Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just Answering.

"Is the left ever ready to defend their basic anti-human mindset? Just asking."

Some of you who are also facebook friends may have noticed a slow proliferation of right-leaning posters on my wall.  These "friends" are interested in discussing policy issues across the fence, trying to understand one-another and to find common ground.  I met these folks, for the most part, on the facebook wall of Ann E.W. Stone, where cross-fence conversations are nurtured.  Each of my new friends is someone I found to be intelligent, interesting, often funny, and always, always civil.  Civility is key.  I live in fear of my wall morphing into the equivilent of a rowdy town hall.  

On the wall, we take time to probe perspectives, instead of slinging slogans.  I've noticed that ideology-driven semantics often mask similar underlying interests, while ideology-driven tactics often inhibit the generation of mutually agreeable policies.  I worry that this is intentional, a divide driven by the competitive priorities of parties and candidates who benefit from polarizing us instead of bringing us together.   So, I applaud everyone who is willing to listen open-mindedly to the points of view not his or her own, and to look for the common ground.  Either that's the reason for this good natured discussion, or Ann is practicing a version of "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."  Just kidding, Ann.

One of my frequent wall guests from this new right-leaning crowd is Michael Feeney. He's bright, articulate and quite genteel. This all makes for good and often lively discussion.  We were talking about the BP oil spill and he posted this:

"The right generally has an appreciation for the need for oil, gas, coal, and energy in general. The left is correct to push more solar and wind. Human progress requires energy and this entails risk. The left wrings it's hands at risk and accidents. What is the alternative, should we default to a Marxist mindset like the one child policy? This would help the environment for sure. Is the left ever ready to defend their basic anti-human mindset? Just asking."

I decided this was worth an answer, and more - worth posting on my blog because Michael is thoughtful, so I assume his thoughts are likely shared by other right-leaners. 

Before I do, though, let me address a thought that surely must be spinning some left-leaning heads - hearing yourselves characterized as having a "basic anti-human mindset"!   In Michael's defense, I am guessing he is likening us - despite the fact that you cannot put "the left" into a one-size-fits-all box any more than you could put the right into that box - to naturalist John Muir.  Muir believed that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human use for it; therefore the natural world should be left alone where possible, and any necessary damage should be repaired and restored to previous natural conditions.  This view doesn't leave all that much room for us to utilize natural resources for human purposes. 

By contrast, I assume Michael likens himself more to the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, who had a much more anthropocentric view: that the natural world has been put under human dominion, and hence should be managed to provide as much for humankind as possible.  Pinchot did not, however, discount the value of these same resources to future generations.  He believed that good stewardship included managing for availability to future generations.  Very utilitarian. 

For the record, there are multiple environmental ethics.  These are just two, and if you charted them all, they would form a continuum, starting with the green anarchy movement on the one hand - they wish to dismantle our human-built institutional structure and return to the wild - and probably ending with the view of the rapturists, who believe the ascencion to heaven is imminent for those who are righteous.  The environmental corollary is that we have reached the end of time, and so natural resources will soon be of no consequence.  We are free to use them all up.   I'm not off the deep end to the left, and I would hope Michael is not off the deep end to the right. 

Here's my answer:

"Ok, Michael... sigh... I should be grading but cannot resist.  The left uses and understands the need for oil etc, but also sees that the oil companies are more interested in realizing the last dollar of profit from their sunk investment costs than in doing the necessary R&D to get alternatives going - or to allow anyone else to do it, if their lobby can influence spending.   While you can't blame them for wanting to maximize investment - and there's even an argument to be made that fiduciary duty to stockholders requires it - there needs to be a line drawn at destructive practices.

Neither is the left against human progress.  The left feels it is not progressive to pursue policies that destroy the environment that supports us, as well as the assorted flora & fauna we share it with.  We are not "ringing our hands," by which I assume you are referring to the precautionary principle, which states that when we have inadequate information to predict the hazards, our actions should err on the side of safety.  I think a little more precaution around Katrina, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, BP's oil drilling permits and procedures - and those are only a few recent examples - would have been in order.  

What we're seeing here is greed - and it's not something we're unfamiliar with.   In all the cases I mentioned, companies (or governments in the case of Katrina) made decisions to take a cheaper gamble despite the safety risks.   You would never tolerate that for the airlines, but that's only because so many of us fly them.  That makes it personal.   Yet, look how many lives were lost in Katrina.  You can put all these incidents into the category with the Ford Pinto exploding gas tanks.   In litigation, it came out that Ford made a conscious decision to pay claims on deaths, rather than to bear the cost of recalling all Pintos.   In many ways, whether the decision-makers say these things out loud or not, this is the same calculation being done in each circumstance where precautions were inadequately taken.

In the case of the earth, Michael, if we do not take adequate precaution, we all will lose.   We don't have another planet."

Before a switch of the gears, I want to reiterate something.  What triggered today's post was Michael's question itself.  To my ears it was a hateful statement.  But I know Michael is not a hateful person, and so I backed up and asked myself, what else could Michael mean?  This is the problem - we need trust to give each other the benefit of the doubt instead of reacting.  If we didn't know each other, I would have written Michael off because of the way he phrased the question.  These cross-fence dialogues have taught me to look beneath the words.  

Beyond Michael, I worry that we the people - who were admonished by our forebearers to form a more perfect union - are intentionally being manipulated by political strategists into a political divide, driven by the competitive priorities of parties and candidates who benefit from polarizing us instead of bringing us together.   This is the conclusion I'm beginning to draw - that we are overly competitive to the point of the political win - e.g. power - being more important than the good of the country.  To me, driving the country apart politically is as traitorous as anything perpetrated upon us by home grown terrorists.

# # #

On a side note - or really, smack dab in the middle of the note - my summer Urban Environmental Policy students pulled news stories on environmental justice this week.  I wanted them to get a feel for the breadth of the problem, and their samples bring in examples from around the globe, and include an initial look at the enviro justice aspects of the BP spill. 

It seems fitting to offer these stories to you, because precautionary action could alleviate a lot of the suffering these stories represent.   I've embedded the videos and provided links to the articles..  All of them are heart-wrenching, and speak to both greed and the way our marginalized communities - people with less power - end up bearing a bigger share of the costs associated with environmental pollution.  And of course, all the gut-ripping photos of wildlife from the gulf speak loudly for wildlife's burden.  Too bad they couldn't have had a representative in the permitting process, instead of having to wait for photographers to notice their carnage.  Just saying...


Yucca Mtn Nuclear Waste Facility Siting:

BP Oil Spill:


Stone mining in India:

Roxbury, Boston:

KC sewage:

Tainted tap water:

Flouride in drinking water:


About EJ:

* can't find the photographer who is responsible for this photo (found on someone else's blog), since the URL on the photo is no longer active, but thanks go out to you, and if you want it taken down, just hollar!

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