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).
A very large number of people have, at best, a passing knowledge of the issue. Hence, the need for NGO’s that alert people to issues that should concern us all. A pressing challenge, of course, is that we are often most concerned about the cumulative effects of environmental losses. We aren’t overly concerned that a human action compromises, for example, the biota of a stream that is adversely impacted by a dam. However, we are concerned when the cumulative impact of nearly every river having dams, channelization, pollution and other impacts so that species dependent on flowing waters (fish, mussels, clams, etc) top the list of the proportion of at risk species nation-wide.
There are, of course, exceptions. Many places, if not most, have had local environmental issues rise to the top and force tough discussions about how local people want to deal with local environmental challenges. In fact, I think that it is safe to say, that the environment has, in general, done reasonably well in the developed world when something has forced those discussions to the forefront. This might be less true in the developing world, but we can get to that issue later. I think that the reason the environment does well in these debates is because they are about deep seeded shared values to sustain valuable natural resources for future generations while benefiting economically from them. It is easy for the majority to see the need for balance, and recognize that conflict results in a compromise between unmitigated resource use and uncompromising resource protection.
The 2016 elections, it turns out, was a wake-up call to much of America. What most people think would not, or could not, happen did happen. Pundits on both sides attribute a big shift in American politics as a consequence. On the right – a formerly apathetic, disengaged slice of America found a reason to engage in Trump, and changed the political scene. On the left – liberals had gotten complacent about government; saw the unthinkable happen and are now struggling to re-engage. This includes marching, attending town halls, paying attention and make their voices heard. This is good conflict. It is about shared values: we all want good governance where we can thrive; we all want government to be constrained and not impose too greatly on our personal freedoms; but we recognize that some imposition is required so that the personal freedoms exercised by others do not stomp all over our own.
Unfortunately, the election seems to re-affirm a bad trend in politics: political success is fostered by painting issues as black and white, drawing sharp lines and asking people to step on one side or the other. The trick is to define the lines in such a way that suits a particularly partisan worldview. Are you for making America great again or are you against that? Are you for making sure that people have health care or are you heartless and uncaring? A moment of thought should suggest to all of us that these are ridiculous and artificial political position statements.
The capacity to engage in problems where we all fundamentally share values, such as a healthy environment, healthy people, a healthy economy, allow us to re-learn what it means to cooperate toward a compromise solution that maximizes competing benefits. Resource economists call this a trade-off horizon. Where we find a direct 1:1 trade-off, where every incremental gain in one value results in an incremental loss in another, causes us to struggle. However, we also know that there are many more problems where the response is strongly non-linear and we can attain much more of both values by seeking solutions that jointly optimize them. But this takes planning, coordination and cooperation. It also takes diminishing local personal interests in favor or larger societal interests, and that is a cost to individual freedom.
If the arctic oil drilling problem was, in fact, boiled down to its essential values for the country, we could then see what strategies bring us closest to energy independence, and what environmental goods and services would be the least damaging to give up to achieve that goal. To find jointly optimized solutions that move us towards both objectives in the best possible way. Since the US has a modest track record on energy efficiency, I suspect that we can get a long way toward energy independence without any damage to the environment simply by improvements in efficiency. When it comes down to the last bits, well then maybe the arctic is the best place to drill. We can’t know the answer to that until we have the right discussion, the broad discussion; the discussion that lays all the options on the table for careful unbiased analysis.
Hence my thesis. Bring on the good conflict over the environment. Let's elevate those discussions about the environment to highlight shared values and the interest that all Americans share in outcomes. Perhaps this way we can re-learn that we have more in common than what separates us and that politics is not governance.
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