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Ten Ways to Make the Environment Matter on November 2
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Dupont Toxic Dump Plan Derailed
Goals for Our Grandchildren: An Excerpt from "Strategic Ignorance"
Road to Somewhere: How You Can Help
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The Planet

Goals for Our Grandchildren

Adapted from Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, by Carl Pope and Paul Rauber, available from Sierra Club Books.

The Bush administration and its cohorts have a long-range vision, one they have used to unite and motivate their hard-right supporters. Just as the twentieth century saw the pace of environmental progress gradually swell and increase, they intend for the first decade of the twenty-first century to reverse 100 years of progress. It is a breathtakingly bold enterprise: not only to change environmental law but to do so as part of remaking the American character and returning American society to a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all jungle.

If they have that much courage, why should we have less? We were making progress up to November 2000. We should be proud of that progress. But even the pace at which we were going was not sufficient to reach our goal. Just as Bush’s team did, we need to lay out our long-range vision for the twenty-first century. That visionary path will require a good deal of collective dreaming; here are some goals that might make our grandchildren proud of the path we chose:

First, leave behind the carbon economy of oil, gas, corrupt Saudi princes, and Dick Cheney, not only here in the United States but globally. Have the patience to stay the course in the necessary transition to renewable energy sources while the global climate teeters and eventually stabilizes. It is probably already too late to avoid some climate shifts from carbon dioxide loading in the atmosphere, but a shift of two degrees will be far less damaging than one of ten. The climate will recover more rapidly from a low fever than a high one.

Second, substitute sustainable agriculture for the industrial model based on pesticides, herbicides, and poorly tested genetically engineered foods. Getting rid of outrageous subsidies and restoring family farms is only a first step. Next comes making serious public investments in agricultural research, to put the world’s cumulative, sophisticated knowledge of plant ecology to work. Home gardens have provided families with a huge part of their fruits and vegetables for centuries, growing hundreds of species in small gardens with neither pesticides nor artificial fertilizers. We need to develop agricultural systems of comparable sophistication, productivity, and diversity—and then invest in helping farmers shift from chemical-based industrial monoculture to these new patterns. This shift does not mean that food will cost the average consumer more; in fact, nutritious, affordable, and varied diets for six billion humans can be sustained only by agriculture on the model of gardening rather than industry.

Third, abandon both the metaphor and the practice of unifying human communities with networks of roads, railroads, and sprawling strip cities, and instead focus on reconnecting fragmented natural communities with green belts, reserves, corridors, floodways, and wild rivers. Human communities need to nest within a connected and naturally functioning landscape, but wilderness cannot survive in isolated pockets within an urbanized wasteland. Nature needs elbow room. It needs connection. The promise of wilderness is everywhere, not just on the public lands of the West. But we need to combine our love of special places with greater respect for our entire landscape—what Aldo Leopold called “the land ethic.”

Fourth, amortize and retire our 200-year investment in toxic technologies based on heat and pressure applied to metals and hydrocarbons. A green economy is now a technological reality and an economic practicality. It is penetrating the market very slowly, however, because it must compete with older, polluting technologies in which enormous capital has been invested and which enjoy tremendous subsidies from government in the form of inadequate enforcement of environmental standards. Chemical companies’ bottom lines would look very different if they had to account for the true cost of their activities. But these companies do not want to write off their investment in old technologies, so they fight for and keep their subsidies. New technologies are prevented from competing on a level playing field. We need to stop the hidden subsidies for technologies that are poisoning the planet.

Finally, we need to create and measure wealth, not waste. We should then distribute it fairly enough that excess consumption is no longer the measure of either security or dignity. The connection of this principle to the environment may seem tenuous, but in cultural terms it is profound. Can we really imagine a society that would ensure the survival of obscure but important families of beetles while remaining oblivious to the welfare of members of our own species who are ethnically different, geographically distant, or educationally disadvantaged? Can we care for migratory birds while ignoring children? Can we be stewards of the earth while neglecting humanity?

This long-term agenda is speculative. People of good will can disagree over the particulars and methods; some will require new science, others new laws, and all demand new thinking. This is a sketch of a vision, not a blueprint.

Realizing this dream will call on the same fundamental social and political traits we need to stop the Bush administration from shredding our environmental safety net. Protecting our health, our land, our children, and our heritage is a fundamental moral test of our time and must be a common endeavor. It requires us to be as bold, tough, and realistic as those who would trade away that heritage for short-term gain. Here is how we can prepare for a brighter twenty-first century:

Hold on to our dreams. We need to raise our sights, opt for hope over despair, and trust in our human capacity to do better.

Demand leadership. We need to make our political leaders accountable. They are supposed to be the stewards of our dreams and aspirations as a society; they work for us, however it may sometimes seem. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson; it is also the price of a tolerable, living planet. As the 2004 election approaches, the administration, the Congress, and other public officials will be listening more closely than usual to demands from the American people. Public comments on forest plans may no longer be counted individually, but votes still are.

Finally, we need to unite. De Tocqueville called it “the single greatest skill of democracy.” After all, we are in this together. It is not a question of rich and poor, or brown and black and white, or urban and rural, or Republican and Democrat. We all breathe the air, we all drink the water, we all care about children. People should not suffer unnecessary risk because of the color of their skin, the size of their wallet, or whether their neighborhood is downwind or downstream.

America the Beautiful is at a fork in the road—one path leads backward toward the nineteenth century, the other forward into the twenty-first. The Bush administration has been intent on taking us backward, through strategic ignorance. But this crabbed, Hobbesian spirit of social Darwinism has been bested before, and our union of air breathers and water drinkers and parents and neighbors can overcome it again. After that, the future will be ours to make.

 

 


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