By Michael Lanza
How’s it feel to be a conservationist in America today? Does it feel like people who want the government to protect the environment—which is a large majority of Americans—suddenly find themselves losing a war that it seemed we had already won?
These are strange and frustrating times for conservation. We have to wonder: How could so many Americans believe that climate science is bogus—or even a “hoax,” as a certain world leader calls it? How could so many of our countrymen and women applaud as the current White House takes an axe to the agency created four decades ago to protect the very environment we live in? Or buy into the corrupt notion that ceding control of our prized public lands to private interests could, in any way, be in our public interest?
And where do we go from here?
Somewhere along the line, logic got turned on its head. We need to stand it upright again—and we can.
The good news is that while we are, in many ways, mired in a war for the future not only of conservation but for the nation’s values—not to mention human civilization—environmentalists do have a much larger army than the opposition. Gallup reported in March 2018 that “62 percent of Americans say government is doing too little on the environment,” the highest that number has been since 2006.
The same poll found overwhelming majorities want more public investment in renewable energy, higher pollution and auto-emissions standards, and stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. Seven in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening and six in 10 want the government to do something about it.
But the anti-environmental movement is very well funded—with the climate-change misinformation campaign led by the fossil-fuel industry and related special interests—and has massed its troops in elected positions from Congress to state capitols and local offices.
They are dismantling the protections created over decades to ensure that Americans can breathe clean air and drink clean water, and protect endangered species. They are working to undermine the international effort to combat climate change. They are abetted in their self-serving scheme by a president who embraces no ideology beyond self-aggrandizement, and who has mastered the dark art of sowing division and discord through stoking the fires of fear and hate—all in the service of increasing his own profit and power. And he is enabled by a congressional majority willing to deploy un-American tactics to achieve their goals, like actively preventing some citizens from voting, and extreme gerrymandering of districts so that politicians get to select their voters rather than the other way around.
Among many moves to roll back progress on climate change, the Trump administration has taken steps to allow increased emissions of methane—one of the most powerful greenhouse gases—to weaken car pollution rules, and to let states set their own rules on coal emissions (or no rules at all). The administration hires ex-lawyers and lobbyists for polluting industries to regulate those industries—the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. Trump’s Interior Department under Director Ryan Zinke has rescinded an Obama-era policy requiring that national parks management be based in science.
This NY Times story lists 76 environmental rules Trump is throwing out, and concludes: “All told, the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks could lead to at least 80,000 extra deaths per decade and cause respiratory problems for more than one million people.” That story goes on to quote a Harvard expert saying that number is likely to be “a major underestimate of the global public health impact.”
This is what an all-out war on the environment looks like. It’s enough to really piss you off, right?
Climate change constitutes, literally and figuratively, a steadily rising tide that threatens to overwhelm civilization. The science not only continues to affirm this reality, it strongly suggests that we are on a faster trajectory toward increasingly severe consequences than previously thought.
Read about how climate change is affecting our national parks in my book
Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned recently that we have until 2030 to slash carbon emissions by 45 percent, and until 2050 to eliminate all carbon emissions. Otherwise, we condemn our children, grandchildren, and generations for centuries to life on a planet undergoing catastrophic climate change.
Many of us followed a long path through the outdoors that led us into conservation. We are motivated by a love of hiking, climbing, fishing, backpacking, skiing, paddling, hunting, birding, and other pastimes that have given us some of the most inspirational and joyful moments in our lives. Pull back the covers on the phrase “conservation movement” and you simply find people who share simple, common values: protecting places in nature that give us a rejuvenating connection to our humanity, and maintaining a world environment in which humans can thrive and live healthy lives.
History will recall this era as a dark time when some leaders showed a ruthless and shameless willingness to destroy the planetary environment that sustains life as humans have always known it.
But we have the opportunity to ultimately record this period as the time that the conservation movement became reinvigorated and rose to the challenges we face today. Many organizations and individuals are engaged and committed to this mission. The technology exists to accomplish this; we need only the political will, and that begins with each of us.
Here are some ideas for getting back on the right track.
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No. 1 Vote in Every Election
Voting represents the bare minimum effort we are all asked to make as citizens of what has been and could still be—if we’re ready to save it—the nation that leads the free world.
Voting is not a big ask. It’s not a heavy lift. In fact, we should all participate in the democratic process more deeply than merely voting.
We should certainly seek to inform ourselves thoroughly through a variety of legitimate sources in the media and elsewhere. Knowledge and accurate information offer the best protection against the demagogues, charlatans, and liars who employ today’s vast array of communication tools to foment the fear, intolerance, and hate that seem to motivate so many voters now. We don’t need impenetrable walls along our borders—we need virtual windows onto our entire world, through which we can see everything more clearly.
Just as we have a choice in how we drive a vehicle—we can drive it intelligently and with care and caution, or steer it over a cliff—we can use the infinite resources available at our fingertips today to make ourselves better-informed citizens, rather than pawns of the purveyors of misinformation.
But voting is step one on the stairway of democracy. And yet, millions of Americans do not vote—they do not contribute the bare minimum effort as a member of a democracy. Some, including young people and populations already marginalized, only vote occasionally, typically in presidential elections, skipping mid-terms that determine the crucial makeup of Congress and key state offices.
Think of it this way: There are 10 houses on your street, but only the owners of six of them make all the rules for the neighborhood, including how much you each pay to live there (and they charge others more than they charge themselves), because the owners of four houses don’t vote.
Sound like a good system?
If not, then get out and vote and urge everyone you know to do the same—especially anyone who’s never voted or does rarely, including young people. Tell anyone who complains about the cynicism in politics that they have the power to do something about it, beginning with their vote. If everyone eligible voter in America cast a ballot in every election, we’d be well on our way to having a functional democracy.
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No. 2 Choose to Live More Sustainably
Yes, it sometimes seems the solutions to climate change and other environmental problems lie far beyond our reach as individuals. But we can all do more to reduce personal waste and consumption, and that exerts a positive collective impact.
We can make choices about lifestyle and family and work circumstances that affect our waste and consumption. A few examples of many possible steps include reducing car trips and driving an economical vehicle, being more careful about electricity and water use, buying food grown and produced as close to your home as possible and planting a vegetable garden, recycling and reusing, and composting home organic waste. Larger steps like improving house insulation and converting to solar create expense up front but pay off over the long term.
The Center for Biological Diversity lists these 12 ways to live more sustainably, but you can easily find much more information on that subject. Some actions are big and costly, others have long-term, significant impacts and save you money.
But the best news about living more sustainably? Instead of making you pissed off, it can make you happier and healthier and improve your life. When I gave my wife a cruiser bicycle for Christmas a few years ago, her attitude toward biking rather than driving local trips swung 180 degrees. Now we frequently ride into town, which creates time together that’s far more enjoyable than driving in traffic and searching for parking—not to mention far better for our community.
No. 3 Get Off Your Butt
Actions speak louder than bitching on Facebook. If you’re truly pissed off, do something.
Volunteer for and donate to political candidates and campaigns you like and respect, who you believe can help our world—or your little part of it—rather than harm it. Or even run for office and be an agent for change.
Find organizations that do work you support and offer them your time and resources. Join a board; many groups are desperate for intelligent, committed volunteers who bring a variety of expertise to the table. I’m no genius, but for years I’ve served on volunteer boards and committees working on protecting and managing conservation and recreation lands, improving public education (smarter kids make smarter voters and citizens), and electing pro-conservation politicians. (I’m on the board of Conservation Voters for Idaho, which has resounding success electing green candidates in a very red state and deserves your support.)
Step up. You might be surprised at how many people would love to have whatever you can give.
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No. 4 Do What Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha Would Do
Religious leaders are increasingly joining the rising chorus of people who believe the world’s governments have a moral duty to protect the environment and take aggressive action to limit the severity of climate change.
In September 2017, Pope Francis and Orthodox Christian leader Patriarch Bartholomew called for a collective response from world leaders to climate change, saying the planet was deteriorating and vulnerable people were the first to be affected. Other religious organizations are investing directly in projects that protect the planet, such as renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and forest protection.
As well they should. Jesus said, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” The Prophet Muhammad said, “Conduct yourself in this world as if you are here to stay forever.” The Buddha said, “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
No. 5 Please, Don’t Give Up or Give In
It’s easy to feel defeated. It’s hard to make things better. And it’s not enough to just be pissed off. Consider how much is at stake. I’m reminded of that every day when I look at my kids.
There are many reasons to be optimistic for our future. I’m encouraged by the efforts of politicians at the state and local levels and businesses committed to a sensible future in an economy built upon clean energy—the only future. California has committed to meeting 100 percent of its energy needs by 2045. Thousands of cities, regional governments, investors, and corporations have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint, motivated in large part by Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the international Paris climate change agreement.
I am encouraged by the energy, intelligence, and determination of today’s young people. They don’t wallow in fear and despair. They aren’t mourning the planet’s future and lamenting that climate change seems so gigantic and daunting a problem that any action feels futile. They are acting. They are educating themselves. They are demanding leadership.
But those of us in the generations now running the show—who are responsible for much of this problem—have to hand them the tools to help them complete the most important work humanity has ever faced. We have to give them a fighting chance.
If we fail to right our ship, then we will deserve it when today’s children look at us in the fast-approaching future, as the oceans drown cities and starvation and political instability spawn refugee waves unlike anything we’ve ever seen in history, and ask, “What were you thinking?”
I’m reminded of three quotes that speak to the time we live in now. The first has been described as an Aboriginal proverb but also attributed to various sources: “We do not inherit the planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren.”
The second is a quote that has been attributed to the Irish philosopher, statesman, and parliamentarian Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Finally, we might all find inspiration in the words written by a young girl while she suffered through the worst evil the world has ever known. Anne Frank famously wrote: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
We have no other choice. We cannot fail, because failure now means giving up on hope.
Tell me what you think.
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Read about one great American adventure that’s possible today because of the conservation movement in my story “Why Conservation Matters: Rafting the Green River’s Gates of Lodore.”