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Environmentalism in the Age of Disbelief

In a recent interview, former Maine Senator George Mitchell “called upon President Barack Obama — and everyone else who backs stiff environmental protection laws and the science behind climate change — to be bold and persistent in the face of opponents.” In a keynote address to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Mitchell said, ““We’ve all seen environmental protection used as a scapegoat for whatever society’s problems are, but it will not last… I believe this anti-science movement will fade away over time. Remember, it took a long time for people to realize the world is not flat.”

Judging from the recent Republican presidential “debates”, Miami and South Florida may be under water before the flat earthers give up their grasp of the conservative right.

So if you are an environmentalist — say, a leader of one of the most visible, national environmental groups– what kind of message do you use in these times? On the one hand, Obama is a president inclined to evidence, data and science. On the other hand he may be persuaded that embracing environmental protection will doom his re-election. That was, by the way, exactly how Bill Clinton reacted to the 1994 Republican landslide in Congress, led by Newt Gingrich.

What environmental leaders are focusing on is the importance of environmental protection to jobs, and the sense of deja vu is profound. Today, all public pronouncements on the value of Everglades restoration highlight the contribution of shovel-ready projects that employ Floridians, the value of tourism and fisheries and the cost to coastal real estate from rampant pollution. However well-meaning and expertly crafted, the Republican-led state legislature is utterly tone-deaf to the environmentalists’ entreaties. Instead, the economic crisis is being used a stake to drive through the heart of environmentalism, taking Florida back– not twenty years– but thirty or forty years.

The rebuttal by state GOP leaders against environmental protection is that we can only afford to protect the environment through a healthy economy. (This, by the way, is the Jeb Bush Hierarchy of Needs.) When you hear Republican presidential candidates arguing against the federal budget and federal services of agencies like the EPA, that is the chorus line.

Listening to these anti-environmentalists rants recalls the late 1980s and the genesis of the Wise Use Movement, born in the western reaches of timber, oil, and ranching states. The Wise Use Movement was fueled by the threat of scarcity, even though it germinated during an era of great abundance. It is the same dynamic, catalyzed by right-wing Christian conservatives, and further fueled by fear as the promise of abundance and prosperity for future generations fades. Without a doubt, this organization of powerful, monied interests has been the most successful political movement in modern US history.

As a result, disbelief in science has a powerful grip on the United States. But environmentalists ought to recognize where they are. It is a well traveled road — arguing the economic benefits of environmental protection–, and it turns out to be a loop road leading straight back to the large corporate influences on campaigns and elections. Environmentalists need to appeal for clear eyes, strong hearts to reject the flat earthers. Their best chance is from within the conservative right itself and leaders who articulate how the destruction of God’s creation is a crime against Christian values of love and compassion. It is not about jobs. It is about countering a misguided populism that wears Christian virtues on its sleeve.

Alan Farago is conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

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

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