In the weeks leading up to, and since, the most recent US election highlight the degree on acrimony in America; we are an uncivilized country. I guess that nearly every American would agree that this country has never been more divided in their lifetimes than it is right now. I grew up in the eras of Civil rights and Vietnam and that was, indeed, divisive. Campus protests, Capital marches, and even riots in the streets. However, now the issues are broader: war and civil rights along with energy, economy, environment, immigration and others. Further, the actors are not simply the dispossessed and college students, but people from all sectors along with our political leaders and leading news outlets. It seems dauntingly divisive at a scale that transcends the 1960’s. Can discourse focused on natural resource decisions provide an outlet to regain civility and treat heterogeneous opinions as just that, and not colors of flags on a battlefield?
Robert Putnam worries a lot about participatory democracy in his book “Bowling Alone”, thinking of myriad forces that drive us toward isolating ourselves from our neighbors. Elsewhere we hear of the challenges that arise from our increasing capacity and tendency to filter information and insulate ourselves within a bubble of like-minded thinkers with the help of internet search engines. Part of why I worry is it seems that this election marked a period where a lot of people who had been checked out, checked in; and a lot who had been checked in, checked out.
With Thanksgiving on the way, it is important to look at things in a positive light. Given that this blog is about nature, let me propose a thesis: the environment represents our best opportunity to participate in developing community dialogue and recover civil discourse in America. Those of us in the environmental sciences should recognize this opportunity to re-develop civil society in this country explicitly and leverage environmental discourse to think as much about the process of civil dialogue as the environmental science.
Repeated surveys of popular opinion show that Americans agree about two fundamentals. First, we do not want to see our environment ruined to the point where it is harmful to human health, does not provide the benefits we currently enjoy (e.g., hunting, fishing, mountain biking, bird watching, etc). Second, we deeply value economic growth. Everyone wants to be healthy and prosperous, living within a healthy and appealing environment.
An addendum to this simple point is that we then often disagree about specific outcomes when it comes down to the specifics of particular environmental impacts and economic enterprises. How much are we willing to sacrifice our preferences for the interests of others, and how willing are we enforce our values on the will of others? We do not have hard rules on those issues.
A third area where we are likely to differ is in the “how” question. How would we like to go about structuring compromises across divergent environmental and economic interests? Do we prefer free market solutions (when natural lands become sufficiently rare, interested parties will purchase and protect reserves to meet the societal need)? Do we prefer regulated economic incentives and dis-incentives for action (e.g., fishing license fees)? Do we prefer a regulatory framework (e.g., listing endangered species and requiring take permits)? Do we prefer local (e.g., watershed management through a river-keeper), state (e.g., state EPA permitting for emissions), or federal (e.g., no take regulations on bald eagles) regulatory constraint? How many of us actually recognize where the regulatory authority resides (e.g., marine sanctuaries)?
With this entry, I am beginning a series on how I see Nature in America and how we can learn from our treatment of the trade-offs between environmental protection and human industry. There has been huge growth in the fields of environmental decision-making, the sociology of nature resource management, and environmental psychology. We are beginning to do a better job of trying to understand why people think the way that they do and to try and leverage that knowledge into better frameworks for natural resource / land use decision-making.
We all accept harm to the environment at the expense of humans (ie, most of us prefer eating to not, and hence accept that food production may diminish nature), but also expect that we will constrain behaviors in deference to some amount of environmental quality (ie, we want healthy environments in which we can thrive). I think that we are at that critical point with open space in America. A large fraction of America wants to protect the open space that remains; a significant portion of rural America feels that constraints on the use of open space are already curtailing individual freedoms and private property rights unduly.
Tension over rural land use is high and we have difficulty recognizing who are the relevant stakeholders in particular decisions. For example, I think all Americans are stakeholders in how to deal with out-of-control wildfire in the western US. At the same time, we might not all be stakeholders in how to deal with postfire recovery from the 2013 Rim fire.
At the same time, the demography of who owns and manages rural lands in America is rapidly changing. It has become difficult to earn a living on the land, and all around the world young rural people are leaving rural environments for cities. At the same time, a different fraction of society is seeking out these rural environments, but often not for the purpose of earning their living, but as appealing places to spend their time. Hence, we are in a time of rapid demographic change. Nevertheless, decisions are lasting. When governments work with stakeholders to make a decision to build or remove a dam, for example, landowners for possibly generations to come will live with that decision. It is interesting to note that a recent court case gives standing to a suite of children who feel that their future is compromised by current decisions on energy de-carbonization and want to be stakeholders in decisions effecting energy usage in America
If we accept that civil discourse is at an all-time low, then modern advances in natural resource management provide excellent opportunities to explicitly recognize the potential for positive discourse. I like to think of this as having a strong parallel in divorce. As the legal costs of divorce rise, the idea of a negotiated, reasoned, non-adversarial divorce without a judge, has become more appealing. Similarly, as federal resource decisions have become more expensive to fight in court, stakeholder involvement to come to a non-litigious agreement has become more popular. However, we are a long, long way from making this the norm.
Hence, the need to focus on environmental issues where we clearly recognize that there is nowhere else to be but middle ground in order to structure civil discourse and regain the capacity to agree to disagree, listen and find compromise.
This is my Thanksgiving vision for our country: civil discourse that allows us to learn how to listen, learn how to compromise and make natural resource decisions that the most of us can all live with. So, this is my goal for the next few blog entries: what have we learned from key examples of natural resource decision-making that allow us to think that we could pave a path forward toward a more civil society? Clearly there are times and places where this is difficult. The US Forest Service, for example, routinely runs afoul of societal interests, often on both sides, and end up settling in court. In contrast, The Nature Conservancy is touting a whole new way of doing business by working with landowners toward mutually agreeable ‘win-win’ management decisions, and social scientists report on new ways to help local communities take control of resource decisions that benefit both nature and the local economy. But the question remains – are these emerging strategies a pathway to a sustainable future, or simply a stop-gap to slow the inexorable obliteration of nature? I don’t think that we have the answers to fully know, but I have to hold out hope for both humanity and nature and think that we can integrate what we know about human values and ethics and leverage these to better understand motivations and manage actions.
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