Educate Decision Makers and the Media

Replacing the growth machine with a sustainability ethic

America was once a paradise of timberland and streams, but it is dying because of the greed and money lust of
a thousand little kings
-Don Marquis

Why Ignorance Rules

Since colonial times, local politics has been about managing land ownership and accommodating development. In other words, for most local politicians, growth is an inbred mindset; and they sincerely believe that "bigger is better." Politicians may even be intrigued by opportunities to leave physical monuments, such as new developments, to their civic contributions. This bias towards growth is continually fueled by the development and construction industries, which provide the bulk of the political campaign contributions to candidates in local elections. Politicians who aspire to higher office know that they must 'befriend' the development industry (which controls local and state Chambers of Commerce) to collect the larger campaign contributions they will need.

In addition, the development industry makes sure that the "professional" associations for local politicians reinforce a strong growth-friendly bias by financially underwriting (as corporate members) these organizations. Such associations include the National League of Cities (, and the National Association of Counties ( Development interests give lots of splashy presentations and proselytize their pro-growth dogma at conferences for these associations.

Not surprisingly, employees in local government who are involved with development and growth (such as planning staff, public works staff and city managers) almost always embrace growth. Accommodating growth is their job; it is what they were trained to do. It's job security; and by delivering on growth, they not only get good job ratings from their pro-growth supervisors (politicians), they improve their resumes, too.

Local Planning Boards are typically populated with pro-growth and pro-development members. Often, developers manage these authorities by proposing unacceptable plans. Instead of promptly rejecting such proposals, Planning Department staff and Planning Board members work frantically to amend them into something barely acceptable to pro-growth politicians. That way, everyone in the government can boast about how hard they worked to protect voters' interests.

Some seemingly innocuous tax policies can be significant drivers for growth and new development. Homestead tax credits, for example, provoke local governments to approve new developments because the new property owners step into their full assessments. So what might be casually perceived as a sweet deal for existing residents can become a community's undoing.

The Extended Family

The Growth Machine has very politically-powerful allies including realtors, bankers and retailers. Developers, construction firms and their allies are apty termed the 'rentier class' because they capture huge sums of money from "improving" (the legal term for exploiting) the land.

Commercial media, including newspapers, are usually full-fledged partners of the Growth Machine. Reporters and editors consider growth and development their tickets to financial security. More growth means more readers or viewers and more advertising dollars. In particular, a (if not the) major advertiser in most newspapers - the real estate industry - benefits tremendously from growth. You can deal with pro-growth bias in the media by reminding reporters and editors of their duty to serve the public. A good resource for this purpose is the code of ethics of Society of Professional Journalists (

There are wonderful exceptions to the typical alliances between the Growth Machine and the media. The Orlando Sentinel, for instance, does an exceptional job of covering overdevelopment and growth in Florida (see This Lauren Ritchie editorial illustrates the Sentinel's contributions to the public discourse on the issue.

You will also notice that professors of urban planning or economic development favor growth and development. This bias is understandable, given that these academics receive lucrative consulting contracts from developers and their students are employed by developers, urban planning firms and government planning departments.

Even many colleges and universities are huge promoters of growth. Business plans that depend on increasing enrollments and jobs for graduates are more readily achieved if the student and job pools are increasing. They receive large donations from those who profiteer from growth, and their endowments make big money off of investments tied to growth. Urbanization, centralization, corporatization and growth favor the college-educated elite and the sytem that cranks them out.

Be a Teacher

Yes, you are like a David against Goliath. But fortunately, most government officials want to do the right thing. And in fact, municipal and county governments are required to control land use planning in ways that improve the lives of current residents, or at least not harm the existing community. Consequently, much of your work is about educating leaders in both government and the media (as well as your fellow citizens) that growth and development can be quite destructive to their communities. As you can appreciate, this work requires extraordinary care, patience and resilience.

Use letters-to-the-editor to educate citizens and residents about the issues. Beware, however, as newspapers are often members of the Growth Machine and may revise your letter to make you look foolish. Consequently, running a paid advertisement in the newspaper or distributing flyers may be more effective outreach tools.

Get and read a copy of the "Engaging Allied Voices" through the Conservation Leaders Network ( This publication contains excellent guidelines on how to influence decision makers.

Don't be afraid to tackle issues even when it appears that decision makers have already made up their minds. Take advantage of opportunities to learn about the issues and to hone your message.

Judith Perlman's book, Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism, which is referenced in the "Become Knowledgeable about Growth Issues" section of this website, offers excellent advice for dealing with local government authorities. And Ask Edward Tufte is a good, short, web-based essay on conservation activism. In addition, the other references recommended in the "Learn" section of this website will provide you with powerful arguments for limiting growth.

Creating worthy places for our great, great grandchildren

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