It’s easy to get discouraged or demoralized as an environmentalist in today’s world. It seems like every day brings more devastating news. Half of the world’s wildlife has died in my parents’ lifetime, and current rates of extinction may be up to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate. We’re losing a terrifying number of birds and insects, and a million species are considered threatened or endangered. Things are bad enough that “eco anxiety” is now a recognized mental health condition.
It is said that in the environmental movement, all of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent. Much of the current focus of environmental advocacy has been described as “playing against the slaughter rule,” hoping not to win but to avoid getting totally wiped out in our inevitable loss.
In the face of all this, I’m often asked how I can remain so optimistic, and so motivated to keep working. Some people are surprised to learn that a large part of my answer comes from my Jewish faith.
While the Republican presidential candidates threaten to dissolve the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level, struggles at the state and local levels show building blocks to such an action were stacking for years.
When asked who is primarily responsible for protecting water quality, many citizens in North Carolina respond “don’t we have a department of water quality for that?”. Those citizens are not wrong, but they are placing a large suite of issues on the shoulders of a single agency. And that agency is losing funding and staff.
Defining responsibility for water quality starts with defining the term. As anyone who has thought about water quality and habitat issues knows well, it’s not as simple as dipping a thermometer in a stream to determine water health. Aquatic ecosystems don’t run a fever when there’s something wrong; issues are far more subtle than that.
When asked to define water quality, a leader at the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) who does not want to be quoted by name, stated:
“We try to prevent pollution from affecting our streams and rivers so that we can enjoy them for recreation, we can enjoy them for drinking water purposes, the fish can survive in them … water quality is that which enables all the uses to be continued to be made of those water bodies.”
For the agency in charge of protecting water quality, traditional uses serve as indicators of the water’s health. Note the definition’s focus on pollution prevention as the means to protect these various uses. Read More
I recently heard an excellent quote about conservation issues. The source of this quote is, of all people, my new home state’s embattled Governor. Mark Sanford, prior to his “hiking the Appalachian Trail” scandal, was a well-respected small government conservative. During a speech about his views, he stated that “the issue of environmental conservation sits squarely on the battle line between government and liberty.”
I really believe that, and too few other environmentalists seem to agree. Although we usually have the best of intentions, every time we make a new conservation policy, the government is telling citizens that they can’t do something. Every time the government tells citizens that we can’t do something, we all lose a little freedom.
I’m certainly not advocating that we stop making new policies to protect the environment. All I’m saying is that it would be nice if more people recognized the human impact of some of these policies instead of demonizing people like fisherman and developers.