A Definitive Fork in the Road
In the mailbag this morning, we have this letter from Steve Ulvi…
I have been unusually fortunate to have spent a lifetime finding deep fulfillment and direction for my troubled mind in expansive forests, on mountain slopes and coursing wild rivers. My youthful day dreaming, fueled by adventure stories before sleep, culminated in finding a home for several decades in northern Alaska where primordial nature astounds, deep time resonates and native people are still inseparable from their cultural homelands.
Eventually the great paradox of living in the north, escaping “the madding crowd” in 1974, was that the steady increase of annual warming was about twice as rapid as anywhere else and even worse in the arctic. In spite of that chosen experience , or more likely because of it, I find myself at a complete loss to understand our unabated destructive rampage as a species.
What is so troubling, looking in the rear view mirror of a life passing all too quickly, is the notion that when I awoke to environmental activism as a necessary outgrowth of disdain for the lifeways in sprawling suburbs, there was great social consciousness and energy toward fixing what was broken. One could wrap a small mind around what was often an understandable causation that could be stopped or slowed or regulated effectively, if enough people cared. Just roll up your sleeves, engage other citizens and take direct action in the street if need be. Could even stop a new dam or a terrible war. Anything seemed possible. Perhaps you recall that promising time.
In the same era, in stark contrast to today, the federal government, including conservative administrations, passed profound sweeping protective legislation like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the National Wilderness Act with bi-partisan majorities because the ramifications of growth and resource consumption were coming into ugly focus. But at that time I could not have known that these shifting social movements demanding greater protective measures for people and the natural world galvanized conservatives bent on gaining evermore wealth to form non-profit think tanks to promulgate public strategies that would confuse and divide the electorate to keep the riches flowing into their bank vaults for as long as possible.
Fast forward nearly 50 years and a few of the serious environmental dangers, like the ozone hole, poisoned Great Lakes, acid rain, urban rivers catching fire and nuclear above ground tests were fixed, more or less, with much fanfare. But the deep roots of our mindless inertia today were born in unbridled capitalism purposely undermining democracy: dark money in elections, a lack of congressional and state legislative term limits, insidious corporate lobbying, tax breaks for the wealthy and the distraction of complacent citizens obsessed with flashy goods and losing touch with 10,000 generations of nature-centered humility and restraint, that is latent within each of us.
This Anthropocene Era of the late Holocene Epoch (the last 11,500 years of post glaciation) is actually in consideration as a new line of geologic stratigraphy so marked are our global impacts. In relative terms, this Anthropocene is but a short paragraph in a thousands of pages of earth history, a mere moment in deep time, but perhaps as monumental as a flaming asteroid slamming into the Gulf of Mexico to end the 100 million year reign of huge reptiles. But this time created by us in just 220 years of burning fossil fuels from that same tropical period, without moral regard for nature or generations of humans just like us, yet unborn.
The litany of serious biotic failures rapidly unfolding, with physical and chemical feedback loops and trigger points not understood, are predictably dangerous enough each in their own right, but drastic alteration of the thin blanket of protective atmosphere of our lonely blue planet, constantly bombarded by solar radiation, promises the undoing of modern civilization and hundreds, if not many thousands of years of travail for all sensate beings who have yet to live. Yet we collectively twiddle and vote against our best collective interests, without moral compunction, as the billowing dark genie of greenhouse gas expands and the known lag time for undoing this terrible mistake multiplies.
We conflate our form of governance (representative democracy/republic) with our economic system (capitalism) despite the startling divergence of emphasis with regard for the human condition of these social organizational forms. We can only wish that democratic aspirations had always trumped capitalist self-interest.
No matter how finely you parse these lofty concepts, or define your own current world view, most important political decisions regulating and reinvesting our immense national wealth and power, behind smoke and mirrors or right in our faces, clearly favor a small minority of citizens and concentrate wealth to a degree that would warm the hearts of Robber Barons of the past. I hope that the powerful and wealthy who have, and continue to purposely circumvent the public interest in a reasonable secure future, in order to line their deep pockets will be known and derided as “The Unforgiveable” far into the dystopian future.
The fatal flaw of capitalism has always been in ignoring “negative externalities” (unaddressed bad consequences) in industrial development and production that rightly must be addressed in the initial cost of production. It is irrational (and economically inefficient) to allow privatization of profits while socializing deleterious impacts on citizens and the natural environs. The open collusion of government and powerful business interests is in servitude to capital and those who have it. How is it possible that shared clean air and water, essential for health and the community of life, continue to be subservient to capitalist profit-taking?
Representative government completely fails when it does not adequately control the destructive excesses of late-stage capitalism in order to protect inalienable human rights, ecosystem services and the public commons. Not to mention honoring the inherent rights of future generations and the unfathomably ancient biosphere in which we so recently evolved.
Any hope for future community resilience and some level of mitigation of the cascading impacts of severe climate disruption, festering social inequity and collapsing ecosystems, lies in the luck of geography and community self-determination. The key is a political willingness to actively harness and shape economic forces toward a locally sustainable community.
We enjoy an especially hopeful circumstance. The 1990s rapid buildout and expanding destination tourism greatly fueled private benefits while mostly poo-pooing publicly born costs. Our Land Bank and more recent affordable Housing Fund, are perfect examples of affirmatively employing corrective shaping of a strong economy by imposing small taxes on private property sales after petition by residents and a majority vote. Harnessing the problem to fund the solution. Public access to shoreline, ridge panoramas, lakes, trails and arable farmlands. Long overdue permanently affordable housing to enable our critical working families to settle, build equity and repopulate our schools.
We seem to continue to balk at a pivotal fork in the road, as revealed in the visionary happy talk without clear policy foundations in the details of a rigorous update of our foundational County Comprehensive Plan. We either exert intelligent control over free-wheeling capitalist forces that blindly diminish future options for community self-determination, or we suffer the compounding externalities of a haphazard profit-taking mantra of growth for its own sake.
So what about incentivizing sustainable local practices; agricultural expansion for local food and critical carbon sequestration, more diverse economic sectors, small business expansion, carbon neutrality, over-tourism reduced, healthy family cohesion, solar panel grids, electric cars, additional taxes on empty homes, large scale composting…
Anything is possible when citizens pay attention, demand buffering of selfish avarice through reasonable government and realize the power of self-determination.