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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Voting Our Values
If morality really counted, the environment would always win
by Carl Pope

In the aftermath of last November's election, there was a lot of overheated talk about the supposedly decisive role played by "values voters." That judgment was later shown to have been made on the basis of a single question on a single exit poll, and was further slanted by the media's selective interpretation of "values" as a narrow spectrum of issues, mostly having to do with sexuality.

It was also shown to be false: The election actually turned on national security and terrorism, not gay marriage. A subsequent Gallup poll asking about "the most important problem facing this country today" had "moral values" running a poor fourth. When asked by Pax Christi USA to name the country's most urgent moral crisis, 33 percent cited "greed and materialism," 31 percent poverty, and 16 percent abortion. Only 9 percent named gay marriage.

However misguided the postelection conventional wisdom was, it does raise an intriguing question: What if we really did vote based on our values? Not just those defined by the right wing, but the basic statements of our moral and ethical beliefs and priorities? If we did, we would all fare better — and the environment would be the biggest winner of all.

Suppose that we didn't vote based on economic self-interest, misplaced fears, or which candidate we'd rather have a beer with. Instead, we'd cast our votes for candidates who shared our deepest aspirations and ideals, and were pledged to respect those principles as they went about the work of public policy. For instance, Americans overwhelmingly consider themselves to be what people of faith call "stewards of Creation."

They recognize that we have the power of life and death over Earth's other creatures, and with it an awesome responsibility. If our electoral choices reflected this belief, Congress would not be rushing headlong to make it easier to eliminate endangered species. In Genesis, God announces his covenant, "which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh," not to destroy the world. How dare we then destroy it ourselves, or grant the secretary of the Interior the power to decide which of Earth's creatures survive and which perish forever?

If we voted our values, talk about the "sanctity of life" would not end at birth. Pesticides that can twist the development of newborns would be banned. Our politicians wouldn't let power companies dump toxic mercury into the air and, ultimately, into our tuna salad sandwiches. Nor would they allow industrial emissions that make it impossible for asthmatic children to play in the school yard.

Americans also value personal responsibility. "Clean up your mess," we teach our kids. Whether it's spilled milk on a kitchen table or toxic waste left behind at an abandoned oil refinery, it's the obligation of the person — or industry — who made the mess to deal with it. That is the principle behind Superfund, except that now our supposedly values-driven politicians are letting industry off the hook, and putting the cleanup tab on your charge card instead. What kind of morality is that?

America is a materialist culture, but it's an ethical one, based on deeply entrenched notions of hard work and fair play. But it's hardly fair that corporate "farmers" rake in huge government subsidies, while real family farmers are forced off the land. Politicians who upheld American values wouldn't let that happen. Nor would they tolerate the below-cost timber sales and sweetheart deals for those seeking to exploit our national forests.

Timber companies don't pay market prices for the trees they log; in fact, in places like Alaska's Tongass National Forest, they expect us to pay for the roads and other costs of their operations. They don't pay for the fisheries they destroy with the runoff from clearcuts. They don't even pay for the cost of the forest fires fed by the huge slash piles and dried-out ridgelines they leave behind. Instead, you and I finance the destruction of our own natural resources, whether we like it or not.

The constant companion to "work hard," in the American value system, is "play by the rules." We don't pick and choose which ones we want to follow: We have to stop at stop signs, even when it's 4 a.m. and there's no one else on the street. But favored corporations get to pick and choose which rules to obey, because the EPA now files only one-tenth as many lawsuits against major polluters as it did under the Clinton administration.

The most basic of environmental values is prudence. "Better safe than sorry," we say. Yet our political leaders continue to allow poorly understood chemical compounds to be dumped into our water and air. One result is that perchlorate, a rocket-fuel ingredient, is now found in nearly every sample of milk and lettuce tested; PBDE, a suspected neurotoxin in flame retardant, was detected in the breast milk of women in Texas at rates 10 to 100 times those of European women. Since the safety of these substances was not ascertained before they were released into the environment, our politicians have chosen our sons and daughters as de facto lab rats to test them.

For all our purported division, Americans do share a core set of values, including stewardship of the world and its creatures, a belief that America's wild places are our common heritage, respect for others, keeping promises, paying our way, prudence, humility, and wonder at the intricate beauty of creation. We'd be happy to see an election based on those values anytime.


Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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