Web of Green: Ecology, Economics and the U.S. Political Climate

October 15, 2011 by Categorized: Nature in the News.

Environmentalism has been making headlines recently in the United States as the political climate in the run-up to the Republican primaries continues to heat up like, well, the actual climate. From government censorship of climate scientists, to House Republicans voting to disempower the EPA, to environmentalist protest in solidarity with the #OccupyWallSt movement in New York and across the country, the common theme is the clash between two vastly different stories about the role that protections and regulations play in helping or hurting Americans. While Republicans continue to promote a story of deregulation and reliance on fossil fuels as the best way to put Americans back to work and kick-start the economy, concerned scientists and environmentalists tell a story of government complicity with environmental exploitation that jeopardizes public health and safety for the sake of corporate profits.

At the heart of this clash of worldviews is the question of how local communities can effectively manage their natural resources and immediate environments in ways that help rather than harm others. For many Pagans who cultivate a spiritual relationship with the Earth, this question is one of the basic Mysteries of the natural world: the tension that arises when individuals seek to thrive within complex and interconnected ecological systems of competing needs and limited resources, and the desire to seek a balance which privileges neither the community nor the individual at the expense of the other, but enriches the quality of life for all.

Rick Perry Comes to Pittsburgh

Texas gov. Rick Perry visited Pittsburgh yesterday to put in an appearance at several important steel plants in the city as part of the first policy event of his presidential campaign.

Republicans have long argued that unfettered energy production is needed to solve the nation’s economic problems, and Mr. Perry took that about as far as it can go, advocating more drilling from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico to federal lands out west, crippling the Environmental Protection Agency and blocking air pollution standards.

Standing in an enormous steel coil dock at the U.S. Steel Irvin plant Friday, he said his efforts would kick-start the entire United States economy and especially help industries like those around Western Pennsylvania. That includes coal and natural gas extraction and related manufacturing, such as the transmission pipeline U.S. Steel makes to service Marcellus Shale gas drillers.

While United Steelworkers Union leaders and many members refused to attend the speech, Democrats and environmentalists alike criticized Perry’s energy policy proposals, saying that his policies benefit special interests and the super wealthy while putting the health and livelihoods of the middle-class at risk. Ben LaBolt, Obama 2012 press secretary, mocked Perry’s over-emphasis on fossil fuels during a time when international competitors like China are investing in green technologies, saying “Gov. Perry’s energy policy isn’t the way to win the future, it’s straight out of the past — doubling down on finite resources with no plan to promote innovation or to transition the nation to a clean energy economy.”

Touting his support for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline in the midwest and his promise to increase drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, Perry “seemed to grow less specific” when addressing energy issues closer to home, such as development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits that has transformed the economic and environmental landscape of Western Pennsylvania in recent years and resulted in a spill of toxic waste-water and chemicals in Bradford County last April.

Perry’s retreat into vague promises of unfettered industry and economic success is hardly surprising considering Pittsburgh’s recent success with green initiatives which Perry’s policy proposals would undermine. In November 2010, the City of Pittsburgh made history by becoming the first in the nation to pass an ordinance banning hydrofracking, a controversial and potentially-toxic drilling technique first practiced widely in Perry’s home state of Texas. The same ordinance recognized legally binding rights of nature similar to those being adopted by countries all over the world, but such rights are difficult to uphold in any practical way on the local level without state and federal support.

Republicans Seek to Weaken the EPA

As a Republican, Perry vocally supports a philosophy of state’s rights and local government oversight, saying that “state and local officials should regulate air and water quality, since those officials have to live with the consequences of their decisions.” This approach to state rights is in keeping with the general philosophy of the Republican party, as demonstrated this week when House Republicans pushed through their latest bill aimed at weakening the role of the EPA in regulating hazardous waste and other pollutants, placing that responsibility in the hands of individual states.

House Republicans pushed through legislation Friday that gives the states the power to regulate coal ash from power plants as if it were municipal garbage, pre-empting pending federal regulations that could be much tougher.

The vote on coal ash disposal was the latest of several passed by the GOP-controlled House that would shift authority away from the Environmental Protection Agency and reduce federal regulations that Republicans say are burdensome, hamper economic growth and cost jobs. Other bills have dealt with toxic emissions from power plants, cement plants and incinerators.

The White House came out strongly opposed to the bill, which is unlikely to pass the Democratically-controlled Senate, saying that it “undermined the federal government’s ability to ensure requirements that adequately protect human health and the environment.”

Without a minimum federal health standard, “the result will inevitably be uneven and inconsistent rules by the states; some states will do a good job, others will do a poor job,” said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “And when they do a poor job, the public will pay the price.”

Republicans like Perry might insist that decisions about environmental policy should lie with the local officials most affected by such policies, but they do so with the confident assurance that state governments will inevitably adopt policies much less stringent than those likely to be passed at the federal level. Their confidence is justified, as individual states often find themselves under pressure from national and international corporations whose interests are far from local. Perry’s own campaign promises to the steel plant workers of Pittsburgh belie his claims to support local interests, as he promotes non-local fossil fuel initiatives in the midwest where gas and oil drilling infrastructure utilizes Pittsburgh-made steel.

Native Americans Suffer from a Crippled EPA

In fact, weakening the ability to regulate industry and protect the environment at the federal level can actually hinder smaller communities that cannot muster the political or financial resources to protect their interests against policies enforced at the state level. Such is the case for tribal governments like those of the Native American Indian reservations in the midwest. As Duane Champagne explained in a recent article on the Indian Country Today website:

[In the 1970s, t]he EPA decided that tribal governments could regulate environmental programs and create environmental codes. At times, state governments wanted their own environmental standards to prevail in Indian country, but the EPA supported tribal governments. The EPA wanted the tribal governments to have the opportunity to manage their reservation environments in ways and with standards that were informed by tribal cultural traditions.

With legal, bureaucratic, and legislative support of the EPA, tribal governments won a series of significant cases and challenges. In the 1980s, the EPA introduced the view that tribal governments could be treated as having powers similar to state-governments for purposes of environmental programming, legal codification, and setting environmental standards.

Unfortunately, with an EPA crippled by legislation that shifts more and more responsibility to state governments, Native American tribal governments are losing the political clout they need to ensure policies for clean air and water and other environmental protections on their own lands. Champagne reports that without EPA support, no tribal government has ever managed to win a court case in which they had to prove that state policies threatened the well-being of tribal life.

Government Officials Censor Scientists in Texas

The belief that the consequences of economic and environmental policies are limited to their immediate communities flies in the face of basic economic theory in which consumers and businesses alike participate in a complex web of social and economic pressures stretching from the local to the global in scope and influence. But it also rejects the findings of modern environmental science which suggests that the interwoven relationship of organisms, bioregions and ecosystems across the planet is infinitely more complex.

So it’s hardly surprising, though no less shocking, that government officials in Texas have been exposed for doctoring an environmental report by removing all references to climate change, sea-level rise and wetlands destruction.

Officials in Rick Perry’s home state of Texas have set off a scientists’ revolt after purging mentions of climate change and sea-level rise from what was supposed to be a landmark environmental report. The scientists said they were disowning the report on the state of Galveston Bay because of political interference and censorship from Perry appointees at the state’s environmental agency.

By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. “None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed,” said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Centre.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for the censorship and whose Perry-appointed leadership includes known climate change deniers, defended its actions in an emailed statement from spokesperson Andrea Morrow, who said that “information was included in a report that we disagree with” and that it would have been irresponsible for the agency to publish scientifically peer-reviewed research that was “inconsistent with current agency policy.”

The actions of Texas government officials is just the latest in the growing politicization of climate science in the United States, where censorship, threats of dismissal and even attempts at legal prosecution have been directed at scientists who openly criticize climate change deniers. Physicist Robert Davies, a scientist who experienced such intimidation techniques firsthand, worries that censorship and bullying are having a “chilling effect” on the state of climate science. “We do have very accomplished scientists,” he said, “who are quite fearful of retribution from lawmakers, and who consequently refuse to speak up on this very important topic. [...] By employing these intimidation tactics, these policymakers are, in fact, successful in censoring the message coming from the very institutions whose expertise we need.”

Environmental Activists Occupy Earth

Climate scientists are not the only ones feeling uncomfortable in the grip of corporate interests and government corruption. This Saturday, October 15, marks the four week anniversary since the beginning of the #OccupyWallSt movement which took root in a New York City park last month, inspired by public outrage over sky-rocketing corporate profits in the face of continuing unemployment and record low wages for the vast majority of American workers. Despite lack of media coverage, protests in solidarity with the movement have continued to grow all over the country, from Boston to Denver to Seattle, and this weekend more than 950 cities in 82 countries will host protests of their own in support of #OccupyWallSt’s message (including Pittsburgh).

Environmentalists concerned about the complicity of government agencies in corporate exploitation of the environment for the sake of record high profits see the #OccupyWallSt movement as an opportunity to speak out and gain the attention of an angry public who shares some common goals.

[Activist and environmentalist Bill] McKibben (who is also an OnEarth contributing editor) had come to drum up awareness among the occupiers about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ferry dirty crude from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, creating a serious danger to communities and drinking supplies along the way, as well as the global climate. That very day, The New York Times had reported that the State Department had outsourced an environmental impact study of the pipeline to a firm that had long been cozy with the oil industry. (Or, as McKibben bluntly summarized in his teach-in, “The whole thing was rigged.”) The timing of the disclosure could not have been more auspicious: Here was documented proof of how the one percent bend the political system to the detriment of the other 99.

Also attending the protests was Phil Aroneanu, co-founder of the climate change advocacy group 350.org, who explained to occupiers why he was there: “The reason that we haven’t had any change on climate change is because coal companies, gas companies, oil companies, and their Wall Street financiers have rigged the system and bought out our politicians.”

These environmental activists agree enthusiastically with other political advocacy groups and protesters participating in #OccupyWallSt that at the heart of the environmental and economic crisis in this country is the marriage of money and politics.

Phil Aroneanu pointed out [that] when environmental nonprofits lobby against the interests of polluters and industry, the playing field is never level. “On the climate bill, the environmental groups spent more money than they’ve ever spent before, and they still got outspent eight-to-one by corporate interests,” he said. “The cards are stacked way against groups that are trying to bring progressive change in this country. So I don’t think you’d hear a lot of complaints [from environmentalists] if you decided to remove money from politics. Activist groups are way better at organizing people than they are at raising money.”

Another environmental activist Julien Harrison also laid the blame for environmental destruction at Wall Street’s doorstep, while speaking in favor of solidarity on a variety of social justice issues. “If you’re an environmentalist, you should also be concerned about these issues of democracy, of equality, of political corruption. All of our struggles ultimately are connected. Our success lies in us coming together.”

Pagans Speak Out for Interconnection

It is this struggle to disentangle money and politics at the highest levels of government while also recognizing the interconnection of ecology, economy and government in American society that lies at the heart of this weeks’ headlines. The interconnection between individual and community is a social reality that echoes an ecological reality in which organisms and ecosystems participate together in an ever-cycling dance of survival, scarcity and fecundity. For many Pagans living in the United States, known for its cultural values of rugged independence and economic and political freedoms, reconciling individual rights with the unique needs of local, national and global communities is not only a political challenge, but a spiritual one.

In a post earlier this week, T Thorn Coyle shared her reflections on the #OccupyWallSt movement and her youth as an anarcho-feminist working on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange.

I recall one man who treated me well, recognized my intelligence and was amused by my blue, flattop mohawk and motorcycle boots, who’s face grew purple with frustration when I refused to buy South African Krugerrands in that mid-1980s Apartheid time. Word spread like wildfire around the trading floor and the one African American trader came up to shake my hand and thank me. On another day one trader quite proudly stated to me, “Commerce should be free of politics” when I, at nineteen, knew that was impossible and argued so. Commerce and politics were inextricably linked, but we humans, in our quest for clean compartmentalization, tried to pretend it was not so.

That commerce and politics, ecology and economy, are interwoven threads of our shared community is undeniable. As Republican presidential candidates campaign across the country, the message they seem to promote most enthusiastically is that economic success and environmental regulation are inherently at odds with one another. Theirs is a story of isolated and irreconcilable competing interests. Pagan Democratic candidate Aldous Tyler shares a different message, describing himself as a “spiritual interconnectivist” and calling for a political philosophy based on basic respect and equality for all people, not corporations:

The Dems are playing good cop to the GOP’s bad cop, [Tyler said]. President Obama halted EPA regulations that were ready to go and Congress had no say. He halted them supposedly because keeping the regulations would harm the ability to create jobs. This is a move straight from Eric Cantor’s playbook – that environment conflicts with ability to create jobs even though that’s been proven untrue.

Founded under a Republican president and inspired by the political strategy of cooperative Federalism (which stresses “cooperation among federal and state agencies, and more access to local communities for voice and participation in planning and decision making”), the Environmental Protection Agency flourished for a time with bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats. Today both parties, backed by powerful corporate constituents, distance themselves from practical environmental action at the federal level. Duane Champagne remembers a time when “the EPA worked toward its own national goals, but saw that partnerships with and recognition of tribal self-government powers complemented and implemented plans for cleaner and healthier national and tribal environments.”

Small communities worked to take effective action to ensure healthy local ecosystems and clean, safe natural resources, supported by the efforts of the federal government on a national scale. Those were the days. The question remains if we can return to a political climate in which cooperation rather than competition, and interconnection instead of isolation, guide policy-makers and voters alike as they seek to grapple with the complex issues of living in balance with the planet and each other.

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3 Responses

  1. I really liked your original question. How can pagans balance the right of the individual with the community? I feel this is one of the most important questions on the forefront of our path. The sixties, seventies, and eighties promoted and sold to solitaires because this was the way it was. Now, after protests and rights earned in the nineties we have a NEW generation of pagans and a new century to live in. If we still promote the individual solitaire over groves, circles, covens, co-ops, pagan churches, then we will never become organized or really have a community. There has to be a way to be able to do both, and there is Clergy do it every day. Highpriests and Highpriestesses have to do it…you have your own spiritual life and a community life. This is the future, if pagans do not reach out, and plug in with others like themselves laying aside differences then there is NO community.

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