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The Politics of the Environment

“The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” ~ Gaylord Nelson, former governor of Wisconsin, co-founder of Earth Day

In honor of Election Day, even though this is not a Federal election year, I’d like to talk about the politics of the environment. I’m not talking Red, Blue, or Magenta; I’m talking good old-fashioned Green. (And I don’t mean the Green Party.) I’ve said before in this blog series that “Green isn’t a job; it’s a state of mind,” and a similar thing may be said for politics: “Green isn’t a party; it’s a state of mind.”

So how do we apply a green state of mind to politics and policy?

Green looks at the big picture.

Nature doesn’t stop at the artificial political borders of our nation-states, however impressive their defenses. Oh, we’ve managed to disrupt a great many natural flows of air, water, and species migrations with barriers of concrete and asphalt, but global environmental processes—from the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and water to large-scale weather patterns—are still global, despite local disruptions. That is why problems such as global warming are so serious—they disrupt global cycles and thus affect all localities in various, mostly destructive ways.

John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no Heaven. What if we imagine there are no political parties, or even no nation-states? In nature, there is no political “us and them.” It’s all us—we’re all in this together.

Green looks at the long-term.

Imagine that you are a most patriotic Roman citizen at the height of the Empire. You would gladly die for your country and its ideals. Fast-forward to the present time. How much of what you lived for—and died for—still matters today? I’m not saying nation-states and their ideals are not important. The advent of the (arguably) peaceful democracies a mere few centuries ago marks a major turning point in world history. But nation-states come, and nation-states go. In the long-term, it’s the planet and all its inhabitants that matter—not the politics of empires, whether they last a few decades or even manage to hang on for a few centuries.

There’s a marvelous web site and blog—The Long Now—that can help us begin to grasp spans of time that are tremendously difficult for us short-lived, short-term-thinking humans to comprehend.

Green thinks in terms of systems.

This is, appropriately enough, called “systems thinking,” and it is critical to understanding how things work in nature. For too long humans overused mechanistic and deductive reasoning to try to figure out how the world works. We did this by taking things apart and attempting to determine how each component functioned. We learned a great deal about specific parts, but very little about wholes or, like the old specialist joke, we learned more and more about less and less until we knew absolutely everything about nothing. Parts are important, but nature is far more than the sum of its parts. Nature is not an alarm clock; if we take it apart, we can never hope to put it back in working condition.

Green understands that there are limits to growth.

As economist Kenneth Boulding so marvelously stated, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Biologists understand what most economists—and politicians—refuse to believe: Environmental constraints ultimately limit the growth of populations and economies. Indeed, many scientists believe that we currently have exceeded those limits, and like an overdrawn bank account, we are facing a day of environmental reckoning. Unfortunately, nature does not do bailouts!

Green is sustainable and resilient.

As I’ve said in a previous blog, sustainability is just another word for living within our means, environmentally as well as economically. This means living off nature’s interest, e.g., solar, wind, and renewable energy, rather than depleting nature’s capital, e.g., polluting and non-renewable fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas.

Closely aligned with the concept of sustainability is the concept of resilience. It is much harder for a natural disaster (or terrorist) to take out a neighborhood in which each house has solar panels for energy and rain catchment systems for water than it is to take out a central power plant or water plant with its fragile network of power lines and pipes. True sustainability means resilience—the ability to bend but not break in the face of adversity, and to spring back quickly from disasters.

Green looks at the “Triple Bottom Line.”

The “Triple Bottom Line” is planet, people, and profits—in that order of importance. The most important bottom line is the planet, because without it there are no people (or profits). People come second, because they are more important than profits. Last come profits—which are still important. However, we must make sure that what we consider profits are real profits—not proceeds from a one-time “fire sale” of non-renewable planetary capital. And profits should not come with unfair social costs, e.g., by exploiting children or any disadvantaged segment of society.

Finally, the politics of the environment tells us that there is no such thing as a “free lunch:”

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” ~Thomas Sowell

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.