  I'm glad those twelve people who approached congressman Hedke know what they're doing, since they get unusual power of  picking the winners and losers for all the rest of their compatriots.

I shouldn't be surprised at number 3, either.  If the government can't participate in or implement sustainable practices, then of course the government can't use contractors who are going to include sustainability in their scope of work.  Even if, you know, they just do it because that's what they do, because they're a legitimate business and have the right to do things the way they deem best to do them so long as they follow all codes and laws.  That's why they have to make this a law against sustainability, I guess. 

(4) the preparation, distribution or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, electronic communication, radio, television or video presentation;

(5) any materials prepared or presented as part of a class, course, curriculum or instructional material;

(6) any current, proposed or pending law, rule, regulation, code, administrative action or order issued by any federal or international agency; and

(7) any federal or private grant, program or initiative.

You know what? NPR receives government funding, and I know they have NPR in Kansas--they have NPR everywhere.  And NPR talks a lot about sustainability.  This bill, with it's prohibition on government funds going to anything to do with sustainable development, is essentially outlawing NPR(They're probably not all that unhappy about that.)   

They're also saying you can't teach this stuff in public school. Because the school is the government. Can't email about it.  This part of the bill that just makes you mad, because it is ceasing to sound like stupid shortsighted politics, and beginning to sound more and more like plain old censorship.   

That it's only the government censoring itself doesn't make it any less of censorship.  What other countries make rules about broad topics being illegal to send emails about?  Pakistan?  China?

Oh, also, number 6.  They're saying "screw you, federal government," which really just emphasizes that this bill is a statement, only, and not meant to be real, actual policy, otherwise they're saying their own law super-cedes that of federal law.  That's a relief, but this bill is still perversely fun to pick at, so let's continue. 

(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the use of public funds outside the context of sustainable development: (1) For planning the use, development or extension of public services or resources;

(2) to support, promote, advocate for, plan for, enforce, use, teach, participate in or implement the ideas, principles or practices of planning, conservation, conservationism, fiscal responsibility, free market

capitalism, limited government, federalism, national and state sovereignty, individual freedom and liberty, individual responsibility or the protection of personal property rights; and

(3) to advocate against or inform the public about any past, present or future governmental action that is violative of this act. 

The government can promote conservationism, as long as it's not sustainability.  And the government can talk about sustainability as long as it's advocated against itself for doing sustainability after all, or letting the public know that it's doing sustainability after all.  

(c) For the purposes of this section: (1) "Municipality" shall have the meaning ascribed to it in K.S.A. 75-6102, and amendments thereto; and

(2) "sustainable development" means a mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but
also for generations to come, but not to include the idea, principle or practice of conservation or conservationism.

Sec. 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after its publication in the statute book."

And again, conservationism is ok. Conservationism is an old-school American value; Teddy Roosevelt, the Boy Scouts, even George W. was all for it.   It's only sustainability that is the problem. To most people, the difference between "conservationism" and "sustainability" is only academic.  But sustainability is defined right there, and even in this bill, there is no explanation about why any of that is a thing we should not support.  Reading that definition, which is lifted without any irony right out of the U.N. Brundtland commission, only makes any sane person understand why it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  And yet the whole bill is saying, eh, we're not going to do that.  


However, the perhaps academic difference between "conservationism" and "sustainability" is the reason this even though this bill is only a ppolitical exercise, it is still a very frightening form of attempted censorship.  You can probably do almost everything under the umbrella of "conservation" that you would do under "sustainability."  There will still be parks and water and air and wildlife management in Kansas--if there were any to begin with.  You can hopefully still build a LEED certified building--it's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, not LESD, Leadership in Energy and Sustainable Design.  Sustainability was a word, created when environmentalism evolved and "conservation" didn't quite capture it all:  it wasn't just about present resources, it was about future resources, too. Needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.

That's why this is scary censorship.  Although they are self-banning certain practices and that's scary enough, those practices can be re-branded.  What they're trying to self-ban is an entire concept, and that concept is the ability of the state government to think about the future.   Which, if the state government is any good kind of government it all, it should in no way limit its ability to do.

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