An acquaintance recently observed that my conservative friends often tout past environmental achievements, but these days, they have done very little. I admit his “yeah, but what have you done lately” comment stung a bit. It contains some truth.
At least, it stung to the extent that many notable mainstream initiatives occurred between the ’50s and ’70s. This was the era of Northwest governors such as Hatfield, McCall and Evans. They were safeguarding coastal beaches, preserving farmland, setting aside unique public lands, promoting waste recovery and cleaning up waterways. These were truly historic accomplishments.
But then came the drought — a drought of environmental action. Now, one cause of this is that traditional conservative leadership has been out of power and less able to exercise influence — thus the drought. But I don’t believe that’s a satisfactory explanation and I certainly don’t want to offer an excuse for underperformance.
My fellow environmentalists tend to fall into one of two camps: Those content with resisting perceived excesses of the left; and those satisfied with labeling the right as “deniers.” Meanwhile, collective actions on behalf of the environment are neglected.
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But what if the left and the right could find some common ground regarding environmental policy?
It wasn’t too long ago that conservation — the “wise use” of natural resources — was broadly accepted as a best management practice. Exploitation of natural resources was not considered a negative, rather, it was the waste of resources that was deemed unacceptable. This “waste not, need not” sentiment was broadly accepted and deeply engrained in American culture. It was the perspective of the “greatest generation.”
But then it happened — the politics of fear.
Environmental awareness in the ’60s was greatly heightened by various theories of pending catastrophes. Catastrophes such as overpopulation, exhaustion of critical resources, worldwide famines, pesticide poisoning, wildlife extinctions, nuclear war and even the return of the ice age. Books including Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” and Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” were on every college student’s reading list. During this fearful time, environmentalism took a political swing and its most fervent adherents moved from the traditional recreational, wise-use perspectives to the more aggressive preservation, no-use mantras.
The worst of Carson and Ehrlich’s predictions never came to pass. It was too late, however. The lines were drawn between the traditions of wise use and the new environmentalism based on fearful expectations.
While fear is a great motivator, it can also be a great divider. If we can agree on that, perhaps we can agree that there are environmental actions we know will strengthen our biosphere and make it better able to accommodate changing climatic conditions — irrespective of what may or may not be the causes.
What if we agree to focus on reforestation? Isn’t planting and managing growing forests a great way to sequester carbon dioxide and produce oxygen? Creating sustainable forests creates jobs and the fiber resources needed to house future generations. And, reducing the extent and frequency of forest fires would greatly reduce particulates from entering the atmosphere.
What if we get serious about cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation by safely and permanently disposing of nuclear waste? This means supporting a suitable repository where waste can be stored for thousands of years. It makes little sense in the era of terrorism to allow vulnerable waste storage to exist at hundreds of locations across our country.
What if we work with boaters and our Canadian friends in Victoria to eliminate raw-waste discharges in Puget Sound waters and the Strait of Juan de Fuca? What if we focus on water treatment infrastructure that affords cleaner and more efficient consumption of water? What if we promote the use of cleaner natural gas to power our ocean-going fleets and reduce the use of more polluting bunker fuels?
All of these initiatives have broad appeal deserving of collaboration. In the meantime, the left and the right can continue their love of identity politics. But the important work can still be done. Reasoned consensus can rise above divisive political status quo. A former president once quipped, “status quo, you know, is Latin for the mess we’re in.”
But, what if?
Terry Oxley is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He is retired from the military and a communications career at Puget Sound Energy.