Environmental Policy

With our new life on the shore of Lake Erie, I seem to have a hard time getting back to the blog. But, to continue from last time, here’s how it went down:

It had been a beautiful wedding in a mansion that had once been owned by Andrew Carnegie, overlooking one of his favorite trout streams. I was sitting at the reception across the table from a Pennsylvania Senator’s chief aide. Our conversation was wild and wide-ranging, and since we liked many of the same things, very enjoyable. Somewhere in there, I laughingly said, concerning his Republican boss, “How can a political party jam-packed with hunters, fishermen and other passionate outdoorsmen, constantly find themselves on the wrong end of every environmental issue, every time you turn around?” Suddenly my companion turned dead serious. “They get it,” he said. “But it’s the money. They accept so much money from Big Oil and Big Business and Big Energy companies, they end up voting against the environment all the time. And it is killing us with young people.” I don’t remember the exact words of what all else he said, but he clearly expressed his frustration at knowing that money was buying votes that were clearly against the common good.

Now, we say this kind of thing all the time, “follow the money,” but here was the highest aide of a prominent Senator telling me that it was exactly the case. I don’t know really what to do to solve that problem, except to say that it may very well be that the answers to many of our pressing problems are not going to come from Washington D.C. It’s dis-heartening, because, as great organizations like Bread for the World have found, it’s a powerful venue.

But I wonder if the way things get turned around are more through cultural grass-roots movements in regular neighborhoods and regular high schools and regular towns, so that there is a growing crescendo in the culture that some things are simply not acceptable, and that vibe or perspective percolates upwards to the extent that finally enough representatives believe something to be generally true in the culture that their voting simply reflects the new milieu. I don’t know, but it worked for the environmental movement, who were considered whack-jobs in the 1960s and yet now, in 2016, every single one of their major talking points is considered normative in our culture; (Of course you recycle, of course you conserve energy, of course you don’t litter, etc etc). The fact that very powerful money now works against that enlightened awareness, remains a conundrum. In the meantime, maybe teach a kid to garden and fish.

Henry Beston, writing from his farm in Maine, said this in 1948:

It often strikes me that in our modern Babylons you never see anything begin. Everything comes to you, even thought, at a certain stage in its development, like an iceberg lettuce. Now life is more a matter of beginnings than of endings, and without some sense of the beginning of things, there is no proper perspective on the whole mystery of living. This is only one detail, but it will serve as one of the marks of the whole incomplete urban perspective in which we live. For the city governs us now as never before; it tells us what to love and what to hate, what to believe and what not to believe, and even what to make of human nature.” (Northern Farm, by Henry Beston; Ballantine: 1948).

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Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.