Sunday, August 17, 2014

Measuring Minnesota's Sustainability

Yesterday, August 16, was World Honeybee Day. Although I'm a beekeeper wannabe, somehow that important information escaped me until this morning. (I think it has something to do with the schedule I have for early morning checks on a number of web sites compared to mid-morning updates for several of those sites.) Anyhow, the photo on the (belated) linked announcement gives me an indication of just how much I need to improve my macro photography. I know that digital photography means I can take lots of shots at no additional cost. It doesn't mean that the subjects (bees and flowers in this case) will hold still long enough for me to take all those shots. Sometimes, though, I just get lucky.

bee on pansy
Photo by J. Harrington

My Minnesota has been on a "sustainability kick" recently. We hope to convince Minnesota to go "back to the future." Evidence can be found on the Minnesota Sustainable Communities Network's web site. On it there's a page called Sustainability 101. It has lots of resources and explanations. What troubles me, though, is there's a time gap that keeps the subject from becoming "today's news." Minnesota Planning's 1998 publication Sustainable Development: The Very Idea, although updated in 2011 with Minnesota Milestones data through 2008 or 2009, isn't likely to generate much news coverage in 2013 or 2014, even though, on balance, it appears that we haven't yet turned the corner on sustainability, according to this summary in the report.


The Environment goals are divided into four sub-goals. First, Minnesotans will conserve natural resources to give future generations a healthy environment and a strong economy. Second, Minnesotans will improve the quality of the air, water and earth. Third, Minnesotans will restore and maintain healthy ecosystems that support diverse plants and wildlife. Fourth, Minnesotans will have opportunities to enjoy the state's natural resources. The indicators related to the Environment are aligned to these five areas.

Only one of 10 environmental indicators showed a positive trend. It should be noted that widely-accepted statewide environmental indicators are hard to find and national comparisons are scarce. [emphasis added]

Three indicators changed to a negative direction. Minnesotans are using more water resources. Data sources point to declines in many species of breeding birds, raising concerns about the health of Minnesota’s diverse ecosystems. Participation in traditional forms of outdoor recreation has declined as younger generations turn to alternative forms of entertainment.

On the positive side, lake water clarity in Minnesota appears to be improving overall, with more lakes showing improvement than deterioration.

The remaining five environmental indicators showed no clear change. These include greenhouse gases, energy consumption, frog and loon populations, and air and water quality.
I've had the pleasure of working for government, for "for profit" businesses and in the non-profit sector. In each of the three, effective managers stressed that "what isn't measured, isn't managed." Effective managers also recognized the need for consistent and frequent communication. Because of that, I was favorably impressed when Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) and the National Park Service (NPS) teamed up to develop a "State of the River" report for the Mississippi as it flows through the Twin Cities. I know that our governors have delivered State of the State addresses to Minnesota's legislature on a regular basis. Do we need legislation that requires the governor to report on Minnesota Milestones as a required element in a State of the State address? I think that might help focus our, and our local media's, attention on some important news that otherwise gets neglected or "spun" in a different direction by special studies and press releases.

For example, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] prepared a 2010 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report (dated 2013) as called for since "The Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 set targets for energy conservation, renewable energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions. The Next Generation Energy Act set a goal that would reduce GHG emissions in 2015 to a level 15% below the 2005 level, and also for 2025 and 2050 emissions levels to be 30% and 80%, respectively, below the 2005 emission levels (Minn. Stat. § 216H.02)"

My Minnesota has elsewhere noted that Minnesota does not appear to be on track to coming close to meeting the 2015 goal. MPCA's web page about the report doesn't highlight that issue. A more generic problem, however, is that the legislature can change the requirements for the report's contents at their convenience.
"This report fulfills the requirements of Minnesota Statute §216H.07. In the past, this report included both a greenhouse gas emissions reduction progress report per subdivision 3 and a discussion of legislative proposals to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions per subdivision 4. Minnesota Statute §216H.07 subdivision 4 was repealed in 2012."
There's a fundamental problem with tracking progress if progress indicators, including those of legislative performance, are revised frequently. Minnesota had been making what seemed like reasonable progress toward becoming a sustainable society. The challenges have increased. Interest in defining and tracking progress seems to have waned in Minnesota. Does that seem wise? Can't Minnesota do better, regardless of which party controls which organs of government? Don't Minnesotans deserve better? Are we confusing ends with means? If we don't report it, it doesn't exist. Isn't that the way North Carolina governs when it comes to rising sea levels?

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Please be kind to each other while you can.