Survey's problem shows path forward

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By John Bartlit

My phone rang in its best business voice. The person asked if I would answer questions in an environmental survey hired by Company X. I said sure.

The survey pertained to environmental sustainability. The term means a large-scale system that helps keep itself working well. This quest plays a big part in what follows.

Who hired the survey doesn’t matter. With any name or none, the same story emerges.

The first question brought out the usual snare that surveys have. That is, each answer had to fit into a set box.

Lead-off question: “What is New Mexico’s number-one environmental issue?” I thought ... and replied, “Water.”

I was told my first choice could be water quantity or water quality, but not just water. Which did I mean? I was boxed in.

Complaining is not the point. As in all things, a complaint is a speck in the eye. Ways to improve are where the gold is.

Information in boxes is easy to count up. The totals in each box point out problems. Yet the answers to problems all lie outside the boxes.

The no-man’s-land between set answers is the heartland of sustainability. Becoming more sustainable depends on linking problems that once were worked on separately. The key is seeing as a whole what was thought of as two. For instance, putting wastes to use – metals from scrap.

Water quantity and water quality tie together physically. Pollute water and you diminish the supply. At least, until somebody pays to clean it up.

To say more usable water is better than clean water fails the test. It is like saying green is a better plan than red in a traffic light. It misses ideas for making our trip more sustainable.

To do better, join the two problems. One way to get more usable water is to pollute less of it.

I am reminded of a survey I responded to a number of years ago. The survey was hired by industrial interests who wanted to defeat cleanup rules.

As I read down that survey, nearly every question amounted to asking did I prefer a healthy economy or a healthy environment (choose one). Try answering if you prefer food or drink (choose one).

It grew more and more clear that any box I checked only made things worse. This is the nature of boxes. If either the economy or environment falters, both falter.

The old survey was purposely designed to avoid solutions. The recent sustainability survey was a good effort that needs improving, as does everything.

One last question in the phone survey was what sources of information do I use? Do I use corporate reports?

My answer was similar. A variety of information sources is needed to draw a clear picture.

Corporate reports typically supply useful, accurate and relevant data. They also are typically short in detailing weak points.

What else we need for creating solutions is found in other places. Such places include websites of the U.S. EPA, state environment departments, suppliers of equipment such as pollution controls and new technologies, and even selected “green” sites.

Corporate reports would help us all, and themselves, if they supplied links to these other useful sites. It goes to the core of sustainability.

Digging into the weak points – that is, the opportunities to improve – is how the gold is found.

I know well the obstacles. It is no small feat to get required approvals for the idea of publishing weaknesses. I know how many company officials and lawyers have a say. Success with them all ranks with miracle working.

Yet sustainability is built on new ways of thinking. The idea of corporate reports that link to diverse sites qualifies as new thinking. Most can agree on this much.

The phone survey greatly sharpened my focus. To wit, more linking of more elements is the crux of environmental sustainability.

John Bartlit represents New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water.