The other laboratories we need today

The country is reopening our economy, putting untold lives at risk.


Staff | TPIN
Environment Georgia State Director Jennette Gayer (right) with Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (center) and Channa Childs at an event for 100% renewable energy, prior to social distancing.


How and when we come out of this crisis depends on what happens in dozens of laboratories, where scientists are racing to develop new vaccines and treatments and improving tests to detect the novel coronavirus and the antibodies that may build our immunity to COVID-19.

At the same time, our wellbeing also depends on what’s happening in another set of laboratories: the state and local governments that, under the Tenth Amendment to the constitution, hold a big share of power in our federal system.

Imagine: How many more Americans would have died or suffered if San Francisco Mayor London Breed hadn’t declared a state of emergency in her city in February, or if Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine hadn’t closed all schools in his state on March 12? How many lives might be spared in the weeks to come thanks to New Jersey ramping up testing for the virus or because Michigan is going big on contact tracing?

The capacity of local actors to take the initiative on public policy is embedded in the American political structure. It’s the feature that led U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to declare in 1932 that, under our federal system, “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

That’s what we mean by “laboratories of democracy,” and putting these labs to work for the public has been a hallmark of our approach to social change since … well, since long before we were The Public Interest Network. Today, we’re leveraging the expertise and experience of staff such as Illinois PIRG’s Abe Scarr (on staff since 2002), CALPIRG’s Emily Rusch (on staff since 2001) and MASSPIRG’s Janet Domenitz (on staff since 1980), as well as the grassroots support and clout we’ve built in these states, to influence decisions—on every level of government and even in the corporate sector—on testing and contact tracing, medical supplies, consumer protection, voting and other issues related to the pandemic.

And, even with the coronavirus dominating the political and cultural conversation, we’re also finding opportunities to make headway on other issues. For example:

  • Environment Georgia’s Jennette Gayer spoke at town halls and led the coalition that convinced Savannah to become the seventh (seventh! in Georgia!) city in the state to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity.
  • Elly Boehmer and Environment Virginia played a role in securing the Old Dominion state’s own 100 percent clean energy commitment.
  • Environment Washington supported a new Zero Emission Vehicle standard, which takes effect next month.
  • Doug O’Malley and Environment New Jersey won expanded protections for 600 miles of rivers and streams.
  • Earlier this month, Austin Community College became the latest campus to go 100 percent renewable starting in June. (June!)

All of these victories have come after the coronavirus crisis swept the country.

Meanwhile, we’re also suing the Trump administration in defense of national Clean Car standards—which, of course, are based on the standards we’ve helped win in more than a dozen states. And we’re fighting to stop the administration from undermining limits on power plants’ mercury pollution—limits that were based on standards that we won in Massachusetts and other states.

It would be great if we could focus less on defending past victories and more on expanding the successful policy experiments that we are nurturing in the states. And we could sure use stronger, wiser national leadership, in both the White House and Congress, to bring us out of this pandemic.

In the meantime, we have the laboratories of democracy—to fall back on in times of national crisis, and to put to good use at all times for our health, our environment and so much more.

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