Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Who gets to control development? Part 1: SLC redux

Miriam Silverman, Stopping the Plant: The St. Lawrence Cement Controversy and the Battle for Quality of Life in the Hudson Valley. SUNY Press, 2006. 176 pages, $24.95 paperback.

I just finished Miriam Silverman's Stopping the Plant. A short book, it provides an intelligent retelling of the Hudson community's struggle against the mammoth Greenport plant proposed by Saint Lawrence Cement. But Silverman goes beyond a mere he-said-she-said rehash, illuminating how Americans' relationship to the natural environment has evolved over several centuries. Ultimately, it came to inform and shape the arguments on both sides of the SLC debate.

Early European settlers of the Americas were necessarily fearful of the natural environment, as it presented a continual threat to their well-being. Nature was seen as something that needed to be "conquered" for the sake of survival. In the industrial era, this evolved into a desire to exploit natural resources for economic development and material gain. But as our comfort became more assured, the attitude that produced it became less necessary. No longer fearful of the natural world, we became open to appreciating it aesthetically. This appreciation found expression in various endeavors, such as the Hudson River school of painting (celebrating the beauty of nature and its peaceful co-existence with humans), the national park system (formally protecting large areas of the natural environment from economic interests), and more recently the mainstream environmental movement (calling for personal accountability to nature). Such attitudes didn't evolve uniformly; those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have perhaps (perhaps!) valued economic development over environmental aesthetics, while those on the upper rungs have had the freedom to embrace the opposite. For instance, the greater mobility of the wealthy might allow them to designate geographic areas of their choosing as worthy of aesthetic protection over economic development. Such was the label often hung on the anti-SLC faction: wealthy outsiders or recent arrivals to Hudson who aimed to impose their personal aesthetic vision on the region at the expense of Hudson's more indigenous working class.

There is plenty of room to pick nits in this model, and Silverman herself is willing to do so. As she pursues the ramifications of her model, she ultimately moves beyond it and turns to the longer term, more deeply embedded conflicts in the Hudson community. Here she finds commonality and sympathy in the needs and values of the two sides: Saint Lawrence Cement, a Swiss and Canadian company, is itself an outsider to our region. Thus, writes Silverman, "the overriding question, to which there is not always an easy answer, is who gets to determine the direction of development in the community."

Who, indeed? Stay tuned.

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