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.
OK, so the US needs this for two reasons. One problem is that the first generation of environmental legislation is guilty of a bit of lazy thinking that is now ending up a problem. This is the Clean air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and others. These pieces of legislation are lazy because they see the world in black and white: we find that there are actions that cause environmental degradation; we want to stop actions that cause environmental degradation. That is it. That is the guidance from Congress. The problem is that all actions of all species cause, to some degree, environmental degradation. We can’t stop that. What we need to do is regulate the amount of it that we want to tolerate in order to do our business of being happy, prosperous and exercising our free will. We need to make our environmental legislation more responsive to the needs of society. And by the way, I don’t mean that we need to water them down, eviscerate them and allow business to pollute and degrade the environment at will. In many ways, I believe that they need to be strengthened.
Hence, I say that we need an Endangered Species Act version 2.0. The problem is these environmental laws are land mines for a majority of legislators: step on it too hard and that will end your political career. Remember House member Mike Pombo? He made it his business to fix the Endangered Species Act (ESA). OK, so by ‘fix’, he meant eviscerate it so that it couldn’t prevent development in his district in the central Valley of California, where a suite of critically endangered species were preventing the development of low value grazing lands into high value fruit or nut orchards (or people orchards – subdivisions). Pombo sponsored numerous attempts to actually vote to change the Endangered Species Act, something that hasn’t been done since 1978. Blam, the land mine blew up his career and he lost his long-time Republican District to a Democrat. Most legislators on both sides of the aisle have been afraid of logging a vote on the ESA, and so proposals are forwarded, but never make it to the floor. I guess that we will see about the current legislative session. They have the votes to alter it, but then again, the Republicans have bigger things on their minds and they are not going so well.
Maybe it should go to the floor. What do we really want from the ESA? People on both sides argue with substantial evidence that the ESA does not function as well as we would like it to function. Of course we differ dramatically by what we mean “function as well as we would like it to function.” Still the original legislation was passed seemingly as if to deal with a handful of high visibility vertebrate species that were suffering from some pretty fixable problems. Wolves were over-exploited; bald eagles were prone to egg-shell thinning from DDT. We could fix those problems, and we did. Many high profile species recovered. Big wins.
The problem is that Congress only ever said that we want to prevent extinctions and that we could do this by providing healthy intact ecosystems in which these species can thrive as they historically did. The problem is that this is a very PollyAnna view of the world. Most of our endangered species in 2017 are at risk of extinction because the vast majority, if not the entirety, of their native habitat has been converted to agriculture, suburbs, or other development. Invasive species and climate change add additional threats that are pushing some thousands of species to the brink.
Congress has never funded the ESA to do the job of actually protecting all species. Protecting these species requires constraining people’s use of their privately owned land, something we hold sacrosanct in this country. We have huge disparities in how we fund protections for different species, yet we espouse not to be species bigots: protection means protection.
These are all signs of soft thinking. We haven’t been forced to consider exactly what investment we want to make in the diversity of nature. How much are we willing to sacrifice? Does society owe landowners something when we ask them to participate? As free citizens of the realm, are we willing to have the conversation about constraining in the activities of some landowners on behalf of protecting the non-human citizens of the Americas. The only way we can work that out is conflict that engages people and forces us to speak our minds.
But is this too much to ask? Frankly, at the moment, yes it is. And this brings us to the second reason that we nee to re-engage in environmental conflict. Politically, we appear to have forgotten tat we have more in common than in contradiction to one another. We are losing a grip on civil society. We have drawn too many battle lines between winners and losers.
We need to rescue a functioning democracy. The Endangered Species Act is not the place to start, Nor is health care. We need to start small, start local. How can we engage with one another to civilly discuss streambank erosion, non-point source pollution, local wetland wildlife. Let’s start there and maybe we can work back up to challenges like Bears Ears National Monument, If we can get through arguments like energy development versus indigenous people’s rights and nature, then maybe we can tackle issues like the Endangered Species Act, or even health care. “Imagine all the people living life in peace (ful dialogue about shared problems), you may say I’m a dreamer” -- John Lennon, slightly edited.
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