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Times Are Changing

I spent much of the 1960s working on three issues I felt passionately about: civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the environment. We’ve done well on two out of three. Our “We Shall Overcome” ideals are not a complete reality, but flagrant, systematic abuse of blacks in the South stopped after people put themselves on the line against injustice. Huge demonstrations against an unwise and unjust American war helped end it, though more slowly than many of us wanted. On the environment, not so good. My 1960s belief that over-consumption of natural resources was the 800-pound gorilla in our room has not gotten much traction. The American public and our elected leaders still accept that increasing the Gross National Product should be a primary goal of public policy, and that we can safely continue to act as if that the planet will accept and adjust, in a benevolent way, to whatever we do to it.

The world renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson argues in his his new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” that tribalism, or loyalty to groups, is a large part of what makes humans dominant. We have evolved to defend, by instinct and with emotional fire, the groups each of us has identified with, whether it’s a team, a country or a belief set. The instinct, the emotion, is not easily silenced by facts or by rational argument. So it was with racial oppression in the South. Segregation was the accepted social order, and there was great resistance to challenges. So it was with Vietnam; the President said the war was necessary, and the overwhelming majority of Americans initially went along. The group identifications of white Southerners with segregation, and of Americans generally with military force ordered by the President, were gradually eroded by events, and by many people loudly and clearly expressing facts and values as they saw them.

Stopping consumption levels that earth’s natural systems cannot sustain is a much harder sell that civil rights or Vietnam. Vice President Dick Chaney expressed a common belief that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.” Earlier President Reagan said “It’s morning in America” and took down the solar panels on the White House. Very few current public officials question the goal of increasing overall mining and use of hydrocarbons, which is politically smart given public enthusiasm for America’s traditional pursuit of “more” now and forever. It’s going to take longer, but  events and the growing numbers who pay attention to environmental deterioration and to science will eventually produce a chorus, and boots on the ground, for the change we need.

Image by Matt Crypto (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (2)

  1. allen myers Monday - 30 / 04 / 2012
    My take on this blog is interesting on many levels. First the proposal to tax consumers into conserving fuel is so text book Democrat/leftist it is almost amusing. Every problem can be solved by raising taxes -text book!!!! Second, it is a traditional charge that the Republicans are heartless and lack sensitivity of the plight of the poor and even the middle class. So who wants to raise their tax on an essential item we all depend on? Sure, there are ways we can be more fuel-use conscious, but be real! WE DO NOT YET HAVE ALTERNATIVES! Do you really want to cripple commuters, truckers, salespeople, vacationers, etc who have to drive? I don't think Prius makes 18 wheelers and highway construction equipment. Needless to say "Volts" are not everyman's best solution! This isn't the same has watering your yard weekly rather than daily--we still HAVE NO CHOICE but to burn fossil fuel!!!!!!!! A punishing hydrocarbon tax? Are you kidding me? Is our pitiful government going to use this windfall to buy us all horses and oxen? Oh yeah, I forgot, bovine flatulence is another major source of polution--cancel the oxen. I have chosen to ignore the elephant in the room: that being the divided opinion as to whether CO2 production from hydrocarbon use is the bogey-man of our environment!! My friend (I mean that), Mr. Raggio, in his words about the frustrations of "preaching to the choir" states that most of his high school and even neighbors are not , and I'll be gentle here, as environmently concerned as he. I take some umbrige with that rather elitist catagorisation of many of his peers. Speaking for myself it would be the height of boorish behavior and self-absorption to NOT want to live in and perserve the most pleasant environment possible. But the major difference is in degree. Perhaps it's over-simplification, but folks on the "right" are considered practical (which leads to the insensitive label) versus the "left" which is driven by emotion and idealism. It shouldn't be mutually exclusive that we all strive for a clean, healthy world, but let's not regulate or tax our country into stagnation or even worse into total dependence on a ever growing culture who vows to not only dominate us, but EXTERMINATE US.
    • Grier Raggio Monday - 30 / 04 / 2012
      Have you been to Europe recently? Drivers in western Europe pay about twice as much for gasoline as we Americans. Carbon taxes there intentionally do that. Europeans drive smaller cars, and Chevrolet Suburbans don't sell well, but millions of Americans each year find Europe attractive enough to go as tourists and pay their higher energy taxes.

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