As we roll into the 21st century, we have to look hard to find a place where the economy is not blasting into the stratosphere on a veritable plume of fire. Even where we see economic stagnation, the problem is more likely a reflection of the political situation rather than the underlying principles of supply and demand. We’re running with throttles mashed to the firewall, plowing forward as if there were no tomorrow. And why not? More people have more things and more access to the means for acquiring even more things.
So large is the disparity between our consumption of resources and our level of effort in dealing with the results of a veritable orgy, it’s almost too frightening to consider the consequences. And if things weren’t scary enough, our impetuous rush into globalization brings us head to head with the specter of several billions of people scrambling to crash the Western world’s party at the helm of their very own SUVs. Given the insult that a small fraction of the Earth’s inhabitants has cast in the teeth of sustainability, the material feeding frenzy on which we now seem poised to embark is more terrifying than I care to imagine.
A Need for Incentives
Part of the problem lies in our inability to come to grips with what’s real and what isn’t. How real is it to treat our air and water-resource pollution problems merely as air and water problems? Not only does this neglect the tremendous contribution that soil erosion makes to those concerns, but also the enormous risks posed by soil loss itself. Unfortunately, the public remains largely unaware of these problems. There are so many competing philosophies and conventional wisdoms floating around, we are hard-pressed to say for certain what is or isn’t so. Listen to any group of people, and you’ll know how far from consensus we are on nearly every issue that begs a policy response. Worse still, we offer precious little incentive to our elected officials for them to practice stewardship.not that we hold great expectations that those acting on our behalf will rise to the challenge. Even for those of us who voice sincere concern for The Environment, the hope that somehow things will turn out OK biases our most critical decisions in favor of a full stomach and a little something in the bank. This suggests several things to me: (1) No one in his right mind looks forward to subjecting himself to public scorn, (2) the issues we face are too broad and public interests are too divided to expect popular support for assessing where we’re heading, and (3) our elected officials are really the only ones in a position to make the changes that are needed.
“Whoa!” you say. “Why should politicians stick their necks out, particularly when we’re in the midst of the greatest economic boom in recent history?” Why should they be expected to don the mantle of stewardship when we won’t? The answer: They shouldn’t. What does that mean? Maybe we have to prime the pump a little; set for our elected representatives a standard of stewardship that they will be reluctant to ignore.
Mission Impossible? Not SoLook what we’ve been given to work with. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and all their amendments are marvelously crafted documents. And now we’ve got NPDES Phase II to bolster our actions. We might ask for the addition of this provision or that mandate, but for the most part it’s not the laws that need bolstering; we’re the ones who need the kick in the tail. So here we are: New year, new century, tremendous wealth, and all the opportunity we need to pull in the reins on our rape of the air, water, and land if we intend to make it to the end of the next decade, much less the next millennium.