Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Minnesota's environment: "nothing less is at stake than everything"

I was accused - amicably - of entering this blog with a manifesto clutched in my earth-stained hands. Dennis Anderson, in his recent Star Tribune article on the status of conservation funding and efforts in Minnesota, brought that manifesto home to the state. He blasted local politicians for ignorance and general mishandling of environmental issues, but some of the harshest criticism was reserved for the weak-kneed approach of some local conservation groups. "Conservation is and always has been a contact sport" and those working to conserve the incredible natural history of Minnesota must be willing to fight as such.

He also called for a wholesale redefinition of conservation in Minnesota, and pointed out that the faults of those in power likely reflect the faults of those whose who voted for them. Indeed, he described a "matrix" of elements in our human society that have lead to both a) the need for conservation efforts and b) the current failures of such efforts.

Anderson closed by saying:

"The challenge, bit by bit, year by year, is to change this matrix - at the Legislature, in publishing and broadcasting, and among Minnesotans at large."

"In the case of the state's lakes, rivers, forests, prairies - and us - nothing less is at stake than everything."

What he described were the symptoms of merely and strictly 'politicizing' environmental awareness. If all those players - senators, representatives, citizens, maybe even the conservation groups - considered and understood our environment in an immediate, personal fashion, before considering and understanding it in a removed, political fashion, Anderson would not have to decry the relegation of conservation in Minnesota.


Ilya said...

You undertake again to shore up the distinction between personal and political environmental awareness. But it's unclear what is at stake in this distinction. You are not against the idea that conservationists must learn how to play the game of politics. You seem to suggest that since ordinary voters determine those officials who will make policy, the beliefs of ordinary voters are the source of the problem and only solution. If only we cared, then we would demand more from our government in the way of environmental protection.

But the irony is that today, the environment seems to have more "friends" than ever before. From regular recyclers to environmental-conscious consumers, "awareness" of the impact of our everyday lives on the environment seems to be at an all time high. And yet, for all those people buying products made in environemtnal-friendly ways, and driving hybrid cars, the environment continues to be despoiled. Maybe this sort of awareness is "removed" rather than "immediate." In any case, we seem not to be lacking in general awareness of the fragility of the environment. What we lack instead is ambitious, collective, practical, political efforts aimed at its conservation.

A Green Cowboy said...

You called me out, accurately, in my first post: environmentalism does have to be played out in the arena of politics. The distinction I am trying to make is this: instead of environmentalism being only a political issue, it has to be a personal issue that is given appropriate gravity first (the gravity of something in which "everything" is at stake). From there, it can be carried into the political arena - by everyone, and in relation to other political issues. This is in opposition to the current framework, which makes environmentalism a special interest, valued only by certain parties.

And while I agree that environmental awareness seems to be at an all-time high, frankly, that's not good enough. I still don't think our society actually understands the "fragility" of the environment. It's a process, for sure, and progress is being made, but just because public places have aluminum can recycling receptacles doesn't mean society has achieved a full environmental understanding.

You said: "What we lack instead is ambitious, collective, practical, political efforts aimed at its conservation." Why do we lack that? Again, I suggest this is because environmentalism is seen as a special interest. Politically, only certain lobbyists (NGOs etc) are fighting for environmentalist values - just like only tobacco lobbyists are fighting for the tobacco companies, only insurance lobbyists are fighting for the insurance companies, etc. An oversimplified picture, but it sticks to my main point: the problem is that environmentalism is viewed as a special interest. Rather, it needs to be a fundamental value that everyone takes into account when considering other special interests.

Was this just a rabid misuse of the term "special interest?"

Ilya said...

No, it wasn't a misuse of the term "special interest." It was, in fact, clarifying of the way you have been using the concepts of private and public. By saying you want the environment to be a private concern, what you mean is that it should be taken out of the realm of special interest and rendered a general interest. Since you, like so many people, identify politics with struggles between special interests, and because you want to make the environment a universal issue, hence your wish to de-politicize the issue, to frame it as an issue above or beyond or below politics that affects us all.

There is nothing strange about this. I hear it all the time. E.g., "This [security, environment, education, etc.] is not about politics, it should not be political, let's set politics aside and do what is best for everyone." But this is just another ideological-political tactic to realize one's interests.

I haven't thought through the consequences of this increasingly predominant view of politics as the realm of special interests. Have people become wise to the fact that what purports to be the general interest is really not? Is there such a thing as a non-special, general or universal interest?

PiedPiper said...

Deep, Ilya. Really deep.

A Green Cowboy said...

It doesn't get much more "general interest" than the environment. Every person, everywhere, is affected and has the ability to affect the environment.

Before there is a person to be educated, before there is a nation to be defended - there has to be soil, water, air, and life. No one, anywhere, gets to live the least bit outside of this context.

Do I sound like a radical yet? Because I find it frustrating that I sometimes do, when all I am doing is echoing the common-sense philosophies expressed by many indigenous cultures, natural historians, and modern ecologists.

A Green Cowboy said...

Oops - one other thing - the ultimate goal of the environmentalist viewpoint would not be to "do what is best for everyone" as Ilya says but rather to do what is best for the environment. I think that is a crucial difference. The well-being of humanity is just one of the goals, not THE goal.

Ilya said...

I only want to question the idea that the environment is by definition a general interest. To be sure, to maintain bare life, humans require certain resources, like air and food, without which they would not be able to pursue cultural activities. In this sense everyone is affected by the environment. And many people can barely maintain their life because they lack clean water and secure food supplies, etc. But in highly developed countries, where the minimum biological needs are more or less fulfilled, people aim not just to live, but to live well. And it is in the context of undertaking to live well that "environmental values" should come into play. And in this context, "everything" of value is not exhausted by environmental concerns, but includes concerns such as security, freedom, etc., which have to be reconciled with many other concerns. Which is only to say that while the subject of the environment should be given its appropriate gravity, it is a relative and not an absolute good. And calls for more regulation or conservation will always fall on deaf ears as long as they are not advanced with much sensitivity to the political problem of reconciling such an interest with the pursuit of other goods.

I doubt you disagree and look forward to complexifying this subject further.

Ilya said...

Also, the division between the well-being of humans and of the environment plunges us into the heart of the debate over how to conceive of the relationship between nature and human nature, as you well know. One view contends that nature can be a valuable resource, but it is we humans who value it as such. And it can be judged to be intrisically valuable, but only in relation to human beings. This view, in which nature is valuable because of the value of human nature, does not seem to be close to your view.

Your view seems to be that nature is valuable in itself, that there are certain values within nature itself. If so, it is unclear what notion of human nature is to be derived from this view, and how humans should act vis-a-vis nature.