From the Publishers
The time has come
by Chris Klein
very important environmental issue seems to have its
time. Debates rage, vested interests vie with ethical stands, politicians
consult pollsters to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing.
When the smoke clears, behind the myriad details about economic costs and
benefits, health impacts and moral necessity, I believe there develops a
shared public sense of "the right thing to do." Ultimately, government
laws and regulation memorialize this consensus position. Some assert that
the people get the government they want; others sceptically comment they
get the government they deserve. I hope that at least one of these is true.
In the 70s, issues of pollution and species protection
eventually gave rise to the federal Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered
Species Acts and the EPA. Heightened awareness of waste caused recycling
to really take off in the late 80s and 90s. I believe that public support
for these comes from that developing ethical sense of what is "right"
- how our society should conduct itself.
So, what about the current political attacks on many
environmental protections we have come to take for granted? Does this signal
a shift in public opinion? Do we no longer care about a clean, healthy,
I say it does not. I believe that what we are going
through is a political anomaly, a momentary power grab by financial interests
for whom the protection of public interests equates to lost profits. I've
never thought of myself as incurably optimistic, but I don't believe that
these attacks will stand over time.
Prohibition provides an illuminating case study. In
1919, a coalition of rural, religious and business interests passed the
Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States forbidding
the manufacture, sale, import or export of liquor. What followed was an
unprecedented spree of illegal drinking, despite the best efforts of The
Untouchables and other law enforcement agencies to curb it. Ultimately,
in 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed prohibition. The law simply
didn't reflect the moral sense of the American people.
Today, another coalition (oddly enough, it again seems
to be rural, religious and business) is trying to make policy against the
public consensus, and I believe it will also fail. Of course, prohibition
lasted for 14 years. If these power plays succeed, we may have some tough
times ahead before things can be set right.
There have already been some signs that the wind may
be shifting. I heard sound bite from Newt Gingrich to the effect that perhaps
the public had a misperception of the Republican Congress' position on the
environment. I say, perhaps the perception is dead on, and he's looking
for a way to back off an unpopular position.
What can make a difference is you expressing yourself
in the public arena. If you do nothing else, pick one issue and write one
letter or make one phone call. You may get a nice form letter back, or a
polite brush-off from a political staffer, but don't be discouraged - your
opinion will be counted.
ou may have noticed that the Earth Times has been devoting
an increasing amount of column space to issues of land use: two articles
last month and three more is this issue. The reason is simple: land use
may be the environmental issue of the late 90s.
Land use may also be one of the most polarizing to date.
At one pole are the land owners who assert their perceived Constitution-given
right to use their land in any way they see fit. They see any restrictions
as "taking" their land, and demand compensation for any (potential
or imagined) loss of value. At the other pole are environmentalists and
community planners who assert a right, based on the common good or habitat
protection, to regulate how lands may be used.
It may be some time before a public consensus on this
issue appears. Clearly, we live in a complex society that tells you what
you can and can't do at every turn, so the extreme property rights position
has little practical basis. Anyone who has ever tried to get a building
permit in the City of San Diego understands this well. And frankly, I wouldn't
want my neighbor to decide to convert his home to a chicken ranch, thank
you very much.
It may take a while to see how this one plays out, and
the result is critical to our ability to preserve endangered habitats and
the character of our communities.
hese and many other environmental issues are forced
to the table by one overriding factor: overpopulation. For most of human
history, there simply weren't enough people to mess up the planet. Now there
are. If we don't deal with it, nature will: disease, pestilence, starvation.
Compared to the size of the problem looming, what it gets now is little
more than lip service.
I don't sense that this issue's time has come; people
are not fully prepared to grapple with it. It will certainly be the issue
of the next century, if not the next decade.