The New Normal: Protecting the environment


The Daily Planet’s New Normal Project is a series of news stories and community conversations devoted to identifying community priorities as we face serious economic challenges. Every month we’ll tackle a different topic, including neighborhoods, the state budget, education, health care, public services, immigrant communities, the environment, work and inequality. You’re invited to join the conversation, either online (by commenting on articles like this one) or by participating in a community conversation (see the list of this month’s conversations at the end of this story.)

The Challenge: As we witness more environmental destruction, and watch our natural resources diminish, what is the best way to protect the environment? Should we:

1) Implement stronger regulations?

2) Educate for individual actions?

3) Rely on market approaches?

4) Try another alternative?

Scroll down to read background information on this issue, and some of the arguments for each of these proposed solutions.



In the Twin Cities …

On average, each person in the Twin Cities metro area generates almost seven pounds of waste each day. Together, that’s enough to fill the Metrodome 11 times every year. Packaging makes up 30 percent of our trash.

Every year, Hennepin County residents alone throw away 32 million pounds of reusable goods. That’s enough stuff to fill shopping carts lined up from Minneapolis to Milwaukee. 

Recycling reduces greenhouse gases. In one year, recycling in Minnesota reduces emissions equal to taking 1.2 million cars off the road.

In Minnesota …

Minnesota had 18.6 million acres of wetlands in 1850. In 2003, Minnesota had 9.3 million acres of wetlands.

Though coal provides almost 60 percent of Minnesota’s electricity, the state does not have its own fossil fuel resources. Instead, coal is delivered from Montana and Wyoming.

In the United States …

The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population but accounts for 22 percent of fossil fuel consumption, 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and 33 percent of paper and plastic use.

The average American consumes about 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.

In the world …

Fifty-one percent of the freshwater animal species of the world are declining in number.

One of every eight known plant species is threatened with extinction or is nearly extinct. One in 10 tree species are threatened with extinction.

Some 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags were produced globally in 2002. Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape.

At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials cause the most problems for marine animals and birds. Each year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. 

We are losing forestland at a rate of 375 km2 each day, which is more than the total area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware combined.

The world has already lost 80 percent of its original forests, half of its coastal wetlands, including mangrove swamps and salt marshes, and 75 percent of all the fish stocks in the world are exploited, over-exploited or recovering.


“Throughout the 1970’s, the 1980’s and the 1990’s, Minnesota ranked in the top three states for environmental management and protection,” blogs John Helland, primary nonpartisan research staffer for the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees from 1971 to 2008. Helland, who currently serves on Conservation Minnesota’s board of directors, reports that a recent survey shows the state in fifth place. “So we still can be proud of our place in caring for the environment,” he says. However, he’s not sure this will last.  

Helland explains his concern. “The push in the Legislature to reduce regulations and standards, or ignore science and facts when it doesn’t suit them, doesn’t bode well for Minnesotans’ pride in their environment.” He observes that, “Business organizations in all states are claiming environmental regulations are stifling job growth and hindering small businesses, even though there are no empirical studies to support these claims.” For Helland and others, regulations are essential to protecting the environment.

Many see things differently. They view environmentalists as a “special interest group who insist on unreasonable and costly measures.” From their perspective, regulations infringe on private property rights while also hindering job growth.

Friends of the Mississippi River says that this year, “more so than any in recent memory,” numerous bills made their way through the legislature “that would undermine Minnesota’s foundation of environmental protection.” This is part of a national trend. The New York Times reports: “The strategies have been similar across the affected states: cut budgets and personnel at regulatory agencies, prevent the issuing of new regulations, roll back land conservation and, if possible, eliminate planning boards that monitor, restrict or permit building development.”

Simultaneously, members of Congress, in particular those aligned with the Tea Party movement, are fighting for rollbacks that would impact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), clean air and water regulations, renewable energy, and other conservation programs. Their arguments hinge, in part, on doubting science. So, for example, even though 97 to 98 percent of scientists hold that global climate change is a crisis caused mainly by human activity, they claim that the science of the issue “is not settled.”

In weighing the merits and shortcomings of various approaches to environmental protection, it’s important to keep in mind how each contributes to stewardship and responsible management of natural resources.

However, with the state of the economy remaining dire, one argument may increasingly hold sway. According to Public Agenda, a public opinion research and public engagement organization, “We need to take a careful look at the laws we’ve put in place to see that they are not costing us too much in money or jobs for the benefit we’re getting. A strong economy is just as important as a sound environment.”

What are our options?

Implement Stronger Regulations

Minnesota is known for its “long history of laws that protect our public health, land, water and air,” according to the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP), a coalition of 80 environmental and conservation nonprofits. Environmental review, community rights, clean energy policies, and adequate transit funding are at the heart of these protections.

Proponents of protecting the environment through implementation of stronger regulations contend that free market capitalism, left unchecked, leads to dangerous and destructive environmental practices, such as ocean dumping, clear-cutting of forests, strip mining, and fracking. According to Public Agenda, regulation advocates believe that “government had to step in precisely because the environment deteriorated under the free market system,” and point out that government has the authority to require property owners to use their land in an environmentally sound way, an authority that’s been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tony Smith, critiquing the free market position in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, argues that “there is no invisible hand operating in markets that ensures that environmentally sound practices will be employed just because property rights are in private hands.”

The Audubon Society says that the Endangered Species Act (ESA)  illustrates why environmental protection is needed. “Enacted in 1973, the ESA has helped save some of America’s most critically imperiled birds and wildlife, including species like the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon, the Gray Wolf, the Grizzly Bear, and the Whooping Crane.” While environmentalists stress the importance of recognizing the interdependence of living systems and the environment, Congress in recent years has entertained proposals to “gut the fundamental protections this bedrock environmental law (ESA) provides to America’s most endangered animals and plants.”

Don Arnosti, policy director for Audubon Minnesota, and previously its executive director for ten years, explains that birds, due to their sensitivity to changes in the environment, are an “excellent environmental indicator.” The fact that populations of grasslands and wet land birds have declined by 80 percent in the past 40 years is alarming, he says. Those levels of decline have dramatic impacts on Earth’s biological diversity.

Rollbacks in environmental protection at the state level disturb Arnosti. Among the most troubling recent developments, he says, is massive defunding of water regulations. Clean water should be a nonpartisan issue, he contends, so “it’s unbelievable to see those regulations rolled back.” Arnosti also cites moves to alter the level of sulfates mining companies are permitted to release. Arnosti explains that legislation affecting the sulfate standard where wild rice is grown would have dire affects on wildlife and humans.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) studies have shown that elevated levels of sulfate are detrimental to the growth of wild rice, which led to adoption of a sulfate standard in the first place. Even so, there were calls during the last legislative session to allow 25 times more sulfate pollution than the current standard permits. “The legislation would pave the way for mines like PolyMet and Twin Metals to seriously harm wild rice, Minnesota’s state grain and an important wildlife and cultural resource,” according to Friends of the BWCA.

During the legislature’s special session, an environment budget bill passed, with a rider effectively suspending the sulfate standard for wild rice and all Minnesota waters while a study is done. Arnosti acknowledges that politically things are not black-and-white, that mining is a big industry in Minnesota, and that there are elected public officials on both sides of the political aisle calling for less stringent regulations as a means to protect Iron Range jobs. 

Educate for Individual Actions

Many who support regulations as a key component of environmental protection stress that individuals must also be more conscious of the impact their every day decisions have on the environment. Organizers of Living Green Expo 2011  noted that, “In a world with a population of nearly 7 billion people, each individual action in the right direction can add up to an enormous effect.”  


Among individual actions that, collectively, make a difference:

  • Support of locally-produced, in-season, organic foods
  • Use of alternative energy
  • Switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs
  • Recycling of paper, cardboard, bottles and cans
  • Composting of food waste
  • Planning eco-friendly events and celebrations
  • Purchase of energy-efficient vehicles
  • Awareness of environmentally unfriendly packaging
  • Ditching plastic bags
  • Reduction in consumption of water sold in plastic bottles
  • Donating and purchasing used clothing and other items
  • Transporting oneself by public transit, bicycle, or foot
  • Choosing environmentally-friendly cleaning products
  • Being aware of, and acting as a citizen, to voice concerns to elected public officials

The National Latino Coalition on Climate Change offers many practical tips for protecting the environment in our daily lives. Christie Manning provides seven tips to enhance sustainable behaviors.

Offering “Fifty Ways to Help Save the Planet,” Henry Porter writes, “The astonishing fact is that each of us can have an immediate impact on the production of greenhouse gases, and if enough of us act together in these minor ways, the cumulative effect will be dramatic. That’s because so much of the way we live our lives is wasteful and, to put it bluntly, thoughtless.” If changes in individual behaviors are adopted by large numbers of people, Porter argues, they will have “an immeasurable effect.”

However, a study by Christie Manning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Psychology at Macalester College, shows how difficult it is for people to take action even in light of evidence of human-caused climate change. For example, “While the benefits of lowered transportation costs, and exercise appeal to the rational side, there is always the side that reacts badly to the thought of helmet-hair or coming into work sweaty. While quantification points towards biking, there is another, more personal side to us that just doesn’t want to.”

Other critics charge that this approach is ultimately ineffective in addressing environmental problems. “True environmental action,” says Michael Maniates,  “involves long-term solutions based around collective public policy to reduce consumption and break our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Most Americans, reports Public Agenda, tell pollsters that they care about the environment and fear it will get worse, yet are “torn on how to respond and unready to accept the sacrifices that some environmentalists believe are necessary.”

Rely on Market Approaches

Proponents of a free market approach want to replace government regulations with a free market system based on individual responsibility, one that uses financial interests and incentives to protect the environment. They argue that the economy is struggling because of over regulation. “You can’t eliminate all the risk in life,” they claim. “High-priced environmental efforts often force us to make elaborate attempts to head off remote risks,” which, in the process, leads to lost jobs and economic devastation of entire communities.

Those in favor of incentive-based regulatory approaches, like Robert N. Stavins of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an environmental economist at Resources for the Future, contend that it “is well known that holding all firms to the same target can be expensive and, in some circumstances, counterproductive….Because the costs of controlling emissions may vary greatly among firms, and even among sources within firms, the appropriate technology in one situation may not be appropriate (cost-effective) in another.” Market-based instruments, Stavins concludes, provide incentives for firms to reduce levels of pollution in the most cost-effective or cheapest way.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce takes a similar stance. Its position is that “businesses of all types and sizes continue to be frustrated by the cost and time to apply for and receive approval for a variety of permits.” It calls for “sensible regulations to foster economic development while still protecting health and environmental concerns.” The Chamber is currently working to “streamline” the environmental review and permitting process at some state agencies. Its 2011 legislative priorities included allowing “the proposer of a project—rather than the responsible governmental unit—to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.” The government unit would still review and approve it.   

Taking a more libertarian posture, the Minnesota Free Market Institute (MFMI) argues that economic freedom can exist “only when individuals are free to choose how they will use their time and resources; if one is not free to use one’s time and resources as one chooses, reaping the rewards of wise choices, then the idea of personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness becomes meaningless.” According to MFMI, “government’s role is to preserve and protect the ability of individuals to voluntarily engage in private contracts,” something it can do by enforcing contracts through its courts system.

Firmly grounded in free market ideas, the Libertarian Party of Minnesota holds that land use is “the responsibility and right of the owners of the land.” Accordingly, it opposes “all government intervention against this right such as zoning laws, building codes, urban renewal, regional planning, subdivision laws, rent controls, and eminent domain.” LPMN also promotes: “bringing the positive benefits of free market competition to utilities,” and calls for privatization and deregulation of garbage collection, electric, gas, and communication utilities, the Public Utilities Commission, fire departments, water and sewer departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Price Anderson Act, the Minnesota Energy Agency, “and all similar regulatory agencies.”

The Republican Party, especially its Tea Party wing, shares much of this de-regulation, free market philosophy and rhetoric. A central target, the EPA is called a “job killer.” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a GOP presidential candidate, who has consistently voted against government promotion of energy conservation or investment in renewable energy projects, has captured public attention with her pledge to see “the EPA’s doors locked and lights turned off,” and for supporting the repeal of a 2007 law promoting environmentally efficient lighting, dismissing the legislation as an assault on personal freedom. “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any lightbulb you want,” she promises.

Not everyone in the Republican Party shares these views, according to Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP). REP’s mission is, “To resurrect the GOP’s great conservation tradition and to restore natural resource conservation and sound environmental protection as fundamental elements of the Republican Party’s vision for America.” Among other things, it endorses candidates with strong environmental records, and compiles a Congressional Scorecard, tracking the voting records of GOP members of both Houses of Congress on environmental issues.

Join the Conversation

The Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series, The New Normal: Deciding Community Priorities in a Downsized Economy, tackles a different issue each month._

In September we’ll be looking at environmental sustainability and are looking to partner up with groups across the metro area to co-host community conversations. We’ll do some basic education about environmental sustainability and policy in Minnesota, then we’ll ask participants to weigh in on how environmental issues shape their communities and how we should move forward.


Wilder Foundation
Tuesday, September 20
6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
451 Lexington Parkway North
Saint Paul, MN 55104

Land Stewardship Project
Focus on urban agriculture
September 22, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
821 East 35th Street, Suite 200

Audubon Society – Tentative
Birds and the big picture
Date and location TBD

At the end of the series of conversations someone from the TC Daily Planet will write an article summarizing and analyzing the discussions from all the conversations. Click here to see our summary of the immigration conversations in July.

[Photo credits: Hands around the earth © Alx –; Free Market One Way © SVLuma –]