Goals for Our Grandchildren
Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying
a Century of Environmental Progress, by Carl Pope and Paul
Rauber, available from Sierra
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
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
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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