The World of Vulture Environmentalism
The issue of Vulture Capitalism will no doubt figure prominently in the upcoming Presidential election. Currently, the notion that the pursuit of profits by an individual, or by a small group of individuals, no matter what the consequences may be, is an acceptable or even admirable practice, holds political sway with a significant portion of the electorate in our country. The idea that “anything goes” if there is the potential for profit has a large and powerful political constituency. We have a candidate for President who managed to amass a sizable personal fortune on the backs of others and who takes great pride in his ability to exploit the system for his own gain. This slash and burn business model may very well be profitable for some, but at what cost? Anyone who questions this perverse brand of Social Darwinism is open to being labeled “un-American”. Criticism is sneeringly dismissed by the “Born on Third Base” crowd as mere envy. However, the idea that this is the “American Way” may be more truthful and provide more insight into our national patterns of behavior than we would like to admit.
Vulture Environmentalism is Vulture Capitalism’s hungry and greedy cousin. Is it really surprising that a country that permits, or even lauds, the economic strip mining of our nation’s wealth for the benefit of a few would exhibit a similar mentality when it comes to our natural resources? Just as the pillaging of our economy by the privileged and favored members of our society undermines the strength of our economy itself, and the economy’s ability to work for average people, so too, the mindless exploitation of our resources saps our national strength and spirit. The end game isn’t pretty. Playing Vulture Capitalism out to its eventual end looks like the last moves in a game of Monopoly; with most of the players mortgaging their pathetic homes on Baltic Avenue back to the bank so the winner can build a couple of more hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. Vulture Environmentalism has a very similar outcome. It ends with a depleted and barren natural world that can no longer provide the elements to sustain life after a relatively small number of people have profited handsomely from draining the available resources.
What good are those Boardwalk hotels when the folks down on Baltic and Mediterranean can’t pay the rent? What good is there in having all the money in the world when that world can no longer provide a decent quality of life, no matter how much you might have to spend? In the Vulture World, the answers to those questions don’t matter. For the rest of us who are forced to live with the consequences of their actions, and who will ultimately pay the majority of the price for them, the answers certainly do matter. The question that really matters for that majority of the population is, “why do we tolerate this behavior?” The answer lies in the failure to demand accountability. We neither assess the true expense from those who profit from exploitation of the economy or the environment, nor do we hold our political leaders who abide or facilitate these behaviors responsible for the results.
The vast majority of people who bear the costs for the enrichment of the few need to demand both an accounting from those who engage in this behavior and a policy response from those serving in government that is designed to preserve the social, economic and environmental health of our society. However, this will not happen as long as exploitative behaviors are not appropriately evaluated. As long as we allow businesses or individuals who take advantage of our economic and our natural resources to be measured only by their profits we will continue to have an imbalanced system headed for ruin. If the cost of lost jobs, environmental degradation, public health, lost quality of life and other societal expenses are not added to the equation, we are falsely assessing the true impacts. Its like allowing those who profit from this scheme to balance their checkbooks based only on the deposits, while ignoring the checks written, the withdrawals and the fees. Don’t worry the rest of society will pick up those costs. Those who are “smarter” or who “worked harder” are merely getting what’s due to them. Right?
The valuation of our natural resources based upon the worth of their exploitation is nothing new. The great debate between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park took place 100 years ago. Their dispute over the proper use of the valley’s resources, between preservation or “wise use”, which was very divisive at the time, now seems like an argument between two ice cream enthusiasts over whether chocolate or vanilla is a better flavor. When compared to what we are dealing with today, their disagreement seems quaint. That fight was over whether the Hetch Hetchy valley should be left in its natural state or if the Tolumne River should be dammed for hydroelectric power and drinking water. Eventually a dam was built and the river valley flooded. This contributed substantially to a falling out between Muir and Pinchot, but looking back, they really weren’t that far apart in their views. They both had tremendous respect for the environment.
How has our discussion regarding our nation’s resources evolved? We know where Muir would stand today. It would be hard to imagine Pinchot, who believed in conservation of resources for use by humans, extending his philosophy to include mountaintop removal coal mining or extraction of oil shale in locations where it would significantly impact a treasured national park. It’s likely he would be equally appalled at how we are treating the environment today. We have gone someplace that is completely different, but but still shares some of the similar conditions to those that spurred the birth of the American environmental movement. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only this time around there isn’t a debate over the best way to conserve our resources, just a march towards their consumption. It’s hard to believe that we would once again deliver our nation’s resources into the hands of corporations without adequate safeguards in search of profit and power. Yet, that is exactly where we are headed with our national policies and, make no mistake, Republicans and Democrats alike have been complicit in enabling this return to exploitative consumption. There will be a steep price to pay and it is time for people to deliver the bill, and hold those who profit, or who are responsible for creating these conditions, accountable for the costs.
To paraphrase David Byrne, you may ask yourself, how did we get here? Unfortunately, the answer is we are right where we always have been. Theodore Roosevelt created the National Park System in response to rampant degradation of our nation’s natural treasures in the late 19th Century. The industrial boom of the mid-20th Century left us with a legacy of smog, fouled waterways and toxic waste that led to the creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Superfund law. Today, whether its deep water oil drilling, fracking in water supply areas, mining oil shale next to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch or routing gas and oil pipelines through state and national parks, we’re engaging in the same behaviors with the same motivations and excuses that we always have. There’s always a reason. It’s jobs, it’s our need for energy, or its the need to encourage economic growth; there’s always something driving us towards the cheap and easy solutions for our perceived problems . We continue to pursue short-sighted methods until enough people’s drinking water gets fouled, or air pollution causes enough new asthma cases or there is a massive oil spill. What will be our response to the latest round of environmental degradation and exploitation? More importantly, will there be one?
As long as politicians respond to the needs of business and economic power instead of the long-term needs of people, we will continue to enable and encourage, not only the exploitation of our resources, but the degradation of the environment because it is easier and more profitable. In the upcoming Presidential election the proposition that our problems can all be solved with tax cuts, less regulation and less government will be front and center in the political discussion . Putting aside the fiscal implications, the consequences of abdicating the government’s responsibility to protect public health and the environment and turning over more of our nation’s resources to corporations will not yield better results when it comes to environmental protection. Also, if the current regulatory and tax policies are so onerous, why are corporations posting record profits? These arguments just don’t hold up. Until there is accountability, there will never be a change in results. Waiting for a response to crisis conditions is not a sound strategy. People have to create the conditions where accountability, fairness and obligation to future generations are all mandatory elements of our nation’s environmental policies.
Holding those in power accountable is much easier said than done. It’s increasingly difficult as both the media and the electoral process are influenced by a tide of corporate money. The alternative can’t be to just give up. There are always going to be powerful interests that benefit from influencing politics and policy and they will always have money and access on their side. Understanding that this is just the way things are is only the beginning. Finding alternative means to counter that power is essential. Information and communication can be powerful tools when utilized effectively. A motivated and informed electorate can achieve a great deal. People who are concerned about the environment need to learn to use the assets at their disposal to get results in the political process. It will never be a fair fight, but it will become a battle where the outcome is not predetermined. There is a strong moral element to the issues involved in this fight. There are elements of fairness and of sound management and stewardship of resources on the side of environmentalists. The ability to turn intelligent policy choices into political power, or not, will be the determining factor over which way our country heads on environmental issues from today forward. The current trends may not be favorable, but that should only serve as motivation for action. Finding a way to require a balancing of the books on environmental costs will be a big step on the road to results and accountability.
Let me finish with an apology to vultures. They may not be the prettiest birds, but they do serve an important and valuable function in our ecosystem. They do no harm and help keep nature in balance. Equating those who exploit our economy and our resources for their own gain with these creatures is not quite fair to the vulture. It’s unfortunate that the term “vulture” has come to describe people who serve only their own interests without any greater benefit. The vulture should not, in any way, be tarred by association with humans who apparently can’t exhibit the common sense of a bird when it comes to dealing with our resources and with the future.