The Land That Could Be

William A. Shutkin links the contemporary maladies of social disaffection and decline of public participation in civil life with the environmental deterioration of the communities in which people’s lives take place. In the early chapters of The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, he focuses on how social and economic disparities result in environmental harms in poorer communities, abetting further deterioration. Traditional environmentalism, with its emphasis on wilderness, and environmental law, largely concerned with standards for individual pollutants rather than finding alternatives, have done little to help beleaguered communities.

Understanding environmental harms instead requires the systems approach which Shutkin advocates, since pollutants migrate among such media as air, land, and water. Thus air pollution creates acid rain, and abandoned toxic sites can contaminate a water supply. Pollutants are cumulative in effect as well, so that communities with numerous toxic sites and substances are inadequately served by regulation. Understanding deterioration’s economic framework of development, production and consumption likewise requires a systems approach.

To remedy and prevent detrimental outcomes, Shutkin proposes another model, one based on planning principles and stakeholder involvement. In this paradigm, often initiated by civic activist organizations, communities make use of their historic assets to create public/private partnerships that can generate alternatives to the usual detrimental uses of the local environment. In four later chapters, he reviews efforts in communities to apply these principles. While activists in Boston, Massachusetts, and Oakland, California, have created innovative approaches to inner city environmental and social deterioration, those in Routt County, Colorado, have created new models for addressing the looming destruction of a cherished landscape, or indeed in suburban New Jersey of any open space at all.

Shutkin’s approach, while sometimes laden with planning terminology, illustrates well both the need and some promising means of making social and environmental changes.