Feb 282013
 

TimesUpHippies2The environmental movement of the latter half of the 20th century is dying. And as a product and member of that movement, I say, not a minute too soon.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot for which to thank the green movement that arose in force during the Sixties. Without towering achievements like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and countless other federal, state and local reinings-in of pollution, waste, and annihilation of habitat supporting biodiversity, our world would be vastly worse off.

Unfortunately, like so much that arose out of the Sixties, the era of environmental activism that is now passing away was based more on romantic notions than on practical and scientific realities. And now that time has moved on and younger generations do not, by and large, share those same romantic notions, we are threatened with a future in which protection and stewardship of the environment will dwindle as public support is lost.

Though there were certainly scientific reasons for the concerns being expressed by such Boomer-era environmental drivers as Rachel Carson and the David Brower-era Sierra Club, their articulated arguments were not couched in those terms. They were emotional appeals. Those coffee-table books featuring magnificent, endangered landscapes and adorable or noble charismatic species struck a chord in a Cold War public increasingly aware of the dark side of advancing technological progress, and painted a Muir-style romantic image of “Nature” as Out There: in the wild lands, far from humans, precious and endangered. As a result, millions of acres were protected as federal and state lands and parks. Nature-lovers flocked to hike, backpack, raft and otherwise enjoy these wild places.

There were those who loved and romanticized Nature prior to the 1960s, of course. But they were few, and viewed as cranks. Their signature, remarkable accomplishment was the invention of the national park, for which we must be ever grateful. But they were not a mass movement until a poetic idea of the Earth as a beloved, unified entity–what some claimed is even a single, intelligent organism–seized the imaginations of young people in reaction against their parents’ technologically enthusiastic, militaristic consumer society in the late 1960s, surging into the public imagination with the first full-Earth pictures relayed back by Apollo 8.

While there is certainly plenty of truth to describing wild lands as magnificent and rich with the fabric of life, it also had the effect of defining “the environment” as Somewhere Out There…rather than here, around us, all the time. By falling in line with the Sixties’ counterculture’s anti-societal ethos and evoking a romantic idea of Simpler Olden Times When Humans Lived More In Harmony With The Earth (particularly, lionizing with grossly oversimplified stereotypes the lifeways of native peoples) the environmental movement that rose to effective power at the end of the 1960s was the age-old-story of Man Against Nature, but rooting for the other team. It was the romantic mentality of the “back-to-the-landers”, rendered as a social movement.

Exacerbating this problem for us today is that one of the primary cultural legacies of the Sixties has been a wholesale cultural turning away from reason and science, suspiciously viewing these as the modalities and tools of authoritarian institutions, corporate greed, and engineered destruction. As a result, we have seen both on the left and right a tremendous surge in superstition, confirmation bias, junk, fringe- and pseudoscience accepted as fact, and paranoid conspiracy theories…be they about President Obama’s birth certificate, or the mortal dangers of water fluoridation.

Now, this is not to say that the modern environmental movement does not include many who are scientifically educated and literate, and who use the best available information in crafting proposed actions and policies. But this group tends to operate within institutions like established wildlife habitat restoration and land conservation organizations, academic institutions and policy think tanks. These informed and careful experts are often out of step, however, and even sometimes attacked by less educated grassroots activists, because they do not provide support for these activists’ more extreme theories.

The True Believers of the Sixties are fading away. Muir/Thoreau/Abbey-style Nature romantics who frame every proposal they don’t like as an environmental disaster belong to a generation now averaging over 60 years old, and their values have not penetrated to the youth of today. If theirs is the modality of operation and the mentality we continue to call “environmentalism”, environmentalism will die as a significant political and social movement.

Today’s generation does not view technology with suspicion. It spends most of its life engaging with it and interacting through it. Whether or not we want to face it, today’s youth feels little motivation to put on a backpack and hit the trail. Attendance at state and national parks has plummeted, and when you look at the number of people going to the back country, it is even lower. Those who do are overwhelmingly older, rather than younger.

The transition isn’t just in relation to technology. It’s demographic: a whole lot more of today’s young people come from backgrounds other than the white middle class suburbia from which most Boomer-generation environmentalists emerged. That’s just a fact.

Rather than beating the dead horse of values the young mostly do not share, if we want advocacy for the environment to persist it will have to become relevant to them. Environmentalism must evolve, or it will die.

Central to that evolution must be heightened emphasis on ecosystem services such as integrity of food webs and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, watershed function and other operations of the natural world which have a direct nexus with human needs, as opposed to wilderness preservation in remote areas. We all need to eat. We all need to breathe. We can still advocate for preserving wilderness from the standpoint of watershed functions, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, etc., but if our talk continues to be rooted in Muir/Brower “glory of Nature” rhetoric and the expectation we can lure popular support with the prospect of wilderness recreation opportunities that fewer and fewer of us are seeking, we’re going nowhere.

And, fellow greenies, we also have to stop indulging or participating in so-called “environmentalism” that is really just self-interested obstructionism. We need to call out the difference when opponents of change (and it is always opponents, not proponents, isn’t it?)  use environmental protection laws as a cudgel. We need to distance ourselves from fringe- and pseudoscience. We need to accept that all actions have impacts, and that this alone is not an argument never to do anything. The question is what will be impacted, and the significance of that impact. If the debate at hand is about which store goes into an already-existing mall, it’s up to us to point out that there may be reasons to oppose the project, but they are not environmental reasons.

Environmental reasons are rooted in air, water and soil quality; biodiversity; minimizing waste; efficient use of resources such as energy and water, and moving toward lower-impact ways of sustaining ourselves. That’s all.  Fighting a multi-family in-fill housing project in your neighborhood when what you really care about is parking convenience and the prospect that (gasp!) some brown people might try to live near you isn’t environmentalism. Opposing a more natural flow regime in managing a dam and claiming your concern is for fish and wildlife–when what you’re really concerned about is tourism-related business downstream–isn’t environmentalism.

In my home town a few years ago, a specific plan–mind you, just a plan, not a project–was proposed which would have set standards for developing mixed-use, higher density, transit and pedestrian-friendly projects in an area adjacent to the downtown, on lands currently occupied by decaying light industrial buildings.

The town went berserk. And self-styled “environmentalists” killed the plan.

Now, by no stretch of the imagination was theirs an effort in defense of or to augment the natural world. The existing policies applying to the area allowed more filling of nearby wetlands than did the proposed ones. Residents of the housing units would have been within walking distance of three grocery stores, a drug store, a farmers market, a post office, a movie theater, shops and restaurants and the town’s hub for regional transit. They would have been able to live a nearly car-free lifestyle. Everything about the plan was the kind of thing environmentalists around here say they support.

But only, apparently, if it is built somewhere else.

We have to stop this, folks. It’s shameful. Because what we’re showing the next generation is an “environmentalism” that lies about its real motivations while claiming to speak for the Earth in romantic, unreasonable, technophobic and often hysterically irrational terms.

There are projects well worth opposing. There are areas that should be protected rather than being allowed to intensify in land use. Zoning, land use, water and transportation planning and enforcement are good things. But they are abused every  bit as much when they are twisted to prevent change out of knee-jerk, reactionary opposition to anything new as they are when policy makers rubber-stamp exceptions to them to allow destructive activities to go forward.

We environmentalists were among the first to recognize the very serious problems homo sapiens was creating by fouling its nest. We bear a responsibility to be problem-solvers rather than reactionaries, to accept that some of our comforts are probably going to have to be let go for the greater good. Environmentalism can no longer be a luxury of the privileged, nor a movement primarily focused on defending that luxury. We have to make caring about the biosphere a practical, common-good ethos that includes a place for those who are never going to go backpacking, couldn’t care less whether there continue to be polar bears, and are not afraid of cell phone towers.

We are in the Earth and of the Earth. Our task is to figure out how to keep the biosphere livable for humanity–all of humanity–and for as rich a diversity of organisms as is practically possible.

Note the “practically”.

We must be thoughtful, well-informed, realistic, and embrace positive change. And we must distance ourselves from those who do not meet that standard but claim our mantle.

We must evolve, before we die.

 At publication, the Dragon was TELLING IT LIKE IT IS

Jan 242017
 

It’s here, folks. Everything we dreaded.

Today, the contemptible excuse we have for a President froze all EPA contracts and issued a blanket media ban on communication by federal scientists with the public. It’s not hard to see why: our environmental protections are being dismantled wholesale. 

Don’t kid yourself. This is not a drill, nor a false alarm, nor a scare. This is deadly serious.

Congress is lining up the legal framework for privatizing or divesting to states our federal lands, too.

The human horror show in the Oval Office has one very consistent personality trait: if you tell him he can’t do something, he will do it. That means that all those “third rail” programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., are very much on the chopping block. He will take particular delight in destroying them.

So what does this mean to us activists? What on Earth can we do?

I would suggest that we are in a war. And we are the underdogs—the insurgents—in that war. We are not going to save everything. We’re going to lose a lot, and the best outcome we can hope for is that out of the rubble left behind when the war is over, a more sensible and less meanspirited nation will arise.

There can be no spectators now. And for many of those who have been active, a radical change in priorities is required: a principle known as triage.

Triage means choosing which patients to treat based not on how badly in need they are, but on how likely they are to be saved, and how important to the war effort they are. It is an ugly business. It cuts against the grain of our sense of equality and fairness to choose that some will get medicine and others will not, that some will be rushed into surgery and others will not. 

Yet it must be done. Noble sentiment has no place in the prosecution of a war. And I repeat: make no mistake about it, this is a war.

For local activists, I think this can be a particularly challenging time, because frankly, the issues many of us have been working on pale in comparison to the stakes of the issues now in play in our nation. And I am here to say that, ugly as it may be, now is the time for those of us with the inclination and the skills and the commitment to reassess our political priorities.

Local fights over quality of life issues aren’t very high priority in the triage of 2017. I’m sorry, but they just aren’t. If you’re battling fiercely over something that boils down to whether you will experience more traffic and noise at your home or potential undesirables in your neighborhood, I urge you to take a long look in the mirror and ask whether that’s really what needs fighting over right now. You’re an activist, and that is a precious resource; surely, you can apply yourself to the issues that are truly life-and-death for our citizenry and our environment, rather than what you’re doing now?

Please think about it.

These are not normal times.

If we don’t want to lose everything, we must be willing to let the small stuff go.

At publication, the Dragon was DEADLY SERIOUS

Dec 282014
 

It’s pretty evident by now that this President isn’t afraid of the so-called third rail. In fact, he has shown a willingness to contradict the prevailing wisdom on issue after issue: DADT, tax increases on the wealthy, financial reform, health care, immigration, regulating carbon emissions from power plants, Israel, Cuba, and many other do-not-touch political quagmires which have been assiduously avoided by his predecessors.

As he is now clearly looking at his last two years as an opportunity to make major changes to address entrenched problems, I have one to add to the list.

Today, the President declared the war in Afghanistan over. There is a Status of Forces Agreement and we’ll leave behind some trainers and counterterrorism people, but that will be a tiny fraction of the 140,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan when he took office.

In 2011, similarly, he drew the Iraq war to a close. Of course, Iraq has since proven unable to govern itself or to defend itself against ISIL, but that’s another story. The boots-on-the-ground war there—Bush’s shame—was finally dispensed with.

My hope is this: that before leaving office, President Obama will declare the war for which the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Miltary Force provided legal authority has been completed. I hope he will specify that the people who are conspiring against us through the lens of Islamic extremism are not the same people, nor the same organizations called out in the AUMF, and that the AUMF is therefore now null and void.

The 2001 AUMF has been used as a blank authorization for military action anywhere in the world so long as it can be tied to “Al Queda or its affiliates”, but that language does not appear in the legislation itself. It would be a strong move on the part of the President to rein in the dangerous precedent that the Presidency may use 9/11 as a pretext for a broad range of future military actions.

Today, the Dragon is CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

Oct 152014
 

Let me start here: it really is a dangerous old world out there. The United States does have legitimate strategic and economic interests around the globe; there are those who would very much like for us not to have them. And the biggest military power in the world does bear some responsibility to weigh in when something ghastly is going on, like chemical warfare against civilians or genocide.

So I am not going to argue here that the U.S. is always the Black Hat, or that we are a maniacal imperialist juggernaut, or any of the other standard left castigation of American usages of power. I have done so about specific instances of such usage, such as the disastrous Bush Iraq con job/fiasco. Nearly every American use of military force during my lifetime has been a tragic mistake, in my opinion. But I’m not going to argue–nor do I believe–that the United States is overall or in every instance a force for evil in the world, nor that any use of military might is wrong. I believe such a position to be uninformed and naive.

If I lost you there, you should probably stop reading this now.

However, it is starting to look to me as though there is less and less of a point to such extensions of military power, because they don’t work.

It is remarkable how few wars in recent decades have been “won” by anyone but the home team. During the era of empire, it was routine for European powers–and later, the U.S.–to march into any backwater it pleased, fling about a bunch of bullets and shells, and then run up the flag. Whatever local resistance was proffered never amounted to much to worry about, which had the deleterious effect of encouraging more of this behavior.

Since the second World War, however, that kind of outcome has become increasingly rare. More often, guerrilla insurgencies and indigenous resistance have made “winning” impossible, and holding areas in dispute debilitatingly expensive in both lives and treasure.  If you don’t think things have changed, consider Belgium’s savage and near-instantaneous conquest of the region now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo and compare it to the mess the United States finds itself mired in in Afghanistan.

You can draw a line from Korea through Southeast Asia and into Central America, Afghanistan (twice), Iran and Iraq, and Ukraine, and the common denominator is that militarily superior invaders and proxy armies have simply been unable to hold territory they think they have won. The moment–sometimes within minutes–they turn their backs, that territory is back in the hands of popularly supported insurgencies.

As I see it, there are two major drivers of this. One has been with us forever, but the second is brand-new to the latter half of the 20th, and now the 21st century.

PROXY GAMES. The first is the principle of a proxy war, in which Greater Powers battle using smaller ones as proxy armies. The Korean War was a fine example: the US and its allies were fighting the Chinese in that war, yet we still don’t really talk about it in those terms. Today, Ukraine is shaping up as a fine opportunity for a proxy war, though the fact that it is so close on the doorstep of Russia means Western powers may decline to play.

WEAPONS, WEAPONS EVERYWHERE. This is the more important point, and one I don’t hear anyone else talking about. Empires used to win their colonial wars of conquering because they had better arms and training. That is still, by and large, true, but there is a matter of diminishing returns. If everyone in a country you are trying to invade has an AK-47 and one in every 25 has a rocket-fired grenade launcher, it doesn’t matter how superior your weapons are: you still can’t hold a hostile population that is armed to the teeth. It’s impossible. You would need a 1-to-1 soldier to inhabitant ratio even to attempt it, and you’d have to commit massive civilian slaughter in the process.

Since the second World War, the United States and its allies (like the UK, France, Sweden and Israel) have been the arms merchants to the greater world, and China and the USSR/Russia have done their best to follow suit. World arms trade is staggering in scope, and is the lion’s share of so-called “foreign aid” provided around the world.

The result has been a world awash in weapons. So many, in fact, that even though the “good stuff” is carefully guarded, it simply doesn’t matter. Unless you have the hearts and minds of most of the population of the area you are trying to occupy–in which case, you probably don’t need to be fighting a war in the first place–you cannot possibly hold and stabilize a significant region of the modern world, because pretty much every native population of areas under conflict is thoroughly armed with weapons of enough sophistication and enough deadliness to make it impossible.

Yes, we make lots of money selling death technology. So do our friends, and so do our enemies.

But when it comes to war, the outcome of this tidy business is that we are hoist on our own petard.

At publication, the Dragon was IRONIC

Oct 112014
 

It’s that time again, Green Dragon patrons! Elections are coming up, and here are the house recommendations.

Please note that I don’t endorse in races where I don’t feel I have enough knowledge to make a call. I have been out of circulation from most municipal-level politics for awhile now. I encourage you to check out conservationaction.org, where you can find report cards on incumbent local officials and endorsements of candidates in races where I haven’t made one.

Federal and State Offices

GOVERNOR: JERRY BROWN. Though some are grumpy about it, I feel that Brown has been smart and sensible about not going overboard with new expenditures as the state’s budget has recovered from the Bush Recession. I’m not a big fan of his concepts of “realigning” incarceration and child care to local governments, nor some of his labor votes, but overall, he’s done a great job.

STATEWIDE OFFICES: vote for Democrats. The California Republican party has gone far out on the loony-tune Tea Party limb, and none can be trusted to serve the public interest. Of those running, I particularly recommend KAMALA HARRIS, who has been a terrific Attorney General.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 2nd District: JARED HUFFMAN. Huffman has been simply stellar. Not only is his voting record superlative, he has proven capable—as he was in the state legislature under Schwarzenegger—of moving legislation even when he needs opposition support to do so. His bill protecting a large swathe of the North Coast as wilderness was the only such bill to pass the House this year.

STATE SENATE, District 2: MIKE McGUIRE. This is Noreen Evans’ seat, and those are big shoes to fill. McGuire, let’s be clear, will not fill them. McGuire was an adequate Supervisor, especially given the historically conservative district he represents. I’d hardly give him rave reviews, but the fact is that in the Senate he will be more beholden to progressive voices than he is now, and McGuire is young—perhaps he will learn. This is a safe Democratic seat.

ASSEMBLY, District 2: JIM WOOD. If his very cautious, don’t-make-waves tenure on the Healdsburg City Council is any indicator, Wood will not be much of a leader, nor a progressive, and he lacks the political savvy of Wes Chesbro, who is terming out. That said, if he wants to get anything done in Sacramento he, like McGuire, will have to partner with progressive Democrats who are the majority there. This is a safe Democratic seat and Wood will be the next Assemblymember.

Ballot Propositions:

1: NO. Although this measure improved considerably in the final days before the Legislature put it on the ballot, it is still a wrongheaded approach to solving the state’s water woes.

2:  YES. Prop. 2 would ensure that the State manages its finances more wisely instead of every budget surplus being the cause of a free-for-all over who will get the money. While opponents claim to be speaking for schools, even the President of the California State Board of Education supports it.

45: :YES YES YES!!  This measure gives the California State Insurance Commissioner real authority to force insurance companies to PROVE that they need to raise rates before they can do it. It’s that simple.

46:  NO. The state cap on medical malpractice awards is grossly out of step with the actual harm it causes, and that is the heart of this measure. The prescription database, also, is a good idea. The drug testing, however, is a poison pill. California is already short on doctors and many will simply retire or move out of state before they will be subjected to drug testing. It’s a dumb idea and makes this measure unworthy of support.

47:  YES YES YES!!  “Three Strikes” and other draconian sentencing policy have been a social, budgetary and judicial DISASTER for California. Limiting such harsh sentencing to violent and serious offenders will save money and prevent the wholesale injustice that is happening now.

48:  NO. Tribal gaming is out of control in California. Any opportunity to prevent yet another casino from being built is a good idea.

Local elections:

Supervisor, 2nd District: Shirlee Zane. Zane has done a good job, and has been particularly strong on health and mental health issues. She deserves another term.

Supervisor, 4th District: DEB FUDGE. Deb has been an exemplary leader on the Windsor Town Council and was my pick four years ago. She’s fantastic on the environment, urban planning and transportation, and a real listener who cares about her constituents. You couldn’t do better.

Ballot Measure M: YES. Our libraries have been crushed by budget cuts. This measure will allow us to have a public information-access system and library we can all rely on and be proud of.

 

Santa Rosa:

Measure N: Yes. For complicated reasons, this modernization of the city’s Utility Tax will actually increase revenue while also cutting the tax paid by current ratepayers, as it expands the tax to VOIP and mobile phone customers who should be taxed at the same rate as everyone else. It’s a reasonable idea and should be approved.

City Council: CHRIS COURSEY. Coursey was certainly a mixed bag as a Press Democrat columnist—fair disclosure, he did a hatchet job on me as I left Conservation Action, and I haven’t forgotten it—but I think odds are better than 50/50 he will be a neighborhood-oriented vote rather than a Chamber of Commerce rubber stamp. Because of his name recognition, he has more latitude than many others in voting as he believes rather than as a given political camp wishes.

Many progressives are also supporting Curtis Byrd and Lee Pierce along with Coursey. I don’t know anything about Byrd, but Pierce was unimpressive when interviewed for an endorsement many years ago. Since, he has served a term and been burned by the Chamber of Commerce crowd who expected him to be One Of Theirs—he may therefore have a new perspective on politics.

Petaluma:

Mayor: DAVID GLASS. Glass has been an exemplary Mayor; his opponent, Mike Harris, who has been a lackluster city council member who has appeared primarily to be driven by personal ambition rather than any set of values or vision for the city.

City Council:  JANICE CADER-THOMPSON and THERESA BARRETT

Local Measure Q (forever sales tax increase): ABSOLUTELY NOT. A slush fund without accountability for how it will be spent.

Sebastopol:

UNA GLASS is a friend, and was appointed to replace her husband, the former mayor, who died suddenly this past spring. I think she deserves a full term to develop her ideas for the direction of the city.

Windsor:

SAM SALMON has been a terrific vote on the Town Council for many years, and deserves a return to office.

 

Go vote!

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