The need for communication among people on all sides of environmental issues was a recurring theme at an environmental sustainability conference at Samford University Friday, April 16.
“Working with people and getting along, regardless of political persuasion,” is essential, said longtime Washington, D.C., lobbyist and public service employee Robert K. Dawson, adding that the legislative branch of government is the most important determinant of environmental policy.
Dawson, president of Dawson and Associates in Washington, D.C., spoke at a program that focused on challenges of environmental sustainability in Alabama. The event was sponsored by Samford’s Vulcan Materials Center for Environmental Stewardship and Education.
Dawson, who has worked for and with both Democrats and Republicans during his 38-year Washington career, was associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President under Ronald Reagan. He also was assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, administrator of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and legislative aide to former Alabama representative Jack Edwards.
While partisanship and rancor in Washington is as bad now as he’s seen in his career there, Dawson sees improvement ahead.
“I think it will get better because it is almost not worth it to be there now,” said Dawson, who believes that it will become good politics in the next five years for politicians to put away the hate and work together. “That will be attractive to voters.”
The ability to reach across the political aisle and work together on tough environmental issues is important for everyone’s good, said Dawson, a graduate of Samford’s Cumberland School of Law.
The need for better communication and working relationships at all levels was echoed by panel members in a discussion following Dawson’s remarks.
“Sustainability requires a new way of thinking about each other and the economy,” said Beth Stewart, executive director, Cahaba River Society. “If we see it as a way to lose, we only see each other as enemies.”
John Knapp, director of Samford’s Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership, said that “It’s not sustainability unless we’re working together systemically, and we don’t do that well.”
Panel moderator Colin Coyne, president of The Coyne Group, noted that too often sustainability is seen as an end product. “It’s really a thought process, not an end,” he said, encouraging the audience of students, faculty and area professionals to consider the panelists as “thought leaders” from whom they could learn.
In addition to Stewart and Knapp, panelists included David Frings, associate director, Samford Environmental Management Program; Bob Green, professor of environmental law, Samford’s Cumberland School of Law; Danny Smith, representing Alagasco and the Freshwater Land Trust; and Dawson.
Frings cited a need for sustainable urban development and ways for developers to see that they can “make the bottom line” and still be environmentally friendly. Better communication, especially related to similarities shared by different sides, is important. He hopes to form an environmental advisory group in Alabaster, where he is mayor. The group would consider ways that the city could be more sustainable.
Greene believes that better transportation would help meet the essential needs of people while being more considerate of the environment. One project could be as simple as a fleet of 20-person buses that could run flexible schedules, use clean energy and be managed by small business owners. Such a plan could be implemented quickly and easily, he said.
Stewart cited a need for better environmental practices related to water management and efficiency, and told how the Interfaith Environmental Initiative of Alabama builds relationships. “People of faith and science can focus on common goals and values they share, rather than so much on polarizing issues,” she said. She is concerned about the aging population’s transportation needs, and health issues of people of all ages who rely on cars instead of walking or biking.
Knapp pointed to a need for a statewide sustainability plan that would help prevent disparities such as exist in Alabama, where communities of color are more often located near unhealthful settings. He promotes studying successful sustainability programs elsewhere, such as in Chattanooga, Tenn., where planning resulted in clean transportation and reuse of abandoned facilities. He also would like discussion of a school bus system in Birmingham’s Over the Mountain communities.
Smith said that sustainability means meeting needs of this generation without compromising generations. Higher education is a key to showing engineers and others better ways to select materials, counsel on recyclability and make wiser use of energy. He pointed to a need for better mass transportation and for parties to do a better job of getting facts and building trust. “We need to know each other so we can discuss the issues in a more civil manner.”