It’s now coming up on almost 45 years since Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971. But in spite of his hero’s eloquent pleas, the world lost over 3% of its forest in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. ( Earth Policy Institute’s compilation of data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Resources Assessment. ) Dr. Seuss and his Lorax had it right. Somebody has to speak for the trees.
Perhap it’s the result of media’s need to emphasize conflict, but whenever I come across the word “environmentalists” while scanning a newspaper or hear “environmentalists” out of the corner of my ear while half listening to the radio, I wince. “Environmentalists resist lumbering in the Pacific Northwest”, “Environmentalists line up against XL Pipeline”, “Enviromentalists lobby for reduced fishing quotas.” “Environmentalists up in arms about drilling for oil in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.” Seems like the environmental motto must be “Just say ‘No’ “. And more often than not the environmentalists are lined up against something that has a fair amount of popular support.
And in truth, much environmental activism does involve preventing the doing of something – and often that something has immediate benefits for many, like keeping their houses warm or putting food on the table or providing a nice shopping mall closer to home. And how does one balance inconveniencing a herd of migrating caribou most people will never see against knocking a few cents off the price of a gallon of gasoline for everybody?
But here’s the rub. Those folks with a direct dog in the fight can speak out loudly and they have an immediate incentive to do so; but as for the environment – well that’s a different matter. For the most part, the environment doesn’t squawk when it is trampled on – not right away. And nobody has big bucks to make by objecting to an environmentally damaging project. In the long run, however, there is a big price to pay. But to make matters even more complicated, that price is often in something other than dollars. Coastlines slowlyerode and property gradually disappears when all the mangroves get chopped down to make way for coastal resorts. Silt clogs streams when hillsides are clearcut and salmon runs silently disappear. Or one day someone decides to take their kids camping and realizes there is no open land within a two hour’s drive.
Another problem is that the costs and benefits of environment vs development are spread across different timescales. Levelling that West Virginia mountaintop and extracting its coal may reduce electricity costs for some for the next couple of years. The fouled streams and ruined landscape, however, will be present for generations. Granted, the contributions to mercury accumulation in seafood and CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere from one coal mine may be small, but it is Death by A Thousand Cuts. And the only way we have of controlling that dismal fate is putting a brake on the small contributors one at a time.
I would like to argue that many of the things environmentalists are working to protect can compete well in a fair fight against the typically vested interests of those clamoring for their exploitation. The field on which the environmentalists and the exploiters compete, however is not level. To get away from preconceptions, let’s call them the Loraxes and the Once-lers.
When the Once-lers score a goal, their score stays up. A pipeline gets built and it is there for good. There is big money to be made cutting down some old growth forest; once it is cut and sold, the money is in the bank. Same deal if the Atlantic cod is overfished until the breeding population collapses. And get the OK to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the oil wells are there to stay.
Its a different matter for the Loraxes. Hold up the pipeline now and the battle begins with the next congress. Block the clearcut this year and the lumber companies are back at it again next. And let a species like the spotted owl or the black rhino go extinct and you have lost that game once and for all. Every time the Once-lers score a point their score gets higher. For the Loraxes, the point is only secure until the next time the Once-lers make an offensive play.
And that’s not the only problem. Turns out the two sides are playing with different game clocks. When that lumber company fells and sells a couple of acres of old growth trees its quarterly profits go up and the CEO gets his raise that year. For the Loraxes, successfully holding off that lumbering means that the trees will be there to be enjoyed for the next generation, and the offspring of the salmon that lay their eggs in the unsilted streams of that old uncut forest won’t be back for an average of five years. Same time warp for developing tropical mangrove shorelines. Those resort profits start rolling in as soon as construction is finished, but the loss of a marine nursery won’t be noticed for years, and the impact of the next fifty year hurricane on that fragile environment won’t be felt for, well, fifty years on average.
And there’s one more thing. The players are paid in different currencies. The stars kicking goals for the Once-lers get paid in dollars and lots of them. Those dollars let them buy their own piece of undeveloped waterfront or a mountain lodge on several hundred acres. Those dollars, strategically placed, may even get them on the boards of some high profile conservation organizations and let them steer environmental policy. The stars playing for the Loraxes get, for the most part, satisfaction for a job well done, handshakes, volunteer of the year awards, the hope that their grandchildren will still have some unspoiled wilderness to hike in – stuff like that. Makes one think of the Lord Charles Bowen’s musing:
“The rain is raining on the just
And also on the unjust fella
But mostly on the just because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”
But back to the idea of those “environmentalists” being a fringe group trying to hold up progress. I’d argue that at heart, many people who don’t identify themselves as “environmentalist” value the natural world very much. By that I mean they value many of the same things that self declared environmentalists do. What, then, does set them apart?
Well, some are fortunate enough to be able to buy for themselves the things the self-declared environmentalists are trying to keep available for a broader public. You needn’t worry about the local salmon population if you can afford to go to Scotland and rent fishing rights on one of the exclusive private stretches of river there. You don’t have to concern yourself with available open space if you can afford a thousand acres of a mountainside in New Mexico. These folks share many of the active environmentalists’ aesthetic values but for whatever reason, don’t feel compelled to make satisfaction of them more widely available.
Then there are others who are just dealing with a different set of observations. The fisheries scientists take carefully standardized samples from rigorously randomized locations and conclude an area is being overfished. Fishermen, on the other hand, may see their catches actually increasing, but fail to take into account that they are constantly searching for the areas of densest population and forget the fact that the new fish-finding technology they bought two years earlier is much more sensitive than the stuff they were using earlier.
And something that is difficult to acknowledge and easy to forget, for those of us fortunate enough to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, is the harsh reality facing the large and growing number of people who are in the terrible position of having to scrape by. If you are an inner city child who never has been camping it’s not your fault that you don’t value nature. If you don’t bring home a paycheck large enough to put food on the table for your family it is difficult to get up in arms about restricting pesticides which might, after all, make your food somewhat more expensive. If you and your spouse are trying to meet your utility bills on a threatened social security check and there is a chance that the strip mining in West Virginia will reduce those costs, it seems like a no brainer. Of course, there’s no guarantee that that mining is going to do anything more than increase the coal company profits. So reducing poverty, communicating the aesthetic and spiritual values of exposure to nature, working to assure that policy decisions are based on the best data available and reducing wealth inequality all represent paths towards the goal of environmental stabilization.
All this gets me to wondering, is there a way out of this mess? Is there ever going to come a time when environmentalists can stop their seemingly endless struggle – pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down as they near the top? Can one hope that someday, us tree-huggers are going to be seen as the good guys?
When I was about ten a wise family friend was teaching me to fish. “There’s only one sure thing about fishing.” he said. “If you don’t put your line in the water you’ll never catch any fish.” Pretty much the same things holds for protecting the environment. It may never be returned to the pristine state some would prefer, but if we never try to achieve some sort of equilibrium with its exploitation it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen to the planet. Rachel Carson did her part. Aldo Leopold did his. So did Dr. Seuss. Now it’s up to us.