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Late bloomers and early adaptors

August 7, 2013

Years ago I came across some provocative comments by Kirk Vardenoe, the noted American art historian. I was struck by his observation that throughout the 19th century, Denmark and Sweden were considerably behind the curve in industrial development. Vardenoe’s insight was that this was actually an advantage, because the delay gave them time to observe, prepare and avoid some of the worst negative effects of industrialization.

They particularly wanted to avoid the deplorable slums they saw in the industrialized cities of Europe, where workers migrating from the farms to cities were packed into shoddy, crowded housing that bred crime, disease and social discontent. To head off this blight, they worked to establish some of the world’s earliest housing standards, specifying sufficient space, air, clean water and other amenities to ensure decent living conditions.

This notion of quality and integrity of design for everyday objects and buildings, and for everyone, became the hallmark of the enduring Scandinavian design tradition. It is also an eloquent expression of the values and priorities of the society that produced it. They didn’t call it “sustainability” in those days, but the word is apt. Timing intersected with cultural values and social policy to transform a disadvantage into a better way forward.

This idea popped into my mind recently when I got drawn into yet another conversation in which a well-meaning individual asked “why try to do anything about sustainability in Sullivan County?” I get this question a lot. The thinking seems to be: Sullivan County is so poor, so far behind the curve, that it is unrealistic to promote renewable energy or try to build a green economy.

But it seems to me that, to the extent that we may be behind the curve, we have an excellent opportunity to learn from the mistakes and build upon the successes of our neighbors. With less bad stuff to undo, we have a chance to get it right the first time. We certainly don’t need to “catch up” to the bad decisions and failed policies of the past.

Casinos provide a case in point. The industry has proliferated in states eager to increase revenue without raising taxes; but we may be at a tipping point as the sheer number of casinos increases competition and shrinks profits. Now, states like New Jersey and Delaware are being asked for millions of dollars in bailouts. The lesson seems to be that casinos are not a sustainable strategy for economic development.