As the upcoming elections draw nearer, with the country on the brink of war, the economy flagging, and the split between the United States and the international community growing ever wider, environmental issues have not been a priority in campaigns, nor have voters forced politicians to make them a priority. With these crises demanding immediate attention, it might seem unreasonable to expect the national political debate to shift to the environmental sphere and outrageous to suggest that environmental issues are on par with national security and economic concerns.
Indeed, were environmentalism no more than an aesthetic appreciation of trees and bunnies or an abstract concept of preserving natural balances, then it would be naive to suggest that environmental issues should be a major concern for every voter this election season. But environmentalism is much broader than that. Certainly, it can be grounded in an appreciation for pristine wilderness and “nature for nature’s sake,” and it does seek to preserve ecological systems.
However, this emphasis on preservation is fundamentally based in a pragmatic, scientifically informed understanding that humanity has depleted the natural stockpile of resources like fossil fuels and irreparably damaged self-restoring resources like lumber, fish and fresh water. So the environmental question is not just about the fate of your local park that might be opened up to mining, the local wetland that is being developed into a strip mall, or the ancient redwoods that are being cut down in California. It is also about ensuring that in 100 years there will not be international wars over water when other rivers follow the lead of the Rio Grande and Yellow River to become drained and silted dry. It is about making sure that the giant cloud of smog and particulate matter that has reduced visibility around the Taj Mahal and prompted the Indian government to take drastic measures to decrease air pollution damage to the famous landmark is not a portent of future air quality in other industrial centers. Essentially, environmentalism is about sustaining human civilization by rethinking methods of development and considering how we can manage our inevitable growth and social progress in a world of finite resources.
This social view of environmentalism recognizes that throughout human history wars have been fought and civilizations literally created and destroyed over access to natural resources. As recently as last year, the Hema and Lendu peoples in northeastern Uganda were going to war over fertile land — a topic of dispute that can be traced back to early civilizations in the 1st century B.C. Today, ecologists predict that future wars will be fought over water, and it seems now that many of our current wars are being fought, to some extent, over oil. Because many of our politicians are not thinking sustainably or about the future ramifications of our current actions, we are told that America must choose between the two unpleasant options of spoiling our last great wilderness, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or continuing to involve ourselves in the Middle East as a kingmaker and “regime changer,” all to ensure that we have access to oil.
In reality, this ultimatum is invalid. We could be reducing fossil fuel consumption by raising the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, pursuing alternative energy technologies like wind and fuel cells, and encouraging good old-fashioned self-awareness when it comes to personal energy use. It really is that simple. Despite the relevance of these options to the imminent conflict in Iraq, these options are not even being seriously discussed in the political arena. And they are not being seriously discussed because politicians, on both a local and national level, have no motivation to pursue such alternatives. It is easier for them to maintain the status quo than to be innovative in policy-making when there is not a demonstrated public support for exploring new approaches.
The future of human society demands that we become environmental voters. The National Rifle Association, a powerful voting bloc, has demonstrated that it represents people who will vote for a candidate based on their views on gun control, and as a result politicians have moved to defend against gun control laws in an effort to accurately represent and court this very vocal constituency group. Pro-life activists, similarly, have created a strong voting bloc merely by making it clear that they support candidates based on their stance on abortion. While environmental issues cannot be as simply and narrowly defined and supported as these issues, it is sad that those who care about the environment have not been able to demonstrate as consolidated a front as these radical groups. The environmental debate — more than the issues of guns and abortion — represents a more complex web of domestic and international ramifications, making a single-issue bloc an impossibility. But understanding environmental issues can inform our national decisions on war, the economy and international relations. We should know candidates’ stances on environmental issues before we vote, and we should be motivated to demonstrate our concern for these issues by telling our representatives that we consider the environment to be a major issue when we go to the polls.
Most of all, we should not be apologetic for addressing environmental concerns in a time when more serious issues seem to dominate the political landscape. We have to shift our perspective and convince our representatives that by intelligently managing our natural resources, we can chart the future of our society in peace and in war.
Jack Dafoe is a junior in Morse College. He is co-chairman of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.