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Sustainability vs. U.S. Law

By Carolyn Raffensperger Over the past year I’ve been Exhibit A in the case of Sustainability vs. U.S. Law. Sustainability is not winning. Yet. My predicament is particularly ironic since I have devoted years of my life to lobbying for changes in environmental law.

Here’s the story. A year ago this week I took a deep breath and signed a contract to put solar panels on the south side of my house. I paid half of the money upfront. I assumed the hard part was over once I’d chosen a contractor, the appropriate technology, the location of the panels, signed a contract and written a check. The contractor told me that as soon as we got the permits from the city we’d begin the installation and it should be finished in six weeks.

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Guess what. A year later the city still has not granted a permit. The reason is that they had no ordinance in place that would cover the zoning, aesthetic issues, or electric rates. The draft ordinance was just published this week. It will not be finalized for months to come. I was asked to comment about my experience with the solar panel installation on a Des Moines tv station. You can see the video here.

My friend David Eisenberg of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) says that local codes and regulations are a major stumbling block to sustainability because they were put together piece meal and with an entirely different agenda than living lightly on the Earth. In an important new report entitled “Code, Regulatory and Systemic Barriers Affecting Living Building Projects” he and his coauthor call for a systematic overhaul of these local laws.

We at SEHN agree that the law needs to change, not only the local laws but the entire structure of the law. My colleague Joe Guth says this, “How can we restructure our law to place greater priority on environmental values? We confront this question now with increasing urgency as our growing footprint on the Earth causes mounting ecological degradation. We know the values that a restructured law must promote: maintaining functioning ecological systems, accounting for the effects of our actions on future generations, and taking environmental justice seriously. But we still have not achieved the critical task of reformulating our laws so that they will in fact promote these objectives instead of undermining them.”

Time is running out for the Earth. My goal is to make sure that the planet is not Exhibit B.