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environmental cartoon

Smithsonian Magazine, the monthly publication of the iconic historical institute that preserves our nation's history, has a piece in its most recent edition proclaiming how the use of sun and wind energy is soaring.

It notes, for example, that both alternative energy sources now easily employ more Americans than the coal industry that Donald Trump wants to make great again. In 2016, coal employed roughly 50,000 workers, wind 102,500 and solar 260,000. Presumably, the disparity grew in 2017, for which statistics are still being compiled.

The magazine also touts what it calls the "Clean Top 10" states in deriving their energy from renewable fuels.

No surprise here: Wisconsin is not among them.

Our neighbor to the west, Iowa, is No. 1. Another neighbor, Minnesota, is No. 9. Both Dakotas and Kansas made the list. Wisconsin ranks near the middle of the 50 states. Most of the state's energy continues to come from coal and natural gas, though neither fuel is produced in Wisconsin but has to be imported.

There was a time when Wisconsin was at or near the top of lists that often reflected how enlightened and innovative are a state's government, business community and institutions.

We haven't been on lists like that in recent years. Scott Walker and his Republican legislative colleagues have instead focused on getting Wisconsin off another top 10 list — taxes — as their only goal, but their success with that has been negligible as well.

Consequently, through 2016 the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports, the state's renewable electricity production ranked last among its five Midwest neighbors — Iowa the largest at 37.1 percent, Minnesota at 20.7 percent, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana from 5.5 percent to 6.4, while we remain at 4.55 percent. The national average, incidentally is 8.4.

Interestingly, it was just 18 years ago, in 2000, that Wisconsin was one of the first Midwest states to set a standard for the amount of electricity from renewable sources its utilities must sell — then only 2 percent, but considering the technology back then, not bad. The 2005 Legislature, on a nearly unanimous vote, increased that standard to 10 percent. Since then more than two dozen states have established higher goals while Wisconsin has stayed pat.

With the advent of the Walker administration there hasn't been any progress and, indeed, many would point out there has been backsliding.

The state that produced conservation greats from Aldo Leopold to Gaylord Nelson and consistently was rated among the top states for environmental safeguards, clean air and water, and stewardship of public lands has faded to the middle of the pack and is falling.

The recent federal approval of Scott Walker's request to exempt southeast Wisconsin — and hence his pet project Foxconn — from federal limits on lung-damaging smog pollution was another case in point. But Walker fits right in with the nation's chief anti-environmentalist, the administrator of the EPA himself, Scott Pruitt.

The Chicago Tribune pointed out that had Pruitt followed his own EPA staff report, Foxconn would have been required to install more effective pollution-control equipment, among other safeguards.

But our state government has no interest in making Wisconsin a leader any longer. Racing toward the bottom is just fine.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.