"We Can’t Even Describe What We Are Seeing"

A normal, end of year summary of the environment would list the good, the bad, and the ugly-acres of wetlands purchased or not, numbers of species thriving or not, clueless legislators or not.

In 2004, faith made the difference for a significant number of Americans who voted on relief from uncertainty and fear.

So whether one is Christian or not, the teachings attributed to Jesus, the Beatitudes, are better steps of a ladder from which to discern our challenges in the year ahead than an inventory from a year so many Americans are glad to put behind us.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The big news of the environment in 2004 is that conservation groups active in political campaigns cast their lot with Senator John Kerry and lost.

Their gamble was risky, but not without calculation. After four years of the first Bush White House, they believed there was nothing left to lose from an agenda set in a stone tablet.

In both Tallahassee and Washington, of those leaders who believe that self-interest expressed through the marketplace protects the air, water, and natural resources better than rules and regulations, a significant subset also believe failure is a positive sign for the Second Coming.

Of the United States Congress, writer Glenn Scherer recently noted in Grist Magazine, “forty-five senators and 186 representatives in 2004 earned 80 -100 percent approval rankings from the nation’s three most influential Christian right advocacy groups-the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Many of those same lawmakers also got flunking grades-less than 10 percent, on average-from the League of Conservation Voters last year.”

Although Christian fundamentalists don’t rock every politician’s world, their cues have provided agency officials and legislators at the state and county level rationale to shut off debate and ignore conservationists who are not obedient to their own agendas, seeing no consequence when big dogs do the same.

But if Americans can no longer depend on mainstream conservation organizations to protect the nation’s air, water, and natural resources, who will?

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

To the extent that conservation groups have been able to influence legislative processes on the quality of our air, water, and preservation of public lands, it has depended on open forums where fair debate, based on sound science, balances the pro’s and con’s of specific actions.

In both Tallahassee and Washington, those forums have always tilted toward special interests but today, they no longer exist.

Although courts of law provide recourse for the time being, conservation groups have less influence in legislatures than ever, while evidence accumulates that mass market economies are having catastrophic success in dominating ecosystems.

When Americans have the opportunity to vote directly on the environment-such as land preservation programs-the response is overwhelmingly positive.

But on the most important matters related to the environment, in which lobbyists and legislators step down what people voted for to smaller ratios of rules and regulations that campaign lenders can use for profitable locomotion, people don’t get to vote.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“We can’t even describe what we’re seeing,” was how Sheila Watt-Cloutier expressed to Reuters the inability of her constituents, Inuit natives in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, who are direct witnesses to the impacts of global climate change.

The Inuits, highly evolved to the needs of survival based on hunting and fishing, literally have no words to describe how species and weather patterns have changed recently, with no historical precedent in thousands of years of adaptation.

But in the Lower 48, estuaries and rivers are polluted, lakes damaged, wetlands bulldozed, water resources mismanaged with determined optimism rooted in an inventory of language-mortgage rates, syndications and demographics-belonging to the reinforced steel of commerce, more durable than the Inuit’s.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be fulfilled.”

If permitted, science can help us describe what the Inuits are seeing, and what Americans are seeing in ecosystems whose baseline values have shifted beyond recognition.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

Within fundamentalist communities of faith, science is viewed as contrary to the teachings of the Bible. When people are frozen in one story, others skate easily, profitably, and smoothly on the icy landscape-casting any dissent or friction on their designs as the incarnation of evil. And do.

In 2004, science took a beating from politics.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

Consider the case of Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush stubbornly insists on siting a massive new economic development project, the Scripps Institute, surrounded by threatened wetlands in far West Palm Beach.

Earlier this year, Florida’s environmental agency warned its employees not to interfere with the Scripps approval process.

One employee dared to express his concerns in public. In early 2004 Herb Zebuth, an expert in interpreting computer data on wetlands, had concluded that the state agency he worked for had misinterpreted key data and likely impacts to environmentally endangered state lands.

For expressing his concerns, he was severely rebuked and later in the year, retired. Recently, Mr. Zebuth testified on behalf of conservation groups seeking relief in state court.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Governor Bush quickly blasted his critics as “legal terrorists”, using the same language that proved so powerful in 2004: fear parting the winners and losers as cleanly as a knife.

In October, a senior White House aide, spoke to New York Times reporter Ron Suskind and uttered a little prophecy: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Rocket fuel traces found in milk, endocrine disrupters in our water supply, effluent seeping through aquifers: these examples lead to a question–would God reward believers in the afterlife whose behavior in its failure to respect Creation is like a red tide poisoning every opportunity for mercy and kindness and love that lead Christ to sacrifice?

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

No one thinks it will ever end. Not the trophy fish only visible as mounts huge with fading colors on plastic on the wall, not the glass-eyed heads of animals whose names we can scarcely recall. Not the naps we took in the cabin of boats, to escape the mid-day sun. None of it lasts.

God did not command Noah to save the birds and animals with a cherry picker, and the notion the more hopeless and lost we are, the closer we are to God, is poisonous for a simple reason: the future we shape is with hands given to us as an emblem of action.

What words will we find to ask for forgiveness of the Creator when the joy of life, expressed in numberless species, has been reduced to a pale shadow?

If conservation groups cannot protect the environment on their own, who will?
ALAN FARAGO is a regular contributor to the opinion page of the Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at: alanfarago@yahoo.com


Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net