My grandfather gave me some great counsel.
“Most reasonable people know right from wrong,” he said when I was a young teen working on his farm. “It’s when right and right collide and they have to choose between them that people have a hard time.”
I thought of Grandpa’s words again when I was on the air talking about the proposed Mounds Lake project. That plan, which is still in the discussion stage, calls for the White River to be dammed in Anderson to create a massive reservoir. The price tag likely will be $350 million to $400 million – and a significant alteration of the landscape in Central Indiana. It will involve flooding several hundred pieces of private property and a designated nature preserve.
Chad Pigg, the project specialist for the Corporation for Economic Development in Madison County, told me there are two good reasons for damming the river and creating the reservoir. Doing so, he said, would create a sustainable supply of drinking water to meet anticipated needs over the long term. And it would serve as an economic development tool for the Anderson metropolitan area, which has been depressed for decades and could use a lift.
Tim Maloney, the senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, had a different take. He argued the White River was one of the natural treasures of the central part of the state and that there really was no way to dam it without damaging habitats and possibly introducing invasive species into the area.
So what we have is a discussion about creating economic opportunity and anticipating community needs on one side and preserving natural resources for current and future generations on the other – a common debate in our country.
Each is a valid concern. That means, echoing my grandfather, we have a case of right colliding with right.
Overall, I tend to line up on the environmental protection side of the argument. Too many beautiful places in this country have been ravaged and despoiled for temporary economic gains – pop-up strip malls that outlive their usefulness within a decade while the damage inflicted by their building endures for years after, if not forever.
That is a tragedy.
But I’ve also seen places in which the environmental protection regulations are so severe that no development – however responsible, however sensible – is possible. The result is that working-class families who have lived in those places for decades can’t find jobs and are faced with a cruel choice. Accept a steadily decreasing standard of living or leave the land that is almost as much a part of their heritage as the blood that flows in their veins.
That, too, is a tragedy.
We turn too many conversations in this country into arguments, fights in which there has to be a winner and a loser, battles between right and wrong – when they’re really about balancing right and right.
Situations such as this one call for a different kind of conversation, one that doesn’t strive to create winners and losers but instead seeks to reconcile conflicting virtues.
The question shouldn’t be about whether we value the environment or whether we want to create jobs. It should be about how we preserve the environment and create jobs. It should be about finding a way to balance worthy goals.
To be fair, Pigg and Maloney, each of whom gave the other’s points appropriate respect and consideration, seem to be interested in having that kind of public conversation.
But it’s easy to tell from the other voices involved in the discussion how high the feelings run on both sides regarding this proposal – and, if experience is any guide, both the volume of the rhetoric and tempers are likely to continue to climb the longer the conversation goes on.
That’s a pity, because Grandpa spoke the truth.
When right and right collide, what we need is not a fight but a solution.
And we won’t get that by yelling at each other.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.