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When Progress Didn’t Come and the People Didn’t Awake
It is hard to face the close of 2010 with an admission. I was wrong. For more than twenty years as an environmentalist and writer, I harbored the expectation that progress would come. But I did not believe it would come because we had somehow persuaded decision-makers it was time, finally, to abandon the Chamber of Commerce values that crashed the economy into a ditch. I believed that once in the ditch?an inevitability, from witnessing so much bad policy and bad results the past two decades?that people would awake. Rise and Sing!
I was wrong. I had been right about the threats. I started looking in the early 1970s in Florida, through a watery lens of water only a few feet deep covering hundreds of square miles in Florida Bay, the tail end of the Everglades ecosystem. By the late 1980′s, the magnificent efflorescence of nature had been severely injured by repetitive algae blooms. Even then, scientists were chasing changes happening faster than baselines could be anchored with facts. My small layman’s window on marine life in two feet of water, hosting crustaceans and shrimp and sea grass billowing out in glorious creatures from rays to sharks and tarpon and the whole coral reef, encapsulate the whole realm: oceans and a warming planet.
In other words, for twenty years I have been looking the whole time at the right thing and drawing the wrong conclusions. Right about nature. Wrong about human nature. Not that I lacked a gimlet eye for what was happening at the time. I believed that despite all the damage to our air and water, despite all the laws and their intended protections, despite the overwhelming influence of special interests, the tables would turn. Change would come, on the wings of our better natures. Here, the United States, unlike pre-war Germany, angels would prevail through what was sure to come.
In good times, people were fat, dumb and happy. Through the filter of the nation’s environment– the fierce competition to wring profit from scarcity– you could see the train wreck coming from miles away. In bad times, I imagined, people would look more closely at what value and equity had been stripped from them and who had done the stripping. Yes, it is a low world. Yes, masses of people bought into the madness of the "Ownership Society"; the death knell of personal responsibility in the Bush era?sold as snake oil by the schemers and speculators–, but surely the public, I thought, would figure out the Wall Street game, linking up to local title companies, mortgage brokers, land speculators and assorted crooks with law degrees, had been wired to ensare them. Eventually, people would connect the dots they had neglected for so long. That’s how it happened in the 1930′s didn’t it?
I consider myself a realist informed by Samuel Beckett. Well. We are bogged down like medieval monks arguing whether the economy is a victim of structural instability or just a periodic cycle after asset bubbles popped from which the American spirit will somehow shed obesity, ideologies coated with lard and re-invigorate; walking point for the billions of people in East Asia, India and China aspiring to our standard of living. (Tell that to the people in rural Missouri, of "Winter’s Bone")
Fighting for the environment is a high order of behavior in a low world. A world that will surely need sign in the future, that a few understood the value of what had been lost and objected; standing up loudly, albeit in print that fewer and fewer read. To be an optimist under these circumstances is to invite a deranged sympathy.
Fight after fight in Florida: on land use, for the Everglades, Florida’s once pristine lakes, bays, streams and rivers; their result had a massive and singular effect: to put the public further and further from those who govern. I believed that if the sentinels of carnage and destruction were brought low, if citizens were hurt badly enough, if the economy was derailed and all its components laid bare on the tracks for all to see, that common sense would find its way to daylight, that people would pull together, that the villains and polluters would be exposed and drummed out of town in their Jaguars, Mercedes, Porches and Baymach sedans, that a fresh wind would blow the tired canards, the manipulators, the Karl Roves and Roger Ailes into the back rows and cheap seats, and the stage would be wiped clean. By who? Didn’t we have a president who had been, early in his career, a grass roots activist? Aren’t we the change we can believe in?
I believed that if all else failed, a crushing economy based on speculation and thievery would turn the fools out. The puppeteers and the people at the hand of the inner working behind the curtain would be revealed. I was wrong, with a capital "W".
2010 did not begin well in Miami. In January Caroline Lewis, heading a project called the Fairchild Environmental Challenge for a reknown botanical garden, was summarily fired. Whatever trumped up reason used to paper over the resultant chaos, the underlying story is dismal: in less than seven years the program she had grown from nothing served tens of thousands of high school age students. In many ways, the tempest was emblematic of a horrendous year for environmental issues. Like so many boards, the directors of the garden were happy to go about the ways of a singularly insular president, attending social functions, and faithful to the prestige of a community board deemed important.
When Ms. Lewis’ supporters rose to challenge the board, the board promptly changed its corporate bylaws to thwart the incipient rebellion. Ms. Lewis was fired because of her success. The innovator?on the cusp of breaking out the program for a national and international audience demanding new leaders? was terminated for building a program that challenged students to compete around themes on the environment, grounded in academics and scholarship and debate. Whatever trumped up reasons, the fact is that the programs Ms. Lewis innovated called into question the polluting business practices– implicitly, not explicitly– of the family business of one board member who had pledged millions for a new science center.
I doubt that the board members even blinked or knew that a large agribusiness that produces industrial-strength tomatoes for mass markets, using massive quantities of polluting fertilizer, would have a fundamental problem with a garden program that was educating tens of thousands of students to be environmentalists. In the historic Everglades?the Everglades Agricultural Area?a similar large scale producer is one of the "hot spots" of phosphorous, the constituent in fertilizer that is wrecking the River of Grass that taxpayers are spending billions to restore.
The Fairchild Environmental Challenge engaged middle school and high school students on such questions concerning the trade-off of massive pollution of Florida’s water and Everglades by agribusiness and stormwater runoff from cities against the value of estuaries, bays, rivers and the Everglades. In the end, whatever excuses were used by the Fairchild board and its high-powered attorneys, sponsoring an educational program that reached into the heart of the conflict between the environment and Miami’s economic elite, was unacceptable. A career educator was brought down by shameful allegations of a junior staffer, whose cause was taken up by the board president. A program that was on the verge of providing a quickly scalable model to enlighten and educate on the environment was hobbled by stripping its innovator. That sums up Miami, in 2010.
In Florida 2010 ends with the U.S. EPA under attack for its efforts to mandate nutrient pollution limits. The fact that the state is literally afloat in a sea of polluted water means little to the economic interests who profit, even in a mighty recession/depression, from polluting. I was right about the economy. But I never anticipated how a conservative elite?well funded despite the downturn and collapse of its major sources of profit tied to land speculation and development?would use an incipient taxpayer revolt embodied by the Tea Party to extend to all governmental attempts to protect the environment.
Republican Marco Rubio, the Senator-elect from Florida, is being touted by conservatives as a likely 2012 candidate for the Republican presidential ticket though he has done nothing but look good, sound reasonable, and act as the next Jeb Bush proxy in the battle to control the GOP. The media scarcely touched the point, during the Senate campaign, that Big Sugar interests ? the Fanjul billionaires ?strongly supported Rubio against his opponent, outgoing Governor Charlie Crist.
Crist is a sunny politician who did something no Florida elected official in modern history had ever done: he defied the Fanjul billionaire sugar barons and initiated a deal to take more than 150,000 acres from sugar production in order to help restore the Everglades. The deal with US Sugar was set up without consulting the Fanjul billionaires. For this, they waged political war on behalf of their candidate, Rubio. Although Crist has been quoted in the mainstream press as pointing to the Everglades deal as the signature accomplishment of his term, he scarcely mentioned it during the campaign nor did the mainstream media pick up the thread of its importance.
2010 also saw the defeat of a citizen’s initiative to amend the Florida constitution with a petition drive that began nearly seven years earlier. Florida Hometown Democracy was cobbled together from public interest land use lawyers, Lesley Blackner and Ross Burnaman, who had spent years fighting skirmish after skirmish on local zoning issues where state oversight proved simply incapable of taming the lusty impulses of land use lobbyists joined to the hip with developers and builders of tract housing and local elected officials. Add to this formula, the constant revolving door between regulators and the regulated, and it was no wonder that land speculation became the lubricant for so much mutual rubbing. Blackner and Burnaman decided to do something about it. Their incipient citizens’ revolt ran straight into the grinding, political wood chipper of the Chambers of Commerce, powerful land use attorneys, and the Florida Supreme Court. By 2010, they had exhausted their donor base just getting to the state-wide ballot after years of legal challenges and delays.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries, and big agribusiness contributed more than $15 million to knock off Florida Hometown Democracy. The measure, that would have given citizens the vote to change local comprehensive development plans, will never come again. An entire generation of activists was burnt to a crisp by the intiative. To the extent that civic energy exists now, it is in the form of the Tea Party that is against government interference in free markets without understanding that the manipulation of free markets is exactly what its funders do.
Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, comes to office with no direct experience of government except for the action of federal prosecutors who targeted the health insurance company he founded, levying the largest civil fine in US history. Without experience, he has relied primarily on Jeb Bush disciples to form his administration and agenda. That agenda, it was revealed recently, includes folding the environmental mandates of state government, as expressed through individual agencies, into a super-agency in which the dominant character is expressed by the Department of Transportation: the leviathan that environmentalists and growth management advocates?like those who mounted Florida Hometown Democracy?have battled for decades.
Environmentalists in Florida cannot draw any conclusion except that the collapsed economy?littered with foreclosures and ghost suburbs?is like a shipwreck on the coral reef. Those responsible for sailing the ship then are scavenging its remains, now. The public discourse is so low, the state legislature so dominated by the tightened noose of business and polluters, that dragging wetlands and bays and estuaries and the Everglades into the morass of unabsorbed costs left by homebuilders, land surveyors, title companies, land preparation and land speculation, lobbyists, water engineers, sewerage contractors, mortgage brokers seems at the end of 2010 to be purposeful: the whole kit and kaboodle was a wealth transfer machine unparalleled in US history leaving behind an impoverished landscape dependent on jobs tied to more impoverishment.
Today, the financial system is filled to the rafters with zombie banks and executives who took down billions for speed and efficiency in execution while staying afloat thanks to the generosity, or panic, of the Federal Reserve. Here, from the bottom of the ladder?municipal and county government?to the top, accountability is a mirage. In 2010 the Miami-Dade police department looted millions from the environmental crimes fund to buy personal computers, SUV’s, and other accoutrements. It now claims no responsibility to replenish the fund. No one was fined. No one was fired.
I was wrong. Where I hoped for fresh air, for democracy, for government to abjure the kidnappers of the public interest, what came in its stead was a ratcheting down by the same special interests who caused the Fall. Without manufacturing much of anything except military defense equipment and aircraft, the United States is a Potemkin economy, with sober men of Congress and state legislatures who might as well be in velvet smoking jackets puffing on cheroots, only their stove pipe hats visible as they move back and forth, guarding the empire from behind the rampart walls.
On a brighter note, the U.S. EPA is rousing from its decadal slumber. The bad years of Clinton and Bush have been cast aside, more or less, by President Obama’s determination that science and facts must guide regulations and not ideology. But the American public is largely unaware that the business interests who funded political campaigns returning control of the House to the GOP have a greater stake in throttling the EPA than they did in either health care or tax reform. They can afford health care and they can afford paying more taxes. What they can’t afford is government limiting their profits by environmental regulation. The battle lines have been drawn, presaging that Florida’s example of legislative attempts to kill off environmental protections in order to rebuild the economy will extend to federal regulatory authority, too. President Obama will need to draw bright lines for the American people in 2011, because the other bright lines are being drawn by an even more hostile force to the environment than the split Congress: the US Supreme Court.