Back to the Future: Sustainability is a South Knoxville Tradition

Close your eyes and imagine that you live in a sustainable community. What is your morning routine? What's in your kitchen? How do you get around? What makes people upset? What entertains them?

Think about your personal life, your region, the world. Think about food, energy, employment, travel, shopping. This thought exercise was done by those who attended the "green policy" forum at the third annual Appalachian Public Interest Environmental Law conference at UT Law School in October. Sociology graduate student Elizabeth East, a founding member of a new local group called the Green Policy Collective, guided a classroom full of lawyers, activists and academics through layers of thought, then we talked about a society in balance with the planet's resources.

In other rooms were sessions on mountaintop-removal coal mining, forest management, nuclear power, and water quality. This year's conference included talks on immigration law because companies who exploit immigrants often take liberties with environmental laws as well.

Fran Ansley, a local champion of social justice, gave a primer on what she calls "an underclass of exploitable workers." Whether a person holds a green card, a guest worker visa, or is simply undocumented, he or she may face threats in the workplace, with legal status used as leverage to induce silence.

Ansley recommended a book by Linder and Nygaard called Void Where Prohibited documenting the struggles workers and advocates faced just to secure the right to step off an assembly line to urinate. Dangerous or unsanitary conditions are a common problem, and supervisors may also skim money from workers' wages. To an employer cutting regulatory corners, workers who are afraid to speak out look like an asset.

For less disturbing, more inspiring tales of activism, Barry Sulkin and a few environmental attorneys described successful battles against road projects in Nashville and North Carolina.

Julie Mayfield of the Western North Carolina Alliance gave an insider's account of how Asheville got a community-generated design for Interstate 26 to replace the Department of Transportation's original plans, an overbuilt bridge and interchange that would have devastated and isolated neighborhoods and detracted from the town's mountain charm.

It took years of determination, and community leaders had to overcome political and class divisions to get neighborhoods communicating. Finally, the city united behind its own solution, and the road builders had to follow. These activists said to fight road projects you must get involved early, be vigilant, and stay engaged. Long-range planning documents matter, and legal changes streamlining environmental reviews have made it more critical than ever to register opposition and alternatives while projects are in their infancy.

Speaking of which, despite community opposition in the past decade, TDOT has revived the idea of extending James White Parkway to Chapman Highway, and a public meeting will be held at 5 p.m., Dec. 6 at South-Doyle Middle School.

City Councilman Nick Pavlis opposes the road because South Knoxville is branding itself as urban wilderness. Parks, natural areas, and miles of bike trails and greenways have been established in recent years. Ijams Nature Center is expanding. The era of cheap gas and sprawling growth that hatched this road concept is gone.

Sociologists study how politics and power shape narratives and decision-making, and the James White Parkway decision will be a test of whether politicians are serious about reducing spending or still prefer to throw millions of dollars in asphalt and concrete at communities in the name of progress.

South Knoxville has taken steps toward sustainability, much like what the Green Policy Collective envisions. It's a future a lot like South Knoxville's pioneer past. Close your eyes and imagine a creek running clear and cool under mature trees, not cloudy and choked under concrete and through culverts.