by Caroline D’Angelo
September 13, 2011
**the views of the author are her own and should not be construed as the views of Wharton or the University of Pennsylvania**
Looking at the current political landscape, a conservationist can easily get discouraged. Congress has recently glutted many environmental regulations through a reduced budget and additional riders. Almost all of the current Republican presidential candidates think global warming is a myth, with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann being among the most vocal. There are calls to abolish the EPA as it is an example of federal “regulatory assault“; despite the fact that the health and productivity benefits from EPA regulations outweigh their costs. Far from being a money-drain, EPA’s 2010 budget request was ~$10billion, which as Beth Wellington of the Guardian put it, is less than one request from the Department of Defense for new planes.
This glutting of environmental legislation and funding is happening even though businesses are calling on politicians to protect and expand environmental safeguards and the general public supports environmental regulations.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in the environmental movement. One hundred years ago, there was a prolonged fight in Congress about forest protections that ultimately resulted in the Weeks Act of 1911. The Weeks Act created national forests in the East and allowed the federal government the power to purchase private lands for conservation purposes. The White Mountains of New Hampshire and the southern forests in the Appalachians gained protection from the Act. Part of the public outcry that led to their protection was from tourists to the region, as well as conservationists, scientists and health groups. The eastern United States was largely denuded and clear-cut by the middle of the 1800s, leading to floods and decreased water quality. Some states did not wait for federal leadership and took it upon themselves to protect their forests; New York established the Adirondack preserve, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania created their own headwater protection parks.
More than 40 bills were introduced in Congress from 1901-1911 on forest protection, all were rejected. Some Western senators resented funding conservation in the East, while others objected to government powers expanding to include private land purchase. There were also voices like the national weather bureau chief Willis L. Moore, who provoked national debate in newspapers and in Congress by using pseudo-science and illogical conclusions from limited observations to declare that forests had no effect on floods. Most scientists in the US and Europe had already accepted that forests helped to regulate the release of water, and thus had a controlling effect on floods… does this sound familiar? The use of ‘scientific debate’ to halt environmental legislation has been around for more than 100 years.
The keys to the Weeks Act’s passage lay in strong leadership and business acumen. Senator John Weeks, R-Mass, was a popular businessman who used the ‘navigable waters‘ part of the Commerce Clause to justify the Act. Forest protection, he argued, ensured clean, controlled and sufficient waterways for commerce, as well as clean water for drinking. Moreover, the Act ensured sustainable use of a natural resource – wood. Speaker of the House Joe Cannon originally asserted that there should be “not one cent“ allotted of the budget for scenery; he supported the bill given its focus on business and resource protection. Also important was that Theodore Roosevelt was President for much of the decade leading up to the Act. President Roosevelt convened conventions, meetings and tirelessly stumped for conversation, including forest protections. Another strong public character was Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service. Pinchot was not a non-controversial figure (he argued with John Muir, timber companies, Congress, etc. and eventually was fired by President Taft for insubordination), but he battled repeatedly for the protection of forests. He was well-respected as a conservation hero. There were also the numerous organizations that sprung up to lobby for the protection of forests; the Appalachian Mountain Club, American Forestry Association, National Conservation Association, the Boone and Crockett Club, the Appalachian National Park Association, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, among others.
Today we have incredible organizations as well; from small neighborhood and city level environmental organizations like Fair Food and Friends of the Wissahickon to international policy and science organizations like the National Wildlife Federation to the Pacific Institute, there are dedicated people across the environmental movement. There are innovators who are attempting to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems with technology old and new, policy, and education. We lack however, the political will. Currently, the anti-science and anti-regulation contingent in government lack equally powerful opponents. We do not have the charismatic Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchots or John Weeks.
Perhaps what most differentiates the political environment today from the one a hundred years ago is the complexity of the problem. The global population has exploded, chemicals in our every day lives have proliferated, and science has expanded. Climate change is something we cannot see as easily as a denuded landscape, nor is it as ‘easily’ fixed. Thankfully, there is leadership coming from multi-stakeholder agreements like the UN Global Compact, certifying bodies like Global Reporting Initiative, and from NGO-business collaborations like the Nature Conservancy and Bank of America. Businesses like SAP and Patagonia are increasingly taking it upon themselves to conserve as a key part of their competitive strategy and corporate culture. Corporate efforts are commendable and necessary. Conservation, environmental regulation, and preservation, however, require federal and state efforts as well. There are more environmental regulations today due to the complexity of living than the Congress of 100 years ago could have ever dreamed of. While surely revisions and adaptations are necessary for any body of law, one can only hope that environmental naysayers will be eventually overwhelmed by public outcry and leaders within government as they were 100 years ago.