The Case for Non-partisan Environmentalism
Last updated 10/7/2016 at Noon
The benefits of addressing environmental issues far outweigh a plan of business as usual. A sustainable economy will mean a cleaner healthier environment, new technology, new long-lasting jobs, and efficiencies in energy, buildings, and transportation will be less costly to a majority of citizens.
Even though the environment is not the number one issue in the coming general election, it is a growing concern among the electorate, especially younger voters. In truth, prioritizing environmental issues has benefits for conservatives and liberals. Competition between political partisans should not be about whether or not a problem exists. It should be about who can fix these problems sooner.
Even if you don't want to believe in climate change, the global reality is that sustainable products and practices are being created and used. Who wouldn't buy a product that saved you money and made you feel good about protecting the environment?
Agreement on environmental issues would be nothing new. When consciousness was awakened to the destruction of the environment in the 1960s in America, it was a movement that seemed non-partisan. The destruction was obvious to everyone whether it was choking smog from any vehicle using gasoline to waterways that had an acidic smell or an un-natural foam.
Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” documented the connection between pesticides and the rapid loss of our national symbol, the American Bald Eagle. Love Canal near Niagara Falls illustrated the horror of toxic chemicals as young children developed horrible deformities caused by their exposure to the toxins buried in what would become a residential development.
It was a time when scientists and families concerned about the health of their communities and loved ones weren't seen as radicals. The problems were so obvious we came together as a nation and created the Clean Air Act of 1963 with major updates in 1970. The Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1970, creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
A Democratic Congress with a significant influence from Washington State Sen. Henry M. Jackson passed these laws that were signed by Republican President Richard M. Nixon. The first secretary of the EPA was William Ruckelshaus, a moderate Republican from Indiana.
The results benefited everyone. Eagles, peregrine falcons, and many other birds rebounded from near extinction. Housing and commercial developments were tested for contaminants to protect the safety and long-term investments of the consumers. It became nearly impossible to see contaminants from the exhausts of vehicles as devices like the catalytic converter became required on cars and trucks greatly reducing toxins released into our air.
Improvements were visible, especially in affluent areas. What we didn't see was that the job was not complete. A variety of factors contributed to a growing amount of CO2 and methane gases getting trapped in the Earth's atmosphere creating record high temperatures, an increase in devastating storm activity, rapidly melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.
With continued toxins poured into our air and water systems, we have entered an era known as the Anthropocene Extinction, or Sixth Extinction. The very term Anthropocene means that this is a catastrophe that most scientists in the field believe is caused by human activity, mostly the use of fossil fuels. Estimates are that this is already one of the fastest extinction eras and that by the end of the century 40 percent of the plants and animals currently alive will be extinct.
Rising temperatures, acidification, and the continued use of our oceans as a garbage dump are causing the ecosystems of our oceans to be in danger of collapse. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ocean’s rainforests, commonly referred to as coral reefs. Recently, researchers have reported that 50 percent of the world's largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef, is dead or dying.
As the reefs die, the food sources for about 800 million people are disappearing. Not only are many fisheries in dramatic decline worldwide, there is now concern that toxins in fish like tuna and salmon are unhealthy at certain levels, especially if you are pregnant.
On land, the story isn't much better. Climate change is wreaking havoc on many agricultural areas as well. Droughts, pollution, the loss of irrigation water from the rapid melting of glaciers, and the overuse of aquifers have increased the costs of many agricultural products and created shortages in areas where agricultural production was once abundant.
People from all walks of life are starting to get it all over the world. The Paris Accord, though having no means for enforcement, is seeing nations race for leadership in sustainable and clean energy. Investments in these emerging industries are already allowing cities and some countries to transform to communities that thrive economically and are sustainable.
Germany, which has a similar climate to that of western Washington, has made impressive and significant gains in the output of solar power. While the growth was stimulated by government incentives, the incentives are gone and the industry is still growing.
Other cost efficiencies come from building smarter buildings. The goal is to have the standard in construction be buildings that either do not need to purchase energy from the grid by sustaining themselves or even provide excess energy to the grid. If that sounds like a far-off in the future vision, just visit the University of Washington's Center for Integrated Design. It is located at the Bullitt Center on 1501 E. Madison St. in Seattle and is currently the greenest commercial building in the world!
Transportation is another key area in developing a sustainable and viable economic future for any community. It's really a simple math problem. To accommodate growth in congested areas, it is too expensive to build new lanes. Even if you could, you would be committing to greater funds needed to maintain those roads, and you will have done nothing about congested arterials.
Mass transit with a variety of rail systems and small urban vehicles is coming soon. Within 10 years, Amsterdam plans to eliminate cars from city streets. Expect to hear similar plans from around the world become common. This movement is environmentally friendly with its focus on electric and fuel cell vehicles.
In the meantime, if you are a single occupant driver in an oversized SUV, expect to pay some form of increased taxes. If we are serious about having an efficient roads system that moves people, goods and services, cars need to be replaced with buses and trains. Math and physics will not be denied. Mass matters. Place more people in fewer vehicles and you improve efficiencies in space and energy. Improve efficiencies and eventually you improve cost.
Any working solution is going to take time. As we are building wider roads, more people are moving into our region. Why not develop a plan that isn't out of date as soon as the project is complete?
Even religious leaders like the Pope and Dalai Lama have weighed in on protecting the environment. Many religious tenets require stewardship of the environment.
So whether it is sustainable economic growth, leadership in new clean energy technologies, or the logical and moral imperative of not destroying all life on Earth, environmental issues shouldn't be partisan issues. Denial and unwillingness to change, like ecological damage, lead to extinction.