Scales of Green

SustainLane’s Sustainable Cities

Dec 02

Posted: under Green Governments.


The environmental impact of transporting yourself around does not just depend on what car you drive, but also on what city you live in.  Cities that have affordable and convenient public transportation systems, for example, make it much easier for its citizens to drive and pollute less, regardless of whether they drive an hybrid or a Hummer.  Recognizing the relevance of municipal policies to the environment, SustainLane has published sustainability rankings of the 50 largest US cities over the last three years that cover not only transportation policies but also air quality, green building, and more. The results?  Portland, Oregon won the top spot in 2008, while Mesa, Arizona was in the cellar.

Transparency: *Plastic

The rankings are published on a well-designed website that displays both the overall ratings and the sub-scores that underlie them.  While it includes a general discussion of its methodology and sources,  some of its sources are private and not available to the public.  It is also not clear how the ratings are ultimately calculated, and they are therefore not reproduceable. SustainLane does provide useful bios of the people behind the rating, and engaging graphics illustrating the multiple dimensions of the ratings.

Governance: Oligarchy (with Republican Elements)

The rankings are published by SustainLane, a for-profit media company focused on delivering information to consumers about sustainable living.  The research team is directed by Kenneth Ott, and includes nine researchers, writers, and graphic designers.  The underlying data, however, often comes from government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Coverage: Fox

The issues covered by SustainLane are indeed extensive — air pollution, commuting, green building, energy and climate change, a green economy, housing and affordability, knowledge and communications, water quality, and more (a total of 16 sub-scores).  The comprehensiveness of each sub-score varies, and in many cases the scores appear to be quite robust, but without more information about how the ratings are actually calculated, it is not possible to know for sure.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

The SustainLane rankings states that it “is the nation’s most complete report card on urban sustainability.”  But how complete, and how green?

1. The scores are indeed quite comprehensive, and appear to be more so than other similar rankings, such as those by Popular Science and Country Home.

2. The rankings are not, however, the most “extensive,” in that they only rate the 50 most populous cities — Country Home, for example, covers 379.  Such a focus on large cities lends the impression that only large cities are sustainable, and undervalues the efforts made by medium-sized and smaller communities.

2. The sub-scores weightings are explained but not fully justified — why are 11 of the 16 equally weighted, while five are adjusted?  Including multiple criteria related on transportation policies rewards cities that have focused on those policies more than others.

* For an explanation of the Transparency, Governance, and Coverage “ratings” above, please click here.

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Greening the Leviathan

Oct 11

Posted: under Green Governments.

“The only way to erect such a [common power to keep the people in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit] is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will…This is the generation of that great Leviathan to which we owe our peace and defence.”

From Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

Real green progress, some might argue, can not, in the long term, be accomplished through corporate actions, innovative products, or individual virtue, but only through public laws and regulations.  As Thomas Hobbes explains in the Leviathan, only the government can legitimately direct and command the actions of its citizens to a common benefit, and it may be that the use of such sovereign power is necessary to enact any meaningful change in society.  For “niche” issues, it is fine for individuals and organizations to try to change the world, but when real emergencies emerge — military, financial, environmental, etc. — it is to presidents, kings, and legislatures to whom we turn.

And turn to them we have, to protect our most beautiful landscapes, our air and water quality, our endangered species, and increasingly our climate.  But those government efforts, whether they are the be-all and end-all or not, vary greatly in terms of their content, orientation, and effectiveness.  Some governments may emphasize keeping waterways clean, while others may focus on protecting open spaces.  And they may pursue different means to reach the same green end, and have dramatically different results.

While they may operate directly on environmental problems, governments can also fundamentally affect the environmental performance of both corporations and individuals within their borders.  Strong laws that are well-enforced can incentivize better compliance and greener behavior, while weak or non-existing laws can encourage a “race to the bottom.”  Voluntary programs may have a greater effect on environmental performance when government agencies support them, lending them a sense of legitimacy and authority.  The regulatory environment is a key determinant in environmental performance across a range of scales.

But just as with the iceberg and the grail, with corporate and product performance, how is the greenness of these regulations being measured?  Who is assessing how green the clothes of the Emperor are?  Or does he have any green clothes at all?  A growing number of initiatives have begun to look at how environmentally responsible various levels of governments are, from cities to states to nations to elected officials themselves.  This section of the website will look at these efforts, their methods, and their conclusions, and discuss their implications for the “greening of government” and orienting the power of the Leviathan to build a sustainable society.

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