Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thoughts for Earth Day (most of them pretty obvious) ...

Believe it or not, I was a member of the Environmental Law Society at Stanford.  (More than that, I was managing editor of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.*)

I was, in many ways, an odd duck to end up in the basement offices of ELS.  I had little interest in saving the wilderness or endangered species.  My dedication for natural resources law was, to say the least, not remotely awe-inspiring. Not that I am not glad that there are people who are devoted to those, mind you -- I think that is very worthwhile, nay vital.  It's just not my thing.

I was passionate (and stilll am, all these many years later, although my environmental interests have broadened, pretty much due to my involvement with ELS) about historic and architectural preservation.**  I was living and working in Atlanta in the early eighties, a time when, according to the papers,  there were arguments about saving Margaret Mitchell's house*** which centered primarily on whether the house was sound enough structurally to be worth saving, but where many people thought it would be okay to run the Jimmy Carter Presidential Parkway through the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, which was crucial in the struggle for civil rights.  Or where an architecturally important building could be demolished to make way for a MARTA station, although they were careful to save the facade statues, isolated and removed from their original setting for the enjoyment of riders.

So what's so different about the the desire to protect nature and the desire to protect historic sites? In many cases, the tactics are similar, and in some cases the ends coincide (in the case of Native American sites that are also environmentally sensitive, for example).  I think the underlying question is one of emphasis.

Historic preservation is about people.  Saving places that tie people to their past, to  their sense of who they are, as individuals and as a culture or society, is paramount.****  It is about not forgetting, the good or the bad.  It is about remembering the heritage which we justly take pride in, and the past which we would rather forget but which is dangerous for us to do so.

Environmentalism, in the larger sense, is not necessarily about people.  For many environmentalists it is, but I also know environmentalists who view humans as a blight upon the planet, who tend to be disdainful or dimissive of those who stand in their way.  One friend -- and she was a friend, in spite of our differences -- once described herself unapologetically as an "environmental Nazi."  She had no problem with whatever regulatory and legal tactics were necessary to protect resources, wilderness and wildlife.  People were in many ways an impediment, and dangerous to the earth.

It comes down, to me, a question of "Why save the planet?"  .

One can say that the planet needs to be saved for its own sake.  That wilderness and resources and endangered species provide their own justification, and need none from us.

But for me, we need to save the planet because there are people living on it. Yes, you need to save the whole planet -- not just the parts where there are people living -- because it is a complex system and it is impossible to say what will matter in the future.  And far too many environmental decisions made by individuals, governments and societies are disastrous for people in both the short term and in the long run.

I also believe that people need wilderness, need the idea of wilderness.   We have to have whales, regardless of any practical use they may have, because we are creatures with a capacity for wonder and curiosity, and we require objects for that wonder.  If you doubt the need for whales, go on a whale-watching trip with a group of elementary school kids to see just how vital they are.

All of this influences how you see the struggle, and what problems you become interested in.  Given the choice, I would  much rather focus on the short-sighted repeal of the Williamson Act, and what this means for municipalities and farmers, than on saving the Amazon rainforest.  Again, it's not that I do not view this as important, but that I can only retain focus on a limited set of problems at one time.  Water resource issues, and the tension between agricultural use and municipal use, interest me more than the problems with traffic congestion (and its attendant air-quality concerns) in Yosemite. The former is much more central to how people live their lives on a daily basis.

The lead singer of Great Big Sea, Alan Doyle, once caustically commented on celebrities who went out to the ice to protest the baby seal hunt.  Where were they the rest of the year, he asked, when people were trying to feed their families and get by without having to leave where they have lived for generations?  Whatever you think of the seal fur trade, he has a very good point. Telling people that they are evil for killing fur seals, or for logging in endangered species (such as spotted owl) habitat, may well get the response "Screw you, I need to feed my kids."

All of which means you have to enlist individuals in the fight.  Give people living in the rainforest incentive to save it themselves (which has happened in a lot of areas) and you will be more effective than imposing outside regulation.  Giving farmers financial incentives to conserve through water marketing is going to work better in the long run than imposing quotas on water use. Outside regulation is only needed to keep the all-too-powerful forces of the (alleged) free-market system from overpowering people acting in the best interests of themselves and their families. Or where the problems -- such as air and water pollution -- are larger than can be addressed locally.  Or where what is threatened is one of those areas we need for the health of the people living on the planet even though no people currently live there.  (E.g., the Everglades) .

This is a change for me from twenty years ago when I was in law school. I no longer see regulation (as very important as that may be) as always the best way to solve environmental problems.  Outside regulation is a fragile reed:  that which is given under an environmentally sensitive administration can be taken away by one who is held captive by industrial interests. 

And maybe I have come to have more understanding of, and sympathy for, people who really are just trying to get by. Because they live on this planet, too.

*One of the more thankless things I have ever done.  That I got through the year without strangling anyone -- including myself -- never ceases to amaze me.  One contributor in particular... never mind.  I'm pretty sure I did not do a good -- or even an adequate -- job.  I like to think of it as a clear example of the Peter Principle in operation.

**The difference between the two (although they are sometimes used interchangeably) is that a building can be historically important and completely nondescript:  the elementary schools at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education, are historically important, but pretty unimpressive to look at.  On the other hand, both Fallingwater and the Robie House, residential structures from two different points in Frank Lloyd Wright's career, are aesthetically pleasing and architecturally important, but aside from that have very little historic significance. 

***Don't get me started on Gone With the Wind.  Any book which glorifies the slave-holding culture of the antebellum South is a very bad thing in my estimation.

****Saving not-so-historic places, because people have attachments to them, matters too. See my rant about Kelo v. City of  New London.

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