The Right & the Challenge of the Environment

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:08 am January 27, 2009

It is one of those early summers, the childhood memories that rustle about at the edge of your mind, clouded by the juvenile forgetfulness from days before the words people spoke made sense. It is a forest, and I am atop my father’s shoulders, and looking up. The sun glints yellow-white in the gaps of a sky enveloped in green, the leaf-heavy branches swaying in the rhythms of the world. The trees are a sleeping army with mighty limbs and old bark shields, battle-scarred and dreaming.

My parents were foresters, by training and profession. They met at the same college, Virginia Tech (or as it was called in those days, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University). My father fought forest fires down south, and taught people about trees, about growing them and keeping them and managing them, before going to work for an association of papermakers. We hiked, we camped, and we spent more vacation time in the outdoors than any family I knew. By the time we could memorize words, my siblings and I knew more about trees and wildlife than the Eagle Scouts (if only I still remembered it all).

The papermakers, I learned, were not a particularly big target of animosity for environmentalist groups. There’s the occasional complaint about a species of owl, old growth, a property dispute, and the occasional extremist attack – but papermakers are farmers by trade, in normal rhythms of planting, growth and harvest. Their jobs are to manage their resource effectively, constantly reforesting with native stock, operating with precision, and salvaging what they can after natural disasters. There is always a need for more pulpwood, and the forests they expand are natural carbon sinks – helping them escape the ire of the global warming lobby.

For all my family life taught me about the outdoors, about wildlife and trees, they didn’t talk to us much about the environment in political terms. We went to Earth Day events a few times when I was younger, but that was about it. I remember a conversation I had, confused, with another youngster about the concept of “Mother Earth” displayed on his shirt. My mother was over there, by the pool, I said.

Perhaps that was the breaking point. Even though he considered himself a Christian tree-hugger, my father’s generation was moving in a different direction than he. Some of my parents’ ponytailed college friends who favored more outlandish clothing spoke of the planet as a living, god-like being, talked of its forests and animals in religious, almost worshipful terms. They said that man was a curse, a blight on the planet, responsible for nothing but devastation and ruin.

Today, in the most fervent arguments of my friends on the issue of climate change, I hear the echoes of this earth-centered gospel, but with more of the tone of John of Patmos than John the Baptizer. Our economic glory has laid the world to waste, they say. We have poisoned the earth through our actions, and now our uppance is coming, when the oceans rise and the sky burns.

If you’re passionate, you shake your head and say that all is lost. But most people are moved enough to at least feel guilty, particularly about their overconsumption. They learn to look down their noses at trucks – even the ones driven in the country, by the farmers who use them. They learn to go to said farmers’ markets. They have heated arguments about buying local vs. buying fair trade vs. buying organic on the way back from the farmers’ market. They buy tchochkes and handmade shopping bags to demonstrate their good intentions. They buy a hybrid, as long as it is one which looks like a hybrid, because if you happen to be following it up that single lane steep incline in the hill country outside Austin, Texas at a rate of 8 miles per hour, you ought to know this is why they bought it — because they care. They thrive on do-it-yourself planet saving with the optimism and creativity of the young. They buy a stuffed polar bear as a reminder, as if it was a gold cross around their neck.

On the surface, it feels like my generation is more focused now on shopping green than anything else: they honestly believe that if they buy the right things from the right stores, if they just do the right thing during the day, they can change the temperature of the world – or at least cleanse their guilt for being part of the problem. Yes, this can be laughable, as when an apparently perfectly nice celebrity like Jennifer Aniston says that she is helping the environment by brushing her teeth in the shower.

The American conservative response to the global warming argument tends to be swift, angry, and snark-filled. They mock the well-intentioned young as if they were the brain dead celebrities. They argue the science, and cite numbers from meteorologists. They talk about solar flares and natural cycles. But mostly, they mock. When President Obama recommended during the 2008 campaign that individuals could conserve energy by making sure their tires were properly inflated, Republicans scoffed. They created Obama-branded tire gauges as a joke.

No wonder they’re viewed by many younger Americans as caricatures, corporate shills who don’t care about the earth, who drink a gallon of oil for breakfast and enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon of strip mining.

Yet all of this is just theater and anger. It’s not practical. It doesn’t move the needle toward the common good in a single demonstrable way. It elides past the true steps of significance that Republican administrations have advanced toward conservation, from Teddy Roosevelt to yes, George W. Bush. And what’s more, it ensures that an entire generation of Americans – on the right even more than the left – misses the point about the way we ought to properly view the earth.

Set aside the debate about climate change – set aside the numbers, the science, the arguments by learned people with more letters after their name than in it. Even accepting the numbers involved on face value, it is difficult to make the case that anything can be done. Signing on to Kyoto ten times over would not, according to the foremost studies, make a lick of difference in CO2 levels.

According to a report released this week by the foremost scientists in the field, there’s literally nothing to be done that could change this fact.

I tend to believe that it’s always been this way, because as a general rule, I believe in the overarching power of mankind’s vanity, that we can fully anticipate all the consequences of our actions, that we’re not like those foolish generations that came before, that we have the power to still the seas or remake the world as we would like it to be. As Joseph D’Aleo, the first director of meteorology at the Weather Channel and former chairman of the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Weather Analysis and Forecasting, testified in 2007: “If the atmosphere was a 100-story building, our annual anthropogenic [man-made] CO2 contribution today would be equivalent to the linoleum on the first floor.”

True description or not, the scene reminds me of all the tales of human overreach. If you want to read a tidy history of mankind’s folly on these sorts of things, just dig up the ecological history of Australia (just search for “invasive species” and start from there). My favorite story in more recent days is the one – you’ve probably heard it – about the illegal loggers who turned out to be beavers, just doing what they do.

Unless you want to score political points and make Republicans all out to be oil-drinking earth killers, the global warming blame game is a non-issue at this point. What really matters is how we decide to treat the planet going forward – whether viewed as Mother Nature, as the gift of a gracious Creator, or merely as the spinning space rock you happen to inhabit.

The responsible path isn’t this endless quarrel. We must choose, in my view, to be purposeful conservationists.

It’s true that the free market is, oftentimes, the enemy of the environment. It’s one of the greatest forces for freedom in the world, yes – but when it comes to many of the issues, I believe the marketplace espouses a view that is focused on the short term, not the long. It often makes perfect financial sense to operate at the narrow edge of irresponsibility, to stamp your feet about government ignoring property rights and bureaucracy passing ridiculous regulations, because it’s true that such things are often fundamentally unjust. Yet the actors in the market don’t usually evaluate land or sea in terms of stewardship – they evaluate it in terms of the immediate bottom line.

But that’s only half the story. The other half is the fact that overwhelmingly, the vast number of nations that can afford to make the decisions to protect and conserve land and sea, and be good stewards of the resources and creatures within them, are those that are thriving members of the global marketplace.

The poorer a nation is, the more it is unlikely to stand in the way of overuse and destruction. The wealthier a nation is, the more likely it is to care about protecting nature for future generations. The more economically well off its people, the less likely they’ll be desperate enough to destroy something that should be cherished.
It’s a simple fact about the way the world works that few seem to understand: a nation must be wealthy enough to be able to make a decision to conserve and protect land that could otherwise be used for an immediate purpose. And there is simply no question that the best and fastest method to establishing this status is the global free market.

There is a moral component to this, regardless of your personal faith. Oftentimes, the environmentalists present a false choice between consumption and frugality. In reality, the choice is much simpler, and has far more to do with striking the right balance between the extremes. We must protect animal life not because it is as valuable as human life or deserves the same rights as humanity, but because it has no rights except the ones we choose to give it. We must protect nature individually not as guilty parties or as zealots, but as responsible caretakers of a grand house whose master is absent.

This does not mean worshiping the land, though some people may choose to continue to exercise their right to do that. This means conserving it.

It means protecting the forests of your youth because you want your son to see them when he is young and remember them when he is old. It means protecting the wildlife of that forest, not because no fish or fowl should ever die, but because you want him to be able to hunt when he is a boy, and understand the responsibility that comes with it…to watch him pull his first catch in the boat some bright spring morning, the fish glistening as it did when Columbus came, and know what it means to be a steward of the earth.

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