Why are we whispering? Everybody I speak to privately about this administration’s environmental record is in various stages of shock, disbelief, and anger. Publicly, the environmental community is prodding the President along as if he is a stubborn child not willing to eat his vegetables. When he makes some half-hearted effort in favor of the environment, we gush applause and praise, even though we know the result is imperfect. There is no doubt in my mind that we did not really have much of a choice during the last elections, but I am not sure that the election dynamics then must force us to accept environmental tragedy now.
Let’s take the President’s recent climate speech, which also coincides with an issue we (the environmental community) have been pushing as our top priority since this President was first elected in 2008. It is summer 2013, and the President finally announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will propose rules on carbon emissions in the power sector. Writing that sentence feels a bit harsh. I want to say “to be fair, the President also imposed efficiency standards in his first term.” But that is the problem. There is nothing to be “fair” about. We are in a climate crisis, and the President took five years to announce a Climate Action plan, and it includes “clean coal” as part of the solution. Here is a sentence from the plan:
“With abundant clean energy solutions available, and building on the leadership of states and local governments, we can make continued progress in reducing power plant pollution to improve public health and the environment while supplying the reliable, affordable power needed for economic growth. By doing so, we will continue to drive American leadership in clean energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, nuclear, renewables, and clean coal technology.”
What the heck? Natural gas, and clean coal? Oh right, we need to keep electricity cheap and dirty so we can maintain “economic growth” – the policy of supporting more consumption for the sake of consumption. We can’t be happy if we are not continuously taking a larger share of the world’s finite resources.
What was the response from the environmental community to this plan? A round of applause, with some groups offering helpful tips on how to continue the policy of growth while minimizing impacts on our wildlands, even though accepting “economic growth” accepts a very dim future for conservation.
Within weeks of announcing this plan, the administration announced another step in a very familiar bureaucratic process – leasing public lands to coal companies in Wyoming. After all, when the President announced his Climate Action Plan, he did not renounce his foolish “all of the above” energy strategy that has so far allowed offshore drilling in the Arctic, a rush of natural gas exploration in the Bakken, more coal mining in Wyoming and Montana, and expanded drilling in the Gulf. The Department of Interior implements the “all of the above” energy strategy by continuing to open up our public lands and waters to fossil fuel development. “To be fair,” this administration has expanded renewable energy development, including support for BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project, built on one of the most critical desert tortoise habitat connectivity corridors in the Mojave Desert. Of all of the places where we can harvest the sun’s energy, including on rooftops and already-disturbed lands, the administration’s signature clean energy project (BrightSource received Federal loan guarantees, and a “fast track” environmental permitting process from the Bureau of Land Management) was built where it could do some of the most harm to a species struggling to recover from our other impacts – climate change, urban sprawl, and off-highway vehicle recreation.
Okay, so the President’s energy policies are not really effective at addressing one of our key priorities since gains in renewable energy are not always the most sustainable choices, and they are typically offset by even more fossil fuel production. But to make matters worse, the administration has also lagged significantly in general protection of public lands and wildlife. His recent designation of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is promising, but he’ll have to do better than that. At 245,000 acres,the new monument is less than the 285,000 acres of solar energy zones he created on public lands where industrial-scale solar will be hastily permitted, or the 6.3 million acres leased to oil and gas companies.
On wildlife, this administration succumbed to political pressure, discarding science in an effort to delist the gray wolf that is now consuming budgets and person hours . The White House is also considering a rule change that would issue 30-year permits to wind energy companies to kill bald and golden eagles – a time frame that is difficult for scientists to manage given uncertainty of population trends over three decades.
So what will it take? I think we have to accept that we will not make progress with this administration on many environmental policies. These eight years were supposed to represent a major shift in environmental policy, and instead we may be only marginally better off than where we were in 2000. What we should consider is how to take away the incentive for future administrations and policymakers to muddle forward in the same manner adopted by this administration. In order to do so, we should re-examine our own tactics, because I think we may be doing more harm than good.
For one, accepting Washington’s ground rules is not the way to go. For example, in an effort to enhance their influence, some environmentalists argued that climate change is not an environmental issue, but an economic one. Dirty coal plants are not an environmental issue, but a health issue. Protecting wildlands is not an environmental issue, it’s a tourism and outdoor recreation industry issue. In a desperate effort to get Washington’s attention (which nobody expected would be this difficult under this administration), we have behaved as if we are ashamed of being environmentalists and sought to transform ourselves into the industrialists and corporations that do own Washington. Damage to the environment is damage to economic growth.
Save the environment for the sake of growth. These are compatible values if you accept that open spaces and biodiversity are only valuable in relation to the utility they serve for corporations. Extreme weather events cause insurances rates to go up. REI can sell more gear if we have National Parks for people to visit. The solar industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in th economy. Save these lands because they help filter and provide clean water. All true, but all framed in such a way to appeal to a paradigm that, over time, will never favor sustainability and the other less quantifiable values of the places and wildlife we love. Capitulating to the condition that any environmental protections must be justifiable according to a framework written and controlled by the expansion of wealth for a limited set of corporations and policymakers is a losing strategy.
If you want to remind them of these economic benefits, fine, but our campaigns should be built around the core principles that drive us to care about wildlands and wildlife. These are beautiful places and beings, and we do not want to live on a planet without them. Our consumption and growth impacts these values, and every little impact we have on a single species or acre of land has cumulative effects on the rest of our lands and wildlife. Our approach should be to outline the most sustainable paths forward.
Our efforts are sure to appear out of place in Washington, but that is the point. Instead of figuring out how we fit in an unsustainable model and learning to speak the language of growth, we have to form a movement that leads by example toward sustainability. After all, what we are defending simply cannot be accurately appreciated by this economy. How much money would any average individual in our society be willing to accept in return for the destruction of a beautiful landscape, or the extinction of an iconic species without regret?
One might counter that we have to be reasonable and accept compromises, but our current framework is not necessarily reasonable. Destroying the Ivanpah Valley to generate solar energy, while simultaneously expanding coal and oil production? Designating solar energy zones on intact desert habitat while blocking a financing tool that would expand solar on rooftops? Removing endangered species protection from the gray wolf so that we can see it hunted to extinction? Accepting natural gas as a “bridge” to renewable energy, even though investing in that bridge means we will be stuck with yet another polluting and toxic industry for decades? Compromising with an unreasonable system without working to shift perceptions and values of the places and beings we are trying to protect is unlikely to achieve progress in the long-term.
We may not always be popular, and Washington power brokers may not always agree with us, but our movement and our language should reflect what we stand for, not the greedy interests that we think will catch the attention of the handful of people and corporations who currently control Washington.