Democracy, freedom, independence, free speech, the right to bear arms, … These are fundamental tents of our country, right? Yet, they all have serious problems in a crowded world. Maybe these are good tenets when there were 2.5 million people (e.g., 1790 US census) in the United States, the printed page was both expensive and the main source of information, and people had to fend for themselves.
There are now more than 100 times more people in this country and with 100 times as many people comes problems with the core concepts of individual freedoms versus a responsibility to neighbors, and free speech that includes the freedom to inflict personal harm on people through speech. We have the problem of my independent, free-thinking, existence crimping on yours, and visa versa. Actually, these challenges have always been challenges; hence the need for laws. I am simply arguing that we should be mindful of the ways that population growth and crowding 7.6 billion people onto a planet require us to re-think what freedom and independence mean.
It has been a while since I wrote one of these blogs. In that period, Steve Paddock shot and killed 58 people in Las Vegas, injuring another 851 (October 1, 2017), and 17 people were shot and killed, with 17 more injured at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass high school in Parkland Florida by Nikolas Cruz (February 14 2018). In fact, 16 weeks into 2018 and CNN reports 1.25 school shootings per week. A consequence of these events seems to be a fundamental shift in the discourse on gun laws in this country.
Of course an event like this raises terrible grief and sorrow for the victims. But, inevitably, it also polarizes us into teams regarding the responsible manufacture and sales of weapons in the US. This is made evident in the National Rifle Association Convention happening this week in Dallas. However, we discussed how team mentality is counter-productive to a civil society, and resolving environmental issues last time.
The focus for this contribution is our fundamental notions of freedom and independence. In an Jeffersonian agrarian America, or world, we might reasonably expect people to rely on their own resources, and in doing so, grant them a high level of freedom and independence to see to these needs. Laws might loosely knit together this society as people can build the personal relationships with their communities to suit their needs.
By contrast, we now live in a world where most people, even those working on farms, are wage earners. We live in a world where most of the transactions of our daily lives are with people that we do not know personally. How many of us know our grocer, banker, or even the head of the business for which we work? Not many. This places us on ‘teams’ with people we do not know.
Team spirit was critical in that smaller world where we banded in groups to jointly express common interests in a world where people were fending for their basic livelihoods of getting enough food to eat. Currently, however, most people live in a world where the quality of water to which they have access is being impacted by people they don’t know, and mostly have no means to identify. We live in a world where we don’t know who our ‘team’ is, or the purpose of this ‘team’. So, now we identify with sport teams, or ideological teams.
Sports teams are easy. They seem like a mostly innocuous means for us to express our desire to be on a team, and to cheer that team to do well. Ideological teams are a horse of a different color. Much has been made of the current divisiveness of the United States, the epitome of which is that it seems preferable to congressional representatives to score victories for the party than it does to provide sensible governance.
How does all of this relate to the environment, one might reasonably ask? Simply this: environmental decisions range from small local problems to global ones, and from those with clear and sensible teams to those where a strong majority of humanity should be able to find an outcome that is mutually agreeable. Yet, this is rarely how these issues are worked out.
When we have a local problem, we can clearly have varied interests that drive teams. Imagine the example of a growing urban area where people must decide how much open space to provide for community benefit, where that open space goes, and for what purpose is it created (e.g., gardens, nature parks, sports fields). Clearly there will be differing opinions, and a discourse must ensue to try and balance those needs among the people who want these amenities. Teams may form, but they are ephemeral and based on the issue at hand. We can disagree with our neighbors, but invite them to dinner.
In our crowded world of global problems, by contrast, we tend to take environmental challenges and link them to broader political ideologies, binning them with other values, and choose sides based on the entire plate of ideals placed before us. Hence, freedom and independence become rallying cries for health care, guns, workers rights, unfettered capacities for banks to abuse the common person, energy independence and religion. That seems like a dangerous cocktail. Now, we are willing to mortgage our interests in a healthy environment (noting the ongoing EPA rollbacks in vehicle emissions, polluter accountability, clean air standards) for a political stance of societal entitlements (.e.g., health care and welfare). We appear willing to accept political challenges to the notion of scientific understanding and knowledge as a basis for decision-making based on the ideological notions of freedom and independence.
To recapture civil society, I argue, we need to be able to walk that back a few steps and disentangle issues in order to identify what we care about and then decide how we decide what to do. Let’s take the example of global warming. No one refutes the fact that the world is getting warmer. We can measure that. It is reported constantly. No one refutes the fact that this warmer world carries expenses: sea level rise inundating the environs of millions of people. No one refutes the notion that CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. No one refutes the fact that burning fossil fuels is driving the rise in atmospheric CO2. No refutes the fact that CO2 is a heat trapping gas that has the capacity to warm the atmosphere.
Drawing the lines between these dots should suggest that no one credibly refutes the notion that it is likely that humans, through fossil fuel consumption, is causing the earth to warm. So, let me just say that: no one credibly refutes the notion that we are warming the planet.
Nor, do we need to refute any of those facts to actually have an intelligent discussion over what to do about that. Doing nothing is a not unreasonable argument. Taking action will harm some people more than help them or their descendants. For others, the opposite is clearly true. Most of us probably do not know how it plays out for us or our children. This is a good discussion to have.
Instead, we seem to be having the discussion that climate change doesn’t exist because it violates some sense of freedom and independence. We need to move beyond the ridiculous and to the practical. And, here is where we loop back to teams. It is a legitimate thing to consider how my ‘team’ will fare under a warmer world, versus one where we impose hardship through reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
I am currently sitting in a location that will be under sea level once the Greenland ice sheet melts. It think that means that my team loses if we do not meet the goals of the Paris Accord. I am willing to fight for that version of my team. Conversely, where I am sitting is a small bit of property that I own. I am also willing to fight for my freedom to manage this property as I see fit. That places me on a different team with a different set of people. However, all those people, on whatever team should all be on the same team as me with respect to greenhouse gases: we all lose our homes and livelihoods without a Greenland Ice Sheet.
Let me conclude by saying this. People love teams. We feel a deep sense of need to align ourselves with groups with whom we agree. In managing environmental problems, a primary concern must be to force people to recognize this aspect of human nature and then ask people to disentangle the teams they align with based on the immediate issue, and not aggregated philosophies ideologies. If someone is opposed to outlawing lead shot, for example, it could be as a consequence of not wanting to see the cost of buying shot increase beyond their means. Alternatively, it could be the consequence of not wanting government intervention in their lives.
Opposing environmental regulation through government regulation, however, must be considered in concert with law enforcement, the military, public schools and roads, farmer entitlements and payments; the complete bevy of government values we receive while experiencing sometimes burdensome constraints on freedom in order that all 350 million of us can all live in an America that we aspire to achieve. For many of us, this means making sacrifices to avoid adverse impacts on other species and the ecosystems on which they depend. And yes, this does require sacrifices to independent action through laws enforced by governments; which yes, requires government funding.
In fact, most of us completely agree with the sentiments of the previous paragraph. In fact, reading that sounds a bit self-righteous and tedious, no? Perhaps because it paints people with broad brush strokes into coarse teams that do not reflect individual problems as independent? Bingo.
As environmental actors we need to recognize that the issue of teams is both our issue and one for those who oppose the environmental values that we hope for society to embrace.
In 2011, Steven Pinker borrowed the closing line “better angels of our natures” from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address to set the stage for a book arguing that humanity has become more peaceful, law abiding and less murderous through time. Pinker's compelling argument goes that some combination of governance, law, education, globalization and trade have allowed four better angels (empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason) of our natures to increasingly dominate five inner demons (practical violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology) resulting in decreasing human violence across millennial time scales.
Let me try an analogy in those angels for how, when, where and why societies work well, and when they break down into argumentative stalemates. Today’s counterproductive angel of human nature is our need for team identification. Apparently, our angels love team colors, jerseys and the spectacle of sport as much as the rest of us.
Sure; humans evolved in small groups and well-being within our tribes relied heavily on sticking together as a team. This may help explain the seemingly inexplicable propensity for young men, in particular, to voluntarily put their very lives on the line for the well-being of the larger tribe (the nation) without a fair assessment of the very high personal risks involved (i.e., patritoism).
I just wrote to lambast Mike Noel for this quote: “When we turn the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers, we’ve turned our history over. We are going to lose our wildlife and we are going to lose our scenery, the very thing you people wanted to try to protect. It’s just plain stupidity.” Mostly, I focused on what he got wrong.
Today I take a more positive look at what he could have said that would have been constructive and more accurate, and likely accomplish what he wanted to in the process.
Utah State Representative (73rd district) Mike Noel recently blamed US Forest Policies for the 70,000 acre Brian Head fire. Specifically, he said, “When we turn the Forest Service over to the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers, we’ve turned our history over. We are going to lose our wildlife and we are going to lose our scenery, the very thing you people wanted to try to protect. It’s just plain stupidity.”
This quote is wrong, and wrong-headed for three important classes of reasons: (a) factual errors; (b) process errors; and (c) ethical transgressions.
It is now roughly 30 years since I started a project in the forests of the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Reserve (TNC) as a PhD student at Florida State University. I still haven’t published a paper on this particular portion of my dissertation. The irony is that remains my intention to write such a paper. Bottom line: I wrote a crappy dissertation. I appreciate all the help I got in graduate school. I worked with some truly great people who helped me enormously. Nevertheless, I look back and think that rather than being fueled by my graduate education, I survived my youthful naivete. Now that I have been a professor for more than a quarter century, I feel I have a perspective on what is a good approach to graduate studies and what is not. I also know that, like myself, most students do not indulge in enough critical thinking about their own graduate studies. Hence, below is some unsolicted advice.
Approaching 8 billion people, it has never been more apparent that environmental management requires difficult discussions about this tension between individual freedom (e.g., to exploit) and societal interests (e.g., to protect). Population growth has meant that nearly all decisions in the environment are contested in this crowded world where people are everywhere, exploiting everything. I suppose that it is inevitable that conservation groups look around and see population growth as the root of the problem, and the key to long-term solutions.
There are a bunch of books on science and the ivory tower and how scientists need to actively paticipate in reversing the pattern of scientists isolating themselves from public discourse. There are also a bunch of books on scientific illiteracy that speak to the need to increase the generaly understanding of science among people. Conservation Science (CS) and Natural Resource Manaement (NRM) are ideal participants in this important venture to build a populace that acknowledges science as an important way of knowing; that there are rules to to good science; that we individually can and should look to science and judge whether what we read meets the criteria of good science and not let some website dictate to us whether some scientific finding is valid, important, trivial or malicously false. I believe that CS and NRM are ideally situated to foster healing the divide between science and society through deliberate integration of science and society in understanding and managing natural resources.
Why do I argue that the world, particularly the US, needs environmental conflict. The US has some of the strongest environmental legislation in the world. The US has some of the largest, most well-funded resource conservation NGO’s in the world. The US has the most robust network of local land trusts doing local conservation in the world. The US has, arguably, among the best public natural resource agencies in the world. OK, all of that smells just a little too patriotic. It probably isn’t all true. But, my point is that if we are worried about protecting the environment, the US, on a global scale is doing pretty well. It is ahead of many nations and the legislation passed in the US is often used as a template for other regions of the world.
A primary problem with environmental conflict is that it does not elevate into the American psyche enough for most people in most places, most of the time. Surveys of environmental concerns generally place these in the top five, but never #1. Studies also show that voting for representatives usually focuses on the top 1-3 issues, and generally not their environmental positions.
Thus, the large, diffuse populace of American citizens as stakeholders usually have under-represented voices; local citizens whose lives are affected by the promise of jobs or the fear of loss of quality of life are heard; and he typically small suite of financial stakeholders often get a large voice relative to what we might think appropriate. A vanishingly small number of large corporations have a large interests in outcomes and can influence outcomes when the public is not paying due diligence. A small number of local people have a large interest in the outcome. The battle, then is often waged over the benefits (ie, jobs) of resource exploitation versus the cost (ie, environmental degradation).
The country is currently fixated on ‘fixing’ healthcare. This has quite clearly been framed, and managed, as bad conflict. Eivdence is in the completely partisan voting, among other things. However, this actually could be a “We’re in this together” sort of problem. Everyone recognizes that health care is expensive; we all want everyone to have good health care; we know that using preventative care saves money in the long run; we all want to be able to afford health care; we all want people to behave responsibly with their health care; we all recognize that this is incredibly complex. However, we also should recognize that the government can’t afford to provide "A" level healthcare for everyone and do other things with tax revenue that we want (e.g., pay for the world’s most expensive military). What we disagree on is how much personal versus governmental responsibility there is in fixing the problem of health care, whether hospitals requiring to take on cases and help people effectively makes this a public and not a private problem, and where our federal budget priorities lie.
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