Thursday, November 21, 2002

Politics, Economics, and Conservation

Writing shortly after George Bush was sworn into office as President of the United States–and no doubt inspired by that event–David W. Orr, a conservation biologist and professor at Oberlin College, noted in an article published in Conservation Biology (Orr 2001) that:

At the very time we need to be taking farsighted steps to curtail greenhouse has emissions, protect ecosystems, conserve biological diversity, and move the world toward a decent future, we have the prospect of at least four more years of denial once again led by oil men. Precious months, years, and decades are being wasted. For two decades critical thresholds have been going by like mile markers on a highway. With every marker passed, good possibilities [for developing a rational conservation ethic] disappear.
Orr then outlined what he saw as the 10 "prevailing political rules" of the times, with an eye to changing them:

(1) Appeal always to peoples' resentments and fears, not to their rationality, compassion, or farsightedness.

(2) Confuse, obfuscate, and muddy the waters, never clarify or instruct, particularly on issues of long-term importance. Do not ask the public to understand complex issues. And never ask the public to sacrifice even for the sake of their children's future. Remember, as George Bush put it in 1992, the "American way of life is not negotiable" even when it is wasteful, inefficient, unfair, and counterproductive.

(3) Demonize your opponents and promise to restore honor and "character," implying that the other side has neither.

(4) Investigate your adversaries without ceasing. The gullible will assume that anyone under investigation must be guilty of something.

(5) Applaud scientific evidence withn it supports corporate profits, oppose when it has to do with biotic impoverishment and climatic change.

(6) Politicize everything, particularly the courts.

(7) Have no enemies to the right, no matter how nutty or outrageous.

(8) Appease the religious right at all costs. And, if you can manage it, claim to be born again. Never give details.

(9) Protect and expand corporate power and the interests of short-term wealth while attacking government as the source of all problems.

(10) And of course, insist that the other side stop "partisan bickering."
Orr then speaks of the authoritarianism of corporate interests "whose goal is to keep the present system going as long as possible, whatever it takes. These are the oilmen, the coal men, purveyors of sprawl, advertisers, and interests tied to roads and automobiles." He then lists the false "logic of political economy" espoused by these same corporate interests:

An economy that does not grow will die, so growth must continue at all costs.

Without growth, redistribution of wealth would be necessary.

Redistribution, however, would encourage social decay and invite social chaos–to say nothing about its effects on the privileges of the wealthy.

Economic growth is therefore the only way to maintain social cohesion.

Conservation is unsuited to a growth economy; growth requires unlimited access to fossil energy, forest products, and minerals that are becoming more scare in the United States.

Unimpeded access to global markets will make up for the depletion of U.S. resources.
In a series of piercing questions, Orr then illuminates the clear linkages between politics, economics, and conservation:

What we count as prosperity now depends heavily on drawing down natural capital of soils, biological diversity, forests, and climatic stability. We are simply not as rich as we think we are. . . . What remains must be stretched over the needs, aspirations, and wants of 6.1 billion people, a number that will rise to something between 8 and 10 billion in this century. How will democracy survive in a world of, say, 8 billion people, a quarter of whom are severely impoverished and subject to ethnic hatreds, the growing stresses of rapid climatic change, soil loss, and the breakdown of entire ecosystems? How will it survive in a United States divided between gated communities and decaying inner cities? How will it survive the erosion of community and a public increasingly unhinged from reality by an all-pervasive entertainment culture?
Finally, Orr calls for the development of a new ten commandments of American politics, a doctrine that will emphasize the importance of conservation to a healthy American economy and political system:

Authentic leaders of the twenty-first century will help us understand that to continue our present course is sheer madness. They will help to chart the transition from the cowboy economy powered by fossil fuels to a world powered by sunlight. They will help to redefine prosperity from that dependent on robbing the defenseless to one that protects soils, forests, biological diversity, ecological resilience, and entire ecosystems for all children. Above all, real leaders will help us rewrite the commandments for the conduct of our public business:

(1) Appeal to voters' rationality, compassion, and vision.

(2) Instruct, clarify, elevate the political dialogue.

(3) Honor your adversaries–politics is not a war but a conversation.

(4) Find common ground.

(5) Never corrupt or politicize scientific evidence.

(6) Maintain the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power.

(7) Hold your own side to rigorous standards of fairness and decency.

(8) Maintain the separation of church and state.

(9) Insist on the same kind of separation between money and politics.

(10) Be willing to risk losing elections for the right reasons.
In a postscript to Orr's commandments, David Ehrenfeld–a conservation biologist and professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University–points out the following prescient observations by G. P. Marsh (1874), the founder of modern conservation:

The example of the American States shows that private corporations . . . may become the most dangerous enemies to rational liberty, to the moral interests of the commonwealth, to the purity of legislation and of judicial action, and to the sacredness of private rights.
Ehrenfeld (2001b) continues:

How perceptive Marsh was to link threats to ecosystems and species to the growth of unchecked corporate power; and how horrified he would be if he could see the extent to which corporate power has increased in the 137 years since he first published his book. I believe that unless corporations, especially the giant multinationals, are brought under the control of democratic legislatures–rather than the way around, which is the present condition–our conservation efforts are doomed no matter how good our science is.
He then adds another set of eight prescriptions to Orr's ten commandments (Ehrenfeld 2001a, 2001b):

(1) Return to the old idea of corporate charters that have a fixed time period–say 20 years–after which they expire unless renuewed (like broadcasting licenses) following a searching review of the corporation's activities.

(2) Eliminate, probably by constitutional amendment, the special privileges corporations have gradually gained in courts during the past 150 years.

(3) Close the legal loopholes that enable senior executives to dissociate themselves from the misdeeds of the companies they control.

(4) Make it much harder for corporations to evade punishment by jettisoning divisions, changing names, merging with other corporations, or otherwise altering their identities.

(5) Restrict the ability of multinational to use world trade regulations to nullify national environmental and human safety laws.

(6) Protect communities by limiting the rights of corporations to transfer factory operations and large blocks of capital from country to country or state to state without warning and without evaluation of local impact.

(7) Change the laws and regulations that allow the largest corportions to avoid paying their fair share of the taxes needed to support the people and environment of the country.

(8) Reflect on our own complicity in corporate violence, avoid purchasing products that we do not need and that are socially and environmentally damaging.

Ehrenfeld, David. 2001a. The death penalty. Orion 20:9-11.

Ehrenfeld, David. 2001b. A postcript to Orr's commandments. Conservation Biology 15:825-826.

Marsh, G. P. 1874 (1864). Man and nature; or physical geography as modified by human action: a new edition of man and nature. Scribner, Armstrong. New York.

Orr, David, W. 2001. Rewriting the ten commandments of American politics. Conservation Biology 15:821-842.


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