Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day: Five Heroes of the Environment

This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult posts I have ever written. Those who qualify as ‘environmental heroes’ span the centuries and the globe, and all have drawn on the writings and actions of those who came before them. In limiting this post to five individuals, I forced myself to concentrate on the United States and the last century, and thus eliminated many deserving folk. I concentrated on those people who most affected my own sense of ecological awareness. I even considered including my own grandmother – Edna Mae Hermansen Gould - in the top five, since she was the one individual most directly responsible for instilling a sense of environmentalism in me...and there is something profound about the passing down of environmental practices from one generation to the next. And so, here they are: a politician, an author, an activist, a farmer, and an economist:

1) President Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America (1901–1909), and seen as the nations first “conservation president.” Elected Governor of New York, Vice-President, and the President as a Republican, in 1912 he lead a breakaway of Progressives from the GOP and formed the “Bull Moose Party.”
As President, Roosevelt lobbied Congress hard for conservation and protection of American lands and resources. He signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 (An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities), which gave the President authority by executive order to restrict the uses of public lands owned by the federal government. The Act resulted from concerns about protecting Native American ruins and artifacts on federal lands in the West. The Act permits immediate protection while Congress goes through the sometimes lengthy process of creating a National Park. Roosevelt first used the Act to protect the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Later, when Congress refused his pleas to create the Grand Canyon National Park, Roosevelt used the Act to provide immediate protection to the area until a more conservation-minded Congress could agree on National Park status for the area. The Act continues to be used today; On November 1, 2011, President Barack Obama used it to establish the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia.

In addition to creating 18 National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt signed into law the creation of five National Parks, the nations’ first 51 Bird Reserves, four Game Preserves, and 150 National Forests. Over 230,000,000 acres of American soil was placed into some form of protection by Roosevelt. No President before, or since, has so expanded the protection of America’s wild and fragile lands and habitats.

2) Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. First serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, the entire book was later published later that year by Houghton Mifflin, and is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement. The book documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds. Carson exposed the lies circulated by the chemical industry about pesticide safety, and criticized government officials for blindly accepting industry claims. Her book lead to a ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972.

Silent Spring is named as #5 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction, and as one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover Magazine.

3) Erin Brockovich-Ellis, an American law clerk and environmental activist who, despite the lack of a formal law school education, was instrumental in building a successful case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993. The case alleged contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium(VI), in the southern California town of Hinkley. At the center of the case was a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station, part of a natural gas pipeline connecting to the San Francisco Bay Area and constructed in 1952. Between 1952 and 1966, PG&E used hexavalent chromium to fight corrosion in the cooling tower. The wastewater dissolved the hexavalent chromium from the cooling towers and was discharged to unlined ponds at the site. Some of the wastewater percolated into the groundwater, affecting an area near the plant approximately two miles long and nearly a mile wide. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in US history. Brockovich is a classic “David-and-Goliath” story, that of a private citizen working tirelessly to bring a well-funded and politically-connected corporation to answer for environmental destruction.

4) Joel F. Salatin, a farmer, lecturer, and author whose books include Folks, This Ain't Normal, You Can Farm, and Salad Bar Beef.

Salatin's grandfather had been an avid gardener and beekeeper and a follower of J. I. Rodale, the author who pioneered Rodale Press and Prevention Magazine. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Salatin began his own business selling rabbits, eggs, butter and chickens from his family farm at the Staunton Curb Market while he was still in high school. Today, Salatin raises livestock using entirely holistic methods of animal husbandry, free of potentially harmful chemicals, on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. His 550-acre farm is featured prominently in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and the documentary films, Food, Inc. and Fresh. Meat from the farm is sold by direct-marketing to consumers and restaurants, and is restricted to a four-hour radius, which Salatin calls his “foodshed.” "We want [prospective customers] to find farms in their areas and keep the money in their own community," says Salatin. "We think there is strength in decentralization and spreading out rather than in being concentrated and centralized.”

A self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer," Salatin has popularized the notion of both “chicken tractors” (portable coops) and grass-fed beef, and is highly critical the increasingly regulatory and heavy-handed approach taken by the federal government agencies towards small farming operations. He spends a hundred days a year lecturing at colleges and to environmental groups and is one of the nations’ strongest voices for local, “beyond organic,” sustainable food production networks.

5) Elinor Ostrom, an Economist who became the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Ostrom’s contribution, contained in her work, “Governing the Commons,” relates specifically to models of managing natural resources such as ponds, watershed, forests, and rangelands.

The field of environmental economics is often dominated by two extreme: at one end is the notion that human beings will plunder ‘free’ resources, as evidenced by the destruction of fisheries, whales, and the near-extinction of buffalo on the American plains in the late 1880s. Known as the “Tragedy of the Commons” (the name of a seminal 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin), it is often thought to be redressed through strong, top-down government regulations or prohibitions. At the polar opposite extreme is a body of work influenced by Ronald Coase (himself a Nobel Prize winning economist), which emphasizes the benefits possible through the privatization of the ownership sensitive resources (whether by Non-Profit groups such as the Sierra Club, or by profit-seeking corporations).

Ostroms’ work emphasized a different model, a ‘third’ way that results in both environmental sustainability and economic efficiency in the management of what she calls “Common Pool Resources” (CPRs). By using hundreds of examples around the world, Ostrom showed that when groups of local residents are empowered with authority to make decisions about local resources – unhindered by top-down laws and “one-size-fits-all” national policies - healthier environmental systems result. Her work lays down principles for the decentralization of environmental regulations and empowerment of local communities.

Ostrom is on the faculty of both Indiana University and Arizona State University. She holds a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University and is the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in Bloomington, as well as Research Professor and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University in Tempe. Ostrom also serves as a lead researcher for the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP), managed by Virginia Tech and funded by USAID.


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