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Your State’s Greener Than My State. But Why?

Leslie Back | Monday October 4th, 2010 | 4 Comments

I recently had the opportunity to play tourist in Vermont. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the state, its history and the obvious commitment of its people to the greater green. Forests greeted our eyes at every turn and localism was the order of the day. Main streets full of shops filled in for Wal-Mart, Green Mountain Coffee beat out Starbucks and locally owned used bookstores took the place of Borders and Barnes & Noble. I’m telling you, I was impressed.

Impressed, but not altogether surprised. Without much study or reflection there are some states I just think of as greener-Vermont is surely one of them. Oregon, California and Washington, also, I assume, are greener, more eco-friendly, right? The South and the Midwest,  not so much, correct? I wanted to be sure so I  hopped online when I got home, eager to see if my assumptions were right or if there was a bit more to the story. As always, there is.

In April of this year my TriplePundit colleague, BC Upham, wrote a piece on the backwardness of the Southern states in mostly all things green, particularly energy efficiency. While BC is one of TriplePundit’s best writers and a credit to green bloggers everywhere, I really wanted to disagree with him. After all, I am a Southerner and my self-described Yankee friend’s article did not paint an all together pretty picture. But, I can’t argue with the truth. BC’s article, and the  Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance report it references, correctly point out the hard to swallow fact that Southerners have a lot of work today in the move towards water conservation and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, as BC points out, 7 out of 8 of the bottom spots on the 2007 Forbes ranking of greenest states belong to Southerners  (and, yes, Vermont  was #1). Alright, alright, bless our hearts, I get it. We Southerners are not doing a good green job. But why?

After considering the issue for a while (and Googling it of course), I see there are three important correlations to consider. We must consider the politics of the region, as well as poverty and education levels. But, I contend that while educational and poverty levels seem to have a direct correlation to the green insufficiency of the South, politics offers the weakest link.

According to recent reports by the New York Times, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation (and fifth from the bottom on listings of green states). Indeed, as the map on the NYT site shows, most of the impoverished states, reporting poverty levels of 16% or more, are in the South (excluding Florida), closely mirroring the Forbes green list.

One cannot rightfully discuss poverty levels without considering education. The links are well established. But, remarkably, the links between “green” states and states with the highest percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) are strong. Green and degreed go hand in hand. According to the most recent rankings for education levels by states, West Virginia was dead last. Interestingly, West Virginia was the least green of all states listed by the Forbes list. And barely green and rather impoverished Mississippi? Third from the bottom for education out of all fifty states. Honestly, the education rankings and the Forbes green states list replicate one another to an alarming extent.

The third issue, however, politics, does not seem to be as closely linked to the ecological tendencies of  a state as education and income levels. Democrats have  a “better” reputation for environmentalism (room for argument, I know), but West Virginia, the least educated and least green state in the country is also one of the most Democratic. There are some non-surprises, however. Mississippi is largely Republican, as is not so green (37/50) Wyoming.

So then the greener states are those with the highest education levels and generally the best income levels. Perhaps poverty breeds apathy, blameless though it might be. Easy enough to find the cause, difficult to ID the solutions. Any suggestions?


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  • Nick Aster

    Comparing this data by state is only marginally useful. It’s really about urban vs exurban & rural. Same goes for politics, generally speaking.

    • Leslie Back

      I am not sure I agree Nick,
      State law varies and directly impacts regional practices. Those state laws apply across the entirety of the state-rural or not. Political lines are clearly drawn across rural and urban boundaries, but they are geographically defined as well.

      • Nick Aster

        That’s a good point. I guess I meant culturally. But certainly state law and policy matter a lot.

  • http://vermont4evolution.wordpress.com Bode

    What is our standards of Green? How high are they or should it just be comparative? Vt imports a high % of its food, 80-90% by some calculations. Is this Green? Where does all our food come from in Vt. Go to Shaws or any large supermarket…. Yes.. California, Mexico, Peru, etc. Ok so should we say it is a ‘Green’ state because the people don’t want to be bombarded by billboards and they choose to support what local industry or businesses that still exists? I guess many do. I personally have much higher standards and find even the ‘Greenest’ individuals and businesses are in their infancy, of what it means to be ‘green’- Sustainable. Transition towns, are the Biggest thing on the scene that could be correctly labeled “Green”. We need these efforts to be supported. To create a ‘new infrastructure’ that is sustainable, then I think we will laugh that we ever used the word green as we have.