'Capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature; we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them' - scientist David Suzuki
As they say, “When I was a boy…” Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire – again – fueled by its abundant industrial pollution. The bald eagle in the lower 48 was rare and on the edge of being wiped out. Lead in gasoline, paint, and even the water we drank was killing over 5,000 Americans each year.
And then along came Richard Nixon, who signed into law the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act and who established the Environmental Protection Agency. And lo and behold, across my lifetime, we Americans turned some important environmental problems around.
Our public waterways became cleaner and more suitable for drinking rather than sources of fire accelerants. Some 99 percent of the species protected by the Endangered Species Act have not gone extinct. Many, like the bald eagle, are rebounding. Through EPA regulation, lead was eliminated from gasoline and other consumer items, which meant that fewer people died prematurely and millions of American children were spared brain-development damage.
When I was a boy, they taught me in Sunday school from Matthew 25:40: “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’”
The people most affected
I have discovered across my adult life that the very people who were and remain the most impacted by environmental degradation are historically the least powerful among us – the poor, people of color and, as our brothers and sisters at Standing Rock reminded us, Native Americans.
We the people, through our elected officials, cleaned up much of our air, water, and the very habitat we share with so many other species. In so doing we strengthened the natural systems that provide the essential ecological services our species requires to survive.
Our modern world, one where we can afford such luxuries as the Bill of Rights, a green chili cheeseburger, and safe neighborhoods, has to be built upon the interlocking three-legged stool of a justice-based human community, a healthy economy, and a sustainable ecology. For on that stool, humanity’s fate rests. To weaken any one of those legs is to doom us all.
The scientist David Suzuki puts it this way: “Now, there are some things in the world we can’t change – gravity, entropy, the speed of light, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well-being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die. Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature; we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere, for example.”
More to be done
Our work is not yet done. Justice for all, a robust economy, the ability to strive for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all are part of the contract we have with future generations. Our essential requirement is to make sure we keep things running the best we can. And we cannot do any of that if we do not care for the environment.
We need to recognize that greed is real, and if left unchecked it causes real harm. Lead in gasoline was a known health hazard for decades before it was banned, yet the captains of industry pushed hard against a ban on lead in gasoline. Just like now, as they push hard against the knowledge we have had for decades that the overuse of hydrocarbons will come to no good end for our environment and our species.
There are people among us who would kill the EPA and doom their grandchildren to a hostile climate in which hurricanes and other weather events become even more deadly and more frequent. Are people so shortsighted they would allow greater parts of the planet to become inhospitable to agriculture?
Our own river of life
This past Presidents’ Day weekend, my daughter and I put our battered old canoe into the Rio Grande and rode it through Rio Rancho, Corrales, Sandia Pueblo and Albuquerque. In less than five hours, we saw 16 porcupines, two muskrats, a raccoon and thousands of birds representing 27 different species. Three times, we saw bald eagles riding the sky on 6-foot wingspans.
As we took our canoe trip, we were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, all within a few miles of us. The very water we rode on became part of the water supply I used to brush my teeth at the end of that day.
The river those bald eagles flew over is part of a healthy economy, human community, and environment. Such a day is made possible through that interlocked trio of priorities I mentioned earlier. We need to fight fiercely to address the emerging environmental issues of our day – not go back and undo the very solutions that made our country stronger when I was a boy.