Where This Road Has Led Us—and How We Can Turn Around

by Carol Polsgrove
Monday December 13, 2010 - 06:25:00 PM

[Editor's note: This is the first of a series of columns from correspondents outside of Berkeley on topics which shed light on what's happening here. Carol Polsgrove, here reporting on environmental activism in the Midwest, has lived in the Bay Area, which she still visits often. She writes about environmental issues for the Huffington Post's Green page.]

I remember my first ride on a new four-lane highway through the Kentucky countryside, and what a fine road it was: smooth, wide, and uncrowded. We just floated along in our Chevrolet—Mother, Daddy, my little brother and me, back home from Nigeria where roads were usually unpaved laterite and we bounced through clouds of dust, moving over now and then to let herds of long-horned cows pass. It was 1956, and America was zooming full-bore into what looked like a bright future of suburban homes with two-car garages.

I think of that now as state surveyors move into my Indiana community to chart the route of an interstate highway—maybe the last interstate highway that will be built in the United States, if it is built at all, a question I hope still hangs in the air. As our town tries to dig its way out of the mess that twentieth-century America has made of itself, we can hardly imagine that what we need now at the dawn of the post-oil age is another highway.  

“Fix the roads we have” has been the mantra of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, which has led the battle against I-69. Hundreds turned out at a state transportation hearing last August to call attention to ways I-69 would tear up the existing network of our county’s roads, separating neighbors from neighbors, farmers from their fields, children from their schools, and firefighters from their fires. 

What I-69 would do to the human community, it would also do to the non-human community, smashing turtles and deer and sending polluted highway runoff into streams and ground water. Entire habitats would be erased—forests felled or fragmented, wooded hills replaced by rocky canyons.  

The highway would cut across a sparsely populated and still beautiful part of southwest Indiana – but one that is already heavily engineered. Early farmers ditched wetlands to dry out their fields. Underground and surface coal mines pockmark the land and contaminate groundwater and streams. Close to where I-69 crosses the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge, you can see the remains of the Wabash and Erie Canal. Coal-fired power plants crowd the state’s southwest region. 

This is just a fragment of the damage done by the industrial world that gave me that smooth ride on a four-lane Kentucky highway and has been building big highways, power plants, factories, and landfills ever since. On a recent visit to Bloomington, my fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry urged us to “open the books” – study the accounting of our industrial world, examine what we have lost as well as what we have gained. I see what he means. 

In light of global warming – a big item on the debit side – we should be committing ourselves to recovery from the carbon age. Instead, just an hour west of Bloomington, draglines are scouring out the biggest surface coal mine east of the Mississippi, while not far to the south, Duke Energy is building a giant coal gasification plant. Meanwhile, I-69 is about to arrive on our very doorstep.  

Strolling our tree-lined streets, we in Bloomington imagine a different world: We have a lively local growers guild, farmers markets in summer and winter, bike paths, a community garden and orchard, several coop grocery stores, a government commission on sustainability, and a nonprofit Center for Sustainable Living. We have declared ourselves a Transition Town. Skeptical of our power to change the larger world, we have tried to do what we can in our own small place to break the carbon habit, one day at a time. 

I know that local is important – local food, goods, energy, and government created in the context of a local landscape that we understand and respect. But I know local action is not enough. As I-69 has reminded us, we are firmly embedded in a larger world. Bloomington can do what it does to be sustainable because it is home to Indiana University, which funnels millions of dollars from elsewhere into our town. How was that money made? Not, I imagine, selling food in farmers’ markets. It was produced by the industrialist, capitalist, marketplace that some of us are trying to replace with something else. I-69 reminds us how quickly outside economic interests we might like to ignore can smash our local plans to smithereens. 

Too late, I’m afraid, it is clear that stopping I-69 would have taken more than showing up at hearings, signing petitions, commenting on environmental impact statements. Bloomington Alternative editor Steve Higgs has argued that it would have taken a political movement to stop this highway—a push to convince politicians to abandon this backward, expensive boondoggle. I agree, but I want to go farther and say that what we needed to stop I-69, and what we need to stop future projects like it, is a larger, more sustained movement dedicated to a different vision of how we want to live. 

We have already begun growing such a movement. South of here, communities that have been targeted for biomass plants have shared information and strategies to fight the plants. The Indiana Forest Alliance, a group with which I’m involved, is moving beyond its focus on forests around Bloomington to link arms with tree huggers around the state. After Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads met this past week in the Monroe County Public Library, a group of citizens got together to expand the effort to stop the highway on a variety of fronts. Thousands of Hoosiers belong to the Hoosier Environmental Council, Citizens Action Coalition, the Sierra Club, and a host of other organizations with ideas of a better world. What we need now is a process for conversation and mutual support, maybe something like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (, but our own creation. 

I do not imagine building and sustaining a statewide multi-dimensional movement would be easy. It would require people who do not agree with each other on many things to learn to talk and listen to each other. History is littered with the wreckage of conflicts among even people who thought they agreed on basic principles. 

It seems easier to agree on single issues fought out in a limited time frame: to oppose this particular highway or that particular biomass plant. And of course when we’re faced with these projects we have to fight them. But single-issue, short-term battles are not enough and easily lost. It has taken the world a couple of centuries to dig itself into this hole that we’re in, and it’s a deep one. If we want to get out of it, we’ll have to create movements on a broad front for the long run.