CRUCIAL AND BASICALLY RIGHT: an essay by Dave Jorgensen
In our April 2005 issue of the LYNX, we invited members and readers to submit a 500-1000 word essay focusing on the death, revitalization, vision, hope, hopelessness of environmentalism/ conservation. “What to do now? How? Why? If you can focus it on the Uintas, great; if not, great!” We continue to extend that invitation. Please send us your essay.
It would be a bitter irony if organized environmentalism in the U.S. were dead. Although most developed countries have recently made enormous environmental gains, the world’s overall ecology has never been worse in recorded history. If the world’s population all lived the average American lifestyle, it would take three earth-like planets to support them. As it is, the earth is losing species at an alarming rate which may be as high as 1,000 times greater than what would prevail without human dominance. At the same time, we humans are facing severe ecological problems ourselves. Environmentalists are as needed today as they ever were.
To some extent, the environmental movement may be a victim of its own success. The landmark environmental laws of the 60s and 70s were tremendous accomplishments. Since the Clean Air Act was passed, air pollution has declined by 25% in the face of large population, traffic and economic expansions. After the Clean Water Act, 94% in America are served by drinking water meeting federal standards. The Wilderness Act has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation, and progress has been made in other areas.
Having accomplished so much, neither the slowdown nor the backlash should be surprising. Nevertheless, Europe has now eclipsed the United States as the leader in environmental progress. President Clinton was not all that enthusiastic about addressing global issues, and President Bush has been obstructionist. Things are dark at the national level where liberalism in general has been in decline for decades.
But the message has gotten out. Eighteen states require that utilities produce a certain percentage of their output from renewable sources. A number of states have joined litigation against the EPA over CO2 emissions. California is being sued by automakers over its CO2 standards. Salt Lake City’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions have received national attention.
Given the context of European progress, some state progress and overall political weakness, it is hard to place as much blame on organized environmental groups for today’s malaise as some do. Nevertheless, improvements can always be made.
The word “extreme” seems to be too much of an automatic prefix to the word “environmentalists.” To be sure, name calling reflects badly on the one using epitaphs, and “extremism” is something that is in the eye of the beholder. However, the constant charge of extremism at least reveals a widely-held perception that should be addressed.
There is a tendency for all issue-oriented organizations to become dogmatic. While it is difficult to differentiate between visionary advocacy and dogmatic stubbornness, we probably have some sense when we are approaching that line. We may know, for example, that certain land for which we are advocating some protective status really doesn’t qualify for the degree of protection we are seeking or that contemplated litigation has no real chance of success. When we feel that a group with which we are associated is about to cross such a line, we should not be afraid to say so.
In Utah, the BLM wilderness issue has continued for decades. Both sides have jockeyed for position using whatever levers are available to gain this or that advantage. Both sides have had victories, and both sides have suffered public black eyes. The problem for conservationists is that unresolved disputes tend to reinforce a stereotype that many people already hold.
I do not really know whether willingness to compromise has become too much of a sign of weakness. I assume most realize that it is, at the minimum, a practical necessity and intend some compromise at an appropriate time. At its best, willingness to compromise can also be seen as a positive good. It shows maturity and the humility to recognize that other people’s values have their own merit.
Of course, the timing and amount of compromise made depends on the specific situation. But we should be on the lookout for situations where we can find common ground and for those resolutions which will best accommodate the needs which each side has.
Whatever our weaknesses, the need for change in the way our national government deals with conservation could not be more apparent. We will not be able to drill our way to energy self-sufficiency. Species will not be saved by watering down the Endangered Species Act. Global temperatures will not be reduced by subsidizing fossil fuels. The estimated 1.1 billion people lacking access to clean water and 2.6 billion lacking adequate sanitation are not even on the political radar screen.
At the local level, the very problems we read about almost daily illustrate how important our environmental laws are. The new forest service rules demonstrate how prescient the Wilderness Act was. The damage being done by ORV use shows that our public lands should not be converted into a glorified amusement park ride. And although I feel continuing litigation over Legacy Highway would be counterproductive, the battle waged so far has publicized the need to preserve Great Salt Lake wildlife habitat.
If anything, the current U.S. political climate makes support of conservation efforts even more critical. Whatever we do individually to live more ecologically sustainable lives helps directly and indirectly. Sales of hybrid vehicles increased by 81% in 2004 over 2003 levels and are up 960% since they were introduced in 2000. Sales are continuing to increase this year. Some outside the environmental community have noticed.
Maybe Congress will do so before it is too late.