This editorial originally appeared on May 20 2012, in the Indianapolis Star.
It can’t be easy to be Jesse Kharbanda — or, to be more accurate, to have his job.
Kharbanda is executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council and, as such, is perhaps the leading voice for the environment in a state that doesn’t always appreciate being told what not to pollute. His is a message that is often drowned out by those advocating for business, or by others who simply oppose regulations, but he nonetheless delivers his pitch with a style that has won him admiration during his tenure at HEC.
“We’re interested in dialoguing broadly and finding common ground,” he said over lunch last week. “We understand the challenges facing us, so what we try to do is emphasize those issues that people everywhere care about and that, really, are part of our fabric as Hoosiers.”
He understands that in many ways his organization is the away team in Indiana. Environmentalists should, but too often don’t, enjoy home-field advantage in Indiana. So to be effective, they have to be creative, perhaps by telling the pro-environmental story in new ways.
“Who doesn’t want a clean neighborhood?” Kharbanda asked. “And when you think about Hoosier traditions, isn’t that about things like going for bike rides with your family and roaming around on your grandparents’ farm and enjoying the fresh air?”
As opposed to, say, smelling the factory farm that was allowed to move in down the road thanks to weak regulatory controls.
A crucial piece of HEC’s strategy, Kharbanda said, is that it does not aim for confrontation. While lawsuits are sometimes necessary, he said the organization reaches out to leaders across the political spectrum. He is working to set up a meeting with Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence, hoping to build a relationship that pushes past political stereotypes. The strategy also centers on understanding that these are tough times.
“The state faces some serious economic challenges,” he said. “And in order to take those on, we have to overcome some of the presumptions we have about each other.”
Pro-environmental policies are frequently unfairly portrayed as economically unfriendly, he noted. Often, the outcome would be the opposite. For instance, HEC is a leading advocate of improving mass transit in Central Indiana. While such an initiative would improve air quality, it also would be an economic driver along the new routes. For those living in congested suburban areas, it would enhance the quality of life.
“We will only pursue things that we know will be good not only for the environment but also for the economy,” Kharbanda said. He pointed to the positive impact mass transit would have on the urban core and its ability to better tie this region together. He has been working to further expand the coalition in support of mass transit.
“Every organization involved in transit is involved for a different reason,” he said. “For us, it’s really about rethinking the overall approach to transportation in Indiana in a way that leads to a significant improvement in environmental quality.”
The issue has been caught up in politics at the Statehouse. That’s no surprise. But if the state’s leading environmental organization can join hands with top business groups, there has to be a chance.