March 1, 2007
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: CAN WE STILL SAVE IT?
"… nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture plowed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture."
"If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of being able to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it."
— John Stuart Mill, The Art of Living, 1848
The reason I am so alarmed about what I believe to be the overcrowding now overwhelming my country is because of the losses that go along with it. This makes me very sad, and I grieve over these losses.
Not losses in terms of any sort of social or demographic mix. To me, those changes are largely positive, a part of what our society is all about. The surges of creativity and energy unleashed by successive waves of migrants who have come here (including my own ancestors) have perhaps, more than any other single factor in our history, shaped that special character and dynamism that makes the United States such a special place to live.
But now there are increasingly drastic consequences from the ever-larger numbers of "us," however we got here. Daily they become more obvious and more irreversible. So for me now my alarm, and my pain about it, is all very personal, a matter of the heart. I did not celebrate the news that "we" had passed 300 million last fall.
I came of age in the 1960s, when we all read and grasped intuitively the essential meaning of Paul Erlich's book, Population Bomb. It seemed so obvious then. I'm glad it didn’t completely happen – at least not in all the specifics predicted. Yet, 40 years later my country does have 100 million more people living here than then. But the land which nurtures and supports us hasn't increased one bit. We are still inhabitants of the same finite space. And it seems a lot smaller, every day.
So my problem with the huge new surge of "us" is my love – for this land, my country: this American Earth.
This American Earth, in all its lovlieness: its wild beaches, its forested mountains, its sparkling rivers dancing in the sun, its dramatic and beautiful landscapes, its vast and diverse ecosystems supporting an entrancing richness of fascinating and beautiful species of plants and animals… its equally lovely, human-created and inhabited, pastoral landscapes too, its well-tended and productive farms, its lively and stimulating urban centers. It is, it has been, such a wonderful place to live, this my own country. Its beauty and diversity, its wilderness and quiet places, its sheer magnificence and sense of space, has nourished and enriched me emotionally and spiritually all my life.
So much of this is now vanishing so quickly in our own time, and I mourn the daily losses of what it once was. These are primarily caused by rapid, mostly unchecked, overdevelopment, which itself in turn is spawned in major part by our fast growing numbers. I mourn the losses, and I want to do what I can to halt them, at least slow them down. I believe that it is our duty – we who live here now – to pass on all we can of this priceless heritage of natural living things and places, pass them on into our common future, as a permanent legacy. We will be such an infinitely more impoverished nation, morally, spiritually, and socially, if we do not.
I believe it is equally our task to do all we can to reverse the trend that is destroying it.
My memories of this American land as it once was begin with my childhood, where a nascent love of all things natural was encouraged by sympathetic parents. This memory-time for me was not all that long ago – the late 1940s, as I was growing up in a close-in suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Just a few streets to the east of our house were open fields, woods, blackberry thickets, streams, ravines – "the country." Even farther out, like WAY out, were the then "country towns," places like Whitehall and Reynoldsburg, abounding in memories of long family drives after dinner, just to "be away from the city." And many more remembrances of pleasant wanderings with my dog Skippy across those fields into what were the adjoining, and mysterious, "North Woods"… just to explore, safely and close to home.
To say that it is all different now cannot possibly express the enormity of what has happened. It is just all gone, hardly even a trace remaining. The woods and fields and ravines are a solid wall of subdivisions, strip malls, big box stores, all the way out and far beyond. Whitehall and Reynoldsburg now are mostly just place names – there is no dividing line, all completely swallowed by the development tide, the pavements stretching eastward for many more miles yet. My beloved 'North Woods' itself vanished decades ago, so too has all the rest except for a few tiny remnant local parks. Just – gone.
My mother now lives in a condo in this changed Reynoldsburg, next to the remnant of a once vibrant stream, now ditched in its riprap channel… all the rest – just gone, irrevocably and forever. For few things are as permanent as "crops of houses," are they?
When I visit with my mother I often wonder if I am the only person who still remembers. Sometimes at night I stand out on the sidewalk beside the rows of postage stamp lawns, just listening. My heart strains above the constant roar of traffic, perhaps hoping for some whisper or echo from that long ago. Perhaps some one, some thing, remembers? It is probably just my imagination, but I think I believe that there are ghosts of what was, still out there, even if their only song now can be a sad threnody for what used to be.
I am not talking about the Grand Canyon here, or the great ancient forests and wilderness of the Pacific Northwest that I have spent so much of my life trying to protect and defend. These lost places of Central Ohio, my first home, were just "ordinary" lands – if there actually is any such thing. Nothing special. Yet, on the other hand utterly special, and just as irreplaceable in the whole scheme of things as those faraway wilderness forests.
I felt a replay, in my heart, of this long-ago memory just last October, when Linda and I took a drive into the central Maryland countryside to see the fall colors, just 30 miles west of our home in Washington D.C. Woods, prosperous farmlands, hills blazing red and orange – still as beautiful and soul-nourishing as ever.
But big changes are coming: every few miles we saw either clearings for new "McMansions" or subdivisions… or a billboard announcing that the land was for sale for those same purposes. My heart sank as I realized that my children will never savor these lands even as partly pastoral and natural as we had seen them that day.
All this – and similar scenarios replicated everywhere across our land – is what has happened to my country in just MY lifetime. Unless we act now to rescue what remains – and just as importantly, unless we act to reverse the trend – the losses of the future will be even greater. Joni Mitchell's song, "They Paved Paradise and Made it a Parking Lot" will continue on as the theme song of today's generation, as it was for mine.
Yes, people need places to live, work, thrive. I am not advocating a return to the numbers of "us" of 40 years ago, even if that was somehow a possibility. We are here now, and the elemental question is: how many (if any) more can we sustain, benignly, without losing so much more of the other values we cherish and the places we love?
This "population explosion" is not the sole cause of these losses that so tear at my heart. Our sheer (economic) wealth as a society, and the cultural demands that that generates for more and more material goods, is a huge part of the problem, as is its concomitant drain on all the rest of the world’s resources to feed our "way of life." So as long as there continue to be more and more of "us" Americans specifically – wherever we come from – the more the damage will continue, and at a rate which will destroy so much more of this beautiful American Earth – which is, in more ways than we yet understand, so much a part of our own hearts. Our land, and our love for it, is a part of our culture too.
To me the math is irrefutable: 100 million more of "us" by 2050, inhabiting the same finite space as we now live inside of, will – just will – drastically change forever, and permanently alter, the face, aspect, and character of our land… and yes, I predict, even the social relationships we now take for granted, as competition for space accelerates.
But it doesn’t have to happen, not in such a destructive and devouring way… nor, really, at all. Not if we act. There are things we can do, positive actions we can take, now. What are they?
The first thing is to be more creative about explaining to our fellow citizens that three hundred million of this "us," going on four hundred, really IS, a problem, NOT something to celebrate. We who really care know this; but why don’t at least workable majorities, willing to take political action, also "get it" yet?
I don’t know the whole answer; but part of it seems to me to be that our stream of well documented and accurate recitations of more generalized "macro" impacts, on water, congestion, pollution, etc., just doesn’t resonate with enough people – yet. But perhaps something a bit more specific will, and thus will accomplish the all-important political task of "bringing it all home," in terms which will move people to action.
I am talking about documenting the impacts in terms of specific places – places to be lost that Americans now living know about and care about. Places like those I once knew in Ohio, and the Pacific Northwest. Our country’s entire conservation history demonstrates that Americans WILL stand and fight for specific places that they know, and love.
And they will fight with passion and skill, and – again our history shows this – they will not only win (note 300 million protected acres of America already out there) but also, I believe, the psychic impact of those struggles will cause many to reflect on their root causes, and become "population activists" too. I know that's how it works; I have seen this happen many times in my career.
It is a fact: people react to, and will fight for specifics, especially places they know or know about. If this was not the case, very few wilderness areas, or parks or preserves of any kind would exist today. But they do exist, and developers and their political allies are afraid to touch them. Why? Because they know they will lose; the American people will not stand for it.
Another example is our strongest environmental law, the Endangered Species Act, which not only lists individual species name by name, but also requires protection of their specific habitats. Its political opponents have tried for the last 15 years to repeal it, or at least gut it, but have never succeeded – even when they had large majorities in Congress.
I defer to others who know much more about the nuances of the actual "population increase" factor which accelerates this ongoing destruction of our natural world. This increase, as I understand it, comes from a combination of high birth rates, and from immigration into the country, legal or otherwise. When these causes are combined with our grossly wasteful lifestyles, tremendous adverse impacts on basic resources, as well as the land-losses, have been the consequence.
There are no easy answers to this situation, and others have spent years trying to grapple with it. One basic suggestion that makes sense to me is for our government to adopt a set of incentives aimed at encouraging fewer births. This policy could have an impact on the choices prospective new parents might make.
As to the large numbers of people seeking to come here to make a better life, well, that’s very understandable. I would want to do so too, if I lived in a country where poverty was great and there was little opportunity to do better.
But still the irreducible fact remains: we all here now inhabit not only a finite space, but even more importantly, a rapidly shrinking amount of actual living space, certainly any such which includes the amenities and life-supports we also need. Given this fact, surely our country has the right, and obligation, like every other country, to determine who can live here permanently. At the same time, I have always believed that all who wish to do so must be treated with fairness, dignity, respect, and, certainly, due process.
But we can do more than that. We can also devote more energy and resources to assist countries of origin to help them improve their own economies and infrastructures, thus making them more attractive places in which to live. If some of our national policies now hinder this process – trade agreements come to mind – we should change them as needed.
These are just examples of what might be done on that part of the problem. But to me, the most immediate task before us is to rescue and protect as much as we can of this precious and special natural world still around us. While there is still time. Why? Because we love this world; because it is a deep and pervasive part of our culture, our history, and who we are as a people. Because its biological richness and amazing diversity supports us all.
And above all, because we are losing it all so fast, and these losses are forever.
If, as I believe, these special American places are a part of our national soul, so then must we act – now, and more strongly than ever before… act to slow down and redirect this disastrous, mostly unchecked, growth. Now! If we succeed, then by 2050, instead of devastation nearly everywhere, we will, then, have so much more of our treasured natural world still close at hand, still there to sustain us. I believe we can do it. There is still time.
But how? Aren’t there already bond issues to purchase some lands, and laws to protect some others? Yes, and thank goodness. But we can do much more, and do it better.
There is no rocket science to it. The aim is to rescue a lot more by stimulating and energizing much more citizen action. Citizen action is the only thing in our whole history that has ever saved any places now protected. It is a powerful and unstoppable force when it can be aroused. I know this from my own experiences over the past forty years.
I think we can make all this happen if we can accomplish five basic things:
- Make the connections between people and the places to be lost much more specific.
If we can do this, I believe it will have a tremendous 'energizing' effect. Sure, there are already maps out there, but I predict that re-making these connections in a more precise and specific way will bring in many more of the new activists we must have to succeed.
How? By a grand project to much more precisely document what will be the losses if we grow by another 100 million in 40 more years. I mean, really specific – not in broad general terms, but really down on the ground. We have the technology, as well as the understanding of future development patterns, to actually map them out – everywhere.
Sounds like just another study? No, it’s much more than that – because this time, it’s very very specific. If it is done right, it can – with responsible accuracy – show, irrefutably, just where, what, and whose special places, habitats, landscapes will, almost certainly, be lost, just gone, by 2050. (No, it can’t be totally exact; there will be local variables. Nevertheless it’s pretty obvious where the next developments will go).
People will look at these maps and descriptions, and be moved to action to prevent this from happening, to their places. That is how it has actually happened in nearly every struggle over new parks, wilderness, and open space that I know about throughout my whole career. Here we are just causing it all to be displayed on a much more comprehensive scale. Another NIMBY thing? No, because we’re going to do it everywhere. For places like my North Woods, for which I might have fought if I knew.
- Make the cause of rescuing our Earth – while we still can – a great national cause.
A grand and important cause at every level. Some states are showing us the way already: Crowded New Jersey now has a goal of protection of 40% of its land; other states like California and New York regularly pass bond issues to buy up threatened and important lands. We need to learn from these and other examples, and mount similar campaigns in every state. We know how to do these things! Every state, even the ones where developers seem most powerful and where the leadership is most conservative. We know there are also strong groups of activists there. That means we’re halfway there already! This renewed and greatly enlarged effort should become a major cause in every state. If we have the convincing new documentation outlined in point #1 above, we can do it, and do it in every county, every city, every town. We can win this race against the bulldozer!
- Enlarge the public lands estate.
Very few, if any, other countries enjoy such a range of vast public holdings. They are the property of all the people, and almost without exception, are always open to everyone, to explore and treasure. Some other countries have "public" lands too, but most are either much smaller in extent, and/or access to them is often very restricted.
Our public lands – national and state forests, parks, wildlife refuges – contain within them some of the finest ecological and historical treasures of the nation. Once established, they cannot be broken up, or sold to the highest bidder. They are really safe. But there are two problems: first, many of them are still riddled with developable private "inholdings"; and second, in places like New York’s Adirondacks or Ohio’s Wayne National Forest for example, most have not had the funding necessary to reach their authorized boundaries.
Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1967 to fix those problems – to guarantee to the American people the full benefits of a magnificent, and intact, public estate, forever. Problem is, while originally authorized at $900 million annually, for use by both federal and state governments to purchase threatened and beautiful places, it has never been appropriated at that level. Worse, the Fund has been brutally slashed by the present Administration and by the Congress over the past dozen years. About 10 years ago, our community made a major effort to restore it. It almost succeeded. These are different political times now; so I think we can succeed if we try again. $900 million a year, when combined with what state and local governments are doing, plus the wonderful work of many private trusts – that all comes to a heck of a lot of money to rescue a lot of important threatened lands which will surely be lost otherwise.
Yes, let’s buy it – that’s the American Way, isn’t it? If we can do this at a high level each year up to 2050, our country will remain a wonderful place for all to live in, not just exist.
- Fill out the protected lands systems.
Our country is blessed with already existing superb and well-protected systems of National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas. Indeed, as the English Ambassador to the US said as far back as 1912, "National Parks are the best idea America ever had."
These parks and other protected areas were generally established only after protracted periods of intense citizen action, and usually in "spurts," as that action became politically potent – for example the 1890s, 1930s, 1960s and 70s. Not much has been added since; but there still remain out there other truly great special places that also deserve to be protected, as new national parks. Places like the Maine Woods, with its lakes and forests; Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America; spectacular Blackwater Falls and its canyon, in West Virginia… and many others. Many of these special places will be developed for commercial purposes or otherwise damaged in years to come if we don’t act soon. So let’s get started on this as a part of our grand project, too. The potential is there to add dozens of new National Parks and Refuges to our national patrimony by 2050.
- Guarantee Protection of Rare and Endangered Species and Their Habitats
Over three decades ago (1973), the legislators of a great Nation – our own – got together and did a most remarkable thing: by huge bipartisan majorities, our Congress declared that from this time forward, "the American people will not permit any species of plant or animal which shares this national territory with us to go extinct – not if we can help it."
Thus was passed by the full House and Senate, and signed by President Richard Nixon, the Endangered Species Act – the strongest and most protective environmental law we have. In plain terms it fulfills its mandate and its hope by requiring that any species in peril of extinction must be put "on the list;" and once there, no one – no government agency, no corporation, no person – may harm them. And it finally stipulates that the habitats necessary to their survival must also be protected.
This ESA is not just a strong law: it is a noble law and a moral law of the highest order, because in it – for the first time in history – a whole people committed itself to protecting all other non-human species from extinction. Culture matters, and the Endangered Species Act is as much a part of American culture and values as the Civil Rights Act.
Because it is so strong, and above all because it has worked – rescuing many species from oblivion – powerful economic interests have tried mightily to repeal it over the years. But despite the most intense political and legal attacks, the ESA still stands tall. I think it's because the American people love their "critters" as they also love their land. They have turned back every attempt to weaken the law. Yes, culture matters.
Because of the ESA and its requirement to protect habitats as well as individuals, millions of acres of forests, beaches, swamps, open grasslands, among other places, are protected too… a part of our enduring heritage. Every acre of every new protected habitat is a precious guarantee that this species, this one, now has a chance to live on.
But there is a problem. The ESA moves through a slow process before it can start its protective work, and in the meantime, many species not yet on that list slide closer to extinction. Now, with a new (and more environment-friendly) Congress, we can work for more funding to speed up the critical work needed to get these species and their vital habitats protected… before it’s too late.
All these things added up together: the new parks, and habitats – the new sense of urgency which will motivate people to pass bond issues and turn out at zoning hearings to defend their special places – are my prescription for concrete, real substantive actions we all can take to grapple better with the effects of that projected massive increase of "us" in the decades to come. If we do them, we ensure that, whatever else happens, we will still have a country worth living in. I hope it won't happen that way, and have cited several measures which could be taken to reverse, or slow down the trend. I also believe that the new struggles over places will inevitably also produce a whole new crop of "population activists" too, just as has happened in the past.
I have seen what the future can be.
Just last week, I flew to Seattle, the city where I came of age as a conservationist, learned how to stand up and fight to protect the places I loved. It's still all very beautiful, but as we descended to the airport, I looked down and saw sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, malls. Much of the place looks a lot different than it did during those early years of my manhood. "Just like many other American cities," I sighed to myself.
Then I looked down again, closer. And I saw something else: miles and miles of green spaces, tens of thousands of acres of protected valleys and connecting trails, forests and beaches, scattered throughout the heart of the urban areas, and next to them. Protected places, saved by citizens who sensed the losses coming, and acted to prevent them.
I glanced up at the great mountain ranges nearby, on both sides of Puget Sound. Three National Parks in view, and almost all the rest is entirely protected now too, I remembered, as Wilderness Areas, and other reserves. Nature is still very close in my adopted city. It is everywhere, and it will be there forever.
I remembered that similar natural landscapes are being established and protected in Portland Oregon, 200 miles south. City leaders and planners there, heavily supported by the people, are determined that nature will be close by wherever one lives, so that all people can know it as a part of their daily lives.
Nature, close by. That's the future we can have – in every place and any place – if we’re willing to seek it and to work for it while we still have time. I knew, looking down from the plane, that none of the great accomplishments I saw came easily; the people themselves had to fight for each of them. I know, because I was a part of those struggles.
But oh – these struggles produced such rewards! No, not perfect – but what ever is in this life? Perhaps not enough either, but far far better, and much more, than if we had done nothing at all. And we can always strive for more. But already in the Pacific Northwest, there exists right now a grand and rich legacy to pass on beyond ourselves. Whatever else happens, these places will endure.
What has been done there can be done everywhere; all it takes is a willingness to do it. And that is why I face the future with pride and hope. I have seen the worst that can happen to our land, and I have seen what committed people can do to make it better. All we have to do is be not afraid, and just start out.
President, Endangered Species Coalition. Board member National Hispanic Environmental Network. Former senior staff member and recipient of major achievement awards from the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society
Contact Brock Evans
Brock Evans left his law practice in Seattle in the 1960s to begin his conservation career as Pacific Northwest Representative for the Sierra Club. He moved to Washington DC in the 1970s to be Director of the Club's office there, then later was appointed as a Vice President of the National Audubon Society, also in Washington. He served as Executive Director of the ESC for seven years before becoming President in 2004. Brock has written and lectured extensively on environmental topics, including teaching stints at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel. A graduate of Princeton University (cum laude), and the University of Michigan Law School, Brock has also received numerous awards for his conservation work, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the League of Conservation Voters and the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club's highest honor, its John Muir Award. Brock performed his active duty military service with the U.S. Marine Corps.
I have served on the Board of Directors of the National Hispanic Environmental Network for the past five years. Before that, I served for fifteen years (the last two as President) of the Human Environment Center, a group devoted to improving environmental employment opportunities for minorities. I spent many hours on the picket lines in Seattle in the 1960's, demanding fair housing for all races. My wife's last name is Garcia.
(Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)
Endangered Species Coalition