Equity, Energy, and the Economy

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

By Gay Nicholson

Back in 2007, I organized a Sustainable Design workshop for 20 of Ithaca’s entrepreneurs, planners, educators, and green builders. The primary goal of our work together was to identify principles of design that would lead to sustainable community development.

We had a lot of fun that day with our thought experiment, but the thing that sticks in my mind eight years later is our conclusion that all our most powerful design principles could be distilled down to one concept: Everything is Connected. Holism, biomimicry, equity, system dynamics….. the core value underlying all the design principle themes was “Relationships Matter.”

This issue of relationships through time is at the heart of local and global debates over how to address two major threats to humanity: inequality and climate change. Most local leaders admit the critical importance of addressing these problems, but we are divided on the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of finding solutions we are willing to implement. Sustainable Tompkins has been working alongside many others to draw attention to our relationship responsibilities outside the boundaries of local elites and the present moment.

Our community will collectively over time experience the consequences of decisions made now on the significant number of commercial and infrastructure projects underway. Thus far, the county IDA has continued to grant tax abatements for projects that offer very few advances in terms of Equity or Energy. Our business leaders and many elected officials are in favor of adding a major new gas pipeline via eminent domain with the capacity to carry enough methane to raise county carbon emissions by 28% or more.

Arguments are made in favor of approving these projects because of the jobs created or housing provided. Critics are told “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But for those focused on addressing inequality and climate change, business-as-usual projects appear mediocre – falling far short of “good” or what is actually necessary for future wellbeing.

We believe it is important to start with the question “what is the economy for?” What are we trying to achieve with the tools of economic development? We have fallen into the habits of growth capitalism with its belief system that constant expansion is required and that the “rewards” appropriately go to those who take the “risks” of doing business. But unending growth on a finite planet is clearly problematic, and speculative boom and bust cycles keep us on a treadmill of wealth transfers to the top. Despite the myth, rewards tend to accumulate to those with the most while risks and costs are spread across the many.

A new county task force on Energy and Economy has been announced, and this select group of 14 is charged with finding a path to achieving our climate protection goals while supporting our desire for economic growth. Perhaps the group should have been constituted as the “Equity, Energy & Economy” task force because it will be hard to find a path to sustainable development without a commitment to the principles of equity and justice for all members of our community now and in the future. Everything is connected. We are connected.

Equity has two meanings – ownership and fairness. Recognizing that we collectively own our shared future and therefore everyone should have a voice in choosing that future would be a fundamental shift from our current pattern where requests for local labor, living wages, and low carbon footprints are dismissed as intruding on today’s customary profit margins.

How do we build a sustainable local economy? When the relationships among the people and elements of a system are acknowledged and accounted for, we can proceed to design for equitable economic structures that respect living systems and honor human diversity and wellbeing – through time.

One place to start is to recognize that thanks to the creative energy and dedicated efforts of hundreds of residents over several decades, Ithaca is an attractive place to work and live (and locate your business or build an apartment complex). Development that threatens that valuable place-making is imposing risk on the whole community while rewarding only a few.

I hope that the new task force will start with a fair balance sheet that looks at the triple bottom line of Equity, Energy, and Economy.

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Tompkins.

Tompkins Weekly 6-22-15


If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles