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Conservation realities in the '90s.

As I gaze into conservation's crystal ball, I see still more posturing than real progress in the years ahead. I'd like to believe that increasing numbers of politicians understand how important environmental issues are. What I hear instead are candidates making brave speeches about the environment, but doing little or nothing once they're elected. Like the advertising consultants who help put them in office, politicians act as though describing a problem is the same thing as solving it. Since most voters apparently don't feel it's fair to hold a politician accountable for his campaign pledges, the environment continues to deteriorate.

My crystal ball shows still more massive oil spills occurring before we begin to question our dependence on fossil fuels, the price of which cannot be reckoned solely on the basis of extraction, transportation, and refinement costs. My crystal ball also reveals more extreme weather before meteorologists acknowledge that these "atypical patterns" are linked to man's helterskelter impacts on the environment. Saddest of all because it is most easily remedied, my fortune teller's ball shows millions more acres of tropical forest destroyed with countless numbers of unknown species lost before major international positions are taken to end this ecological mayhem.

Conservationists today feel the sort of frustration that Churchillian conservatives did during the 1930s: We know that catastrophes of global dimensions are looming- we know that effective leaders are desperately needed to counter widespread inertia and ignorance- but with complacency the prevailing mood, we drift closer, week by week, to worst-case scenarios.

In the 1930s, no one could say for certain whether Italian aggression in Ethiopia, civil war in Spain, the Japanese invasion of China, or another of the many armed confrontations of the decade would be the spark to set the world on fire. But Churchillian conservatives knew that a strong and willing alliance of fair-minded nations was desperately needed to stop the carnage and looting. Without such a determined alliance, no one with the least knowledge of history doubted that the steady striking of military steel against the flint of national pride would eventually cause war over most of the globe.

Likewise, no one can say for certain today whether deforestation, desertification, atmospheric degradation, oceanic pollution, global warming, or some combination of these will be the triggering mechanism to overrule the earth's equilibrium. Conservationists know that we still have a chance to reverse global deterioration if only our political leaders will cooperate to create humane solutions for mankind's runaway population growth. No one with the least knowledge of nature doubts that so long as humanity continues propagating at a net increase exceeding 10,000 people per hour, civilization itself is at risk.

One shouldn't confuse this risk with the question of whether our species will survive. Barring nuclear war, it almost certainly will. But that's not the issue. From the beginning of the 19th century and the start of the Industrial Revolution, the fundamental question for Homo sapiens has been, how many people can the earth support and at what standard of living?

Scientific inquiry and political debate everywhere should be directed toward answering that question before nature herself-never one to abide by deficit spending-answers it for us. Indeed, in increasing areas of the world, nature is already calling in her IOUs in the form of perennial civil strife and famine.

Yet just as Churchill never lost his faith that the good and necessary fight could be won, conservationists today must not allow the immensity of our many challenges to demoralize us. We must, However, learn to distinguish fair-weather friends from those far fewer but more dependable souls willing and able to roll up their sleeves to get the job done.

Many former allies are now part of the problem. The growing preoccupation with credentials and conservation dogma among natural scientists and technicians has led to the cancerous growth of too many environmental hierarchies -nongovernmental as well as governmental-more concerned with protecting the well-being of those within the system than with protecting the resources the bureaucracies were founded to perpetuate.

These agencies' and organizations' "educational materials" and "press releases" are intended only to pacify or to enhance donations, not to stir the troops to political action. The public's initiative is sapped by patronizing suggestions that conservation is too complex for ordinary people to comprehend. " Leave it to us experts" is the increasingly heard and subtly debilitating refrain.

Too many nongovernmental conservation organizations have become mere money pumps whose executives sink into the same sort of comfortable lethargy they were supposed to prevent among their peers in the public sector. The cat has become as fat and lazy as the mice, and the dog (the press), which should harry the cat, has grown equally fat and lazy. The second half of H. L. Mencken's advice to his colleaguesto comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable" has been lost beneath mergers, monopolies, and advertising revenues.

The good news in the 20 years since the first Earth Day is that as soon as anyone comprehends what conservation's all about, he or she becomes a convert. The bad news is that most Americans, including many who call themselves conservationists, don't yet see that this philosophy is not merely a matter of good deeds, but an essential part of any lasting social system. So long as conservation continues to be treated as a kind of sectarian religion with an occasional visit to the recycling center equivalent to occasional visits to church, conservationists will continue to play only secondary roles in the so called "real world" of business and industry.

Picking up litter, recycling waste, and turning off unessential lights are about the extent of what the ordinary citizen is expected to do "for the environment." That's not much. And when recycling centers turn away people with newspapers, plastic bottles, or aluminum foil because it's still cheaper to cut forests, drill oil, and mine bauxite; or when an energy-efficient person reads advice from his utility companv to keep his air conditioners going when he's on holiday to discourage burglars, is it any wonder the conscientious minority feels overwhelmed by the business-as-usual majority?

An especially worrisome trend in recent years involves scientists who duck moral issues because they lack numbers to hide behind. American fishermen in the North Pacific, for example, catch and sell millions of tons of pollack and cod annually to Japanese processing ships, which proceed to strip the highpriced roe from the bellies of the fish and throw the perfectly edible carcasses overboard.

Most fishermen and all conservationists want to stop this obscene waste. Since most of the fishing occurs within America's 200-mile economic zone, concerned citizens petitioned the Secretary of Commerce for relief. He passed the buck to a panel of scientists who reported that since it "was unable to access the moral or aesthetic concerns associated with the dumping of carcasses, and since neither the pollack nor cod were in apparent danger of extinction, the scientists would not endorse the proposed ban on roe stripping, because "no biological or economic benefit could be documented" for such a ban.

This is the moral equivalent of physicians in the 1930s who apologized for the medical experiments made on otherwise healthy human beings by Nazi colleagues. "It's not against the law" was their explanation. In more modern times, scientific ignorance itself is given as the reason for ethical failure. "I don't have sufficient data about"-fill in the blank: overfishing the oceans, the destruction of rainforests, acid rain, et cetera-to take a position against these trends.

"We are," the scientists in essence say, "moral eunuchs. "

Politicians profit by such ambiguity by slipping off their own moral hooks. They strike deals with polluting industries or give support to environmentally disastrous but scientifically neutral policies. Such administrators are the Neville Chamberlains of our time, more ready to grasp at worthless pieces of paper than to maintain conservation's position on the moral high ground.

In the climactic moment of Morris West's The Shoes of the Fisherman, the fictional' Pope pledges the wealth of the Catholic Church to feed the hungry of China to prevent a global war. Conservationists realize, of course, that such a gesture is only a stopgap measure, for not all the wealth of Chiristendom can do more than temporarily satisfy the hunger of a humanity multiplying at a rate exceeding 250,000 people every 24 hours. What the Pope's gesture does accomplish in the context of the novel, however, is to restore moral leadership to the Church after centuries of petty squabbling and the persecution of those who blinked at its dogma.

Soviet and Eastern European leaders have recently seized similar political high ground. This is not to say that Communism has been vindicated. Quite the contrary. The willingness, however, of Communist bureaucrats to confess the errors of their planned economic ways, and even to resign and allow new governments to be formed, has shifted the burden of proof from East to West as to which side really responds to the will of the people.

While there are few comparably monumental gestures that conservationists can make, it is well that we remember Aldo Leopold's observation that progress has never come from institutions, but from individuals. One such individual is Tom Lovejoy, a dynamic ecologist who sits on the board of the Manhattan Life Insurance Company as well as being Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a position created especially for his combination of talents and energy. He has access to many of the world's political and financial leaders and has used that access to gain acceptance for a notion which first occurred to him 13 years ago. Every day some 18,000 acres of tropical forest in the world disappear. Most conservation executives either wring their hands in despair at this or use the facts of the devastation to raise money for purposes unrelated to the crisis. By contrast, Lovejoy worked out an elaborate but effective scheme that goes something like this:

A consortium of national and international conservation agencies raise (blank) million dollars. They give the money to a nongovernmental conservation group in country X in order to purchase part of that nation's international debt. (Ten to 20 cents on the dollar is the average exchange price.) The debtor nation's central bank agrees to swap the purchased debt for secure, high-interest-yielding bonds valued at 75 to 80 percent of the original value of the debt. The central bank puts the money into private banks where conservationists use the bonds as collateral to borrow local currency to acquire threatened ecosystems. The bonds meanwhile earn interest. As they mature, they help repay the local loans. Country X writes off some of its international debt, the banks to which it owes money get back some of their cash, and an evergrowing number of acres of species-rich land is saved.

That's all well and good, you say, for people in high places. But what can I do: a young person just starting out, or a retiree on a fixed pension?

The answer may lie no farther away than your sidewalk. The American Forestry Association has initiated a Global ReLeaf program, the second mandate of which includes counting "the missing trees in your neighborhood" and contacting your municipal forester or arborist to "see to it that the trees are replaced. "

AFA members are particularly well suited by education and inclination to serve as nongovernmental monitors of public lands policy. There is more than ample mismanagement of our National Forests, for example, to warrant the formation of local citizen oversight committees to keep the federal bureaucrats and private contractors in line. AFA has many retirees with special forestry skills which their former employers never used, either because the employees' work was unrelated to forestry management or, sometimes, because the skilled person was purposely discouraged from speaking out. Why shouldn't AFA members living in a given area form a chapter to adopt a local National Forest the same way that others adopt public highways and city parks?

The trouble with many "friends" groups is that they're composed of people so thrilled to belong that they avoid the hard decisions that might make them unpopular. The glory of retiree participation is that many older people are beyond those stages of life when a person cares more about what others think than about doing what's right. Instead of retirement being only a kind of preparation for the Big Sleep, increasing numbers of retirees are fighting the good fight with superior knowledge, determination, and a revitalized sense of social responsibility-and they will probably live longer because of it.

Bureaucrats resist such amateur interference," but other, wiser administrators welcome the support of concerned citizens in the public's perennial battles with shysters, thieves, and political appointees who would make personal fortunes from the nation's common wealth. A political-action "friends group" is the best possible custodian of a true multiple-use policy in our National Forests.

Democracy was badly battered in the 1930s, but it survived. Our global environment will continue to be battered in the 1990s, but it, too, will survive. The quality of that survival, however, is in the hands of ordinary people like you and me. We can either crouch in fear before the future or stand up and be counted. Since the only regrets people have are those things we didn't do, why have any regrets at all? AF
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Title Annotation:environmental issues
Author:Reiger, George
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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