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Friday Seriousness: Obama and the Great Outdoors Initiative 16 April 2010

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Is earth week next week? Google says yes, and I guess that’s why President Obama came out today to tell Americans about the Great Outdoors Initiative, which will do… something. As best I can recall, The Sierra Club showed up to laud the move and my former employer, well, actually, blew it off, but perhaps with good reason: the initiative doesn’t initiate anything. It hopes. Case in point:

The president said the “America’s Great Outdoors” program will involve a series of listening sessions throughout the nation to solicit an array of ideas.

Yes, an array of ideas. That’s about as vague “variety of issues” on my resume, and it marks a return to the aspiration game, which seems to hope that since we won’t be going to moon anytime soon, we might as well gaze at America’s wild-ish navel instead. Aren’t there weekly radio addresses for the stuff no one needs to know, though? Did America really need a special meeting to hear that it was getting a little homely, that maybe it should try getting out every once and while to work on its tan, take a stroll in the woods, leave a Snickers wrapper at a scenic overlook? Well, maybe.

Yes, National Park attendance has not grown in step with the economy, and more Americans visited in 1987 than have in any other year since then despite our swelling population. But to use the presidential pulpit to urge Americans to reconnect with the outdoors smacks of desperation. Curious since we’ve made no attempt to hide our flirtations with televisions and theme parks and European vacations over the last two decades. Why the hope for reconnection now? With more wilderness than ever, with conservation-friendly bureaucrats in office, why the sudden rush to support the American outdoors?

Over at the Times’s DotEarth blog, Andy Revkin might have the answer: our urban president. George W wandered around Crawford wounding trees with a bow saw in the name of fire mitigation. Cheney hunted quail and friends. Clinton whitewater rafted. Al Gore’s still afraid of ManBearPig. And George H.W., even if he didn’t like broccoli, at least retired to the Maine coast now and then. On the other hand, urbanite Obama, not so big on the Bass Pro scene despite his academic predilections for conservation.

I don’t think, however, that the great outdoors initiative is an effort to make up for lost opportunities or for the fact that Obama’s never wrestled a grizzly with his bare hands. Rather, it’s an offer from an urban American to urban Americans reminding them that Colorado exists, that so much space lies between I-5 and I-95. Really. And, yes, that may sound like aspirational gibberish to folks who make it into the woods every once and a while. Maybe it is.

But recall that the urban poor voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers. And recall that there are a lot of urban poor. They registered because he appeared on the ticket. Regardless of what you make as the reason why, consider that these are folks who rarely if ever see opportunities to vacation in national parks. It is they who need the hope of a wild America the most, and more pragmatically, it is the conservation crowd that needs more voters interested in environmental issues. Ignore the hope-y language  and instead focus on the stated problem and implied “ask” here:

Despite our conservation efforts, too many of our fields are becoming fragmented, too many of our rivers and streams are becoming polluted, and we are losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish. Children, especially, are spending less time outside running and playing, fishing and hunting, and connecting to the outdoors just down the street or outside of town.

If Obama can offer the hope of America’s natural bounty to those who might never have made use of it, he can also recruit supporters to protect that bounty. And in this case, I bet winning environmental consideration from voters who already hang on your every word will prove far easier than swaying a hardened and skeptical suburban electorate. When more Americans connect with the outdoors, more Americans vote for the outdoors. Shrewd move. And yeah, it’s cool if the city folks get end up getting muddy a little more often, too.

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Skiing and the Environment 28 December 2009

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The Economist discusses the environmental impact of skiing:

Jennifer Burt and Kevin Rice of the University of California, Davis, decided to examine the American system. They studied seven resorts of differing sizes close to Lake Tahoe in northern California and Nevada, all of which had most of their ski runs below the timberline. Dr Burt and Dr Rice surveyed the vegetation and soils on the different ski runs and then compared them to adjacent areas of nearby forest…What they found was that the way in which the trails had been constructed accounted for nearly all the difference in the number of plants and the diversity of species present.

More here. It’s short and interesting throughout and confirms that, yes, snowboarders are worse for the environment. No terrain parks without clearing and grading.

Deep Ecology and Reality 18 December 2009

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Like a lot folks in the enviro movement, Trevor over at Pondering the World has pulled out deep ecology to defend a relatively hands-off approach to humanity’s relationship with the natural world.     

  • We are one species among many, with equal rights to life.
  • As a member of the human species, my highest priority is our preservation.
  • As stakeholders in ecological integrity, humans should work to preserve the interdependence, richness, and diversity present in the world.
  • Only to satisfy vital needs should this preservation be sacrificed.
  • And of course, to members of the green community this line of thinking makes all the sense in the world. Who doesn’t believe after all that all species hold inherent rights to life? But whenever rights arrive on the scene, clear thinking tends to head out the door. Otherwise, rights raise sticky questions about prioritization, and while Trevor addresses the main point of concern — that humans will destroy other species to survive– it’s still difficult to pinpoint how exactly we’re supposed to resolve issues of conflicting rights. Short of making the a priori claim “humans count for more” anyway.

    At least Trevor has confronted the problem, however. More often than not, deep ecological thinking seems an outgrowth of these economically bountiful times.  We can preserve wilderness because we don’t need anything from wild areas. We can absorb the costs of barring development, but as surfaced in the debate over the Arctic Refuge last summer when we set preservation against our wallets our green-mindedness trickles away.

    The problem for deep ecology, then, lies not in a fault of reasoning but in the economy that sustains it. That economy will not last. Yes, Malthus was wrong about food production, and starvation today is the product of inefficient systems of agriculture and transportation not an overall lack of food. Yet as population continues to grow, humans will consume a commensurately larger portion of the earth’s resources, perhaps more.

    You can guess the result: as more people compete for scarcer resources, prices will rise. So while we can chat about habitat preservation as the right of the species that require it for now, I suspect that in the far future, our need for molybdenum will trump the American Pika’s right to life. At some point, we will weigh human needs and wants against almost every environmental protection. If that’s true, though, then deep ecological rights are nothing more than conveniences. The cost of  protecting these rights at the moment is sufficiently low enough to ensure their integrity. Notice, too, that deep ecological debate occurs almost exclusively among members of the developed world, although to be sure  it often spills over into normative pre(andpro-)scriptions for developing countries.

    So what does this mean for the deep ecological worldview? Mainly that it doesn’t square with reality. To invoke a right is to say “this contract cannot be broken,” but in speaking about human obligations to the environment, our species’ present trajectory guarantees that we will breach that commitment, stripping it of any value. Better then to throw out the talk of rights and instead say what we intend. That is, to place a high value on the preservation of non-human species for now while recognizing that someday we’ll probably kill every non-economically useful thing on the planet.