Environment

Can We & the Planet Reconcile Competing Values?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDec 26, 2011 4:11 PM

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The Economist has an excellent article about the "fate of India's amphibians" and what is a universal conservation paradox:

As economic growth has accelerated so, it appears, has the destruction of [India's] forests. The Centre for Science and the Environment, a lobby group, reckons that the pace at which clearance permissions have been granted has doubled in the past five years. In 2009 alone, 87,884 hectares (out of a total of 68m hectares of primary and other forest) were approved for clearance. Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness. That tends to happen wherever economic dynamism threatens a country's natural wealth, but maybe especially so in India. Environmental awareness lies deep in India's political culture. Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, and the original tree-huggers were Indians: the chipko movement used Gandhian methods to prevent deforestation in the Himalayas in the 1980s. At the same time, India's growth in the past 20 years has"”while leaving many millions in poverty"”produced a large, eco-sensitive middle class.

In his book, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945, historian Samuel Hayes wrote that

the environmental drive in modern society stems from new human values about what people want in their lives.

This became evident decades ago in industrialized Western countries, like the United States. The raft of foundational environmental laws (safeguarding air, water, and endangered species) in the early 1970s was the codification of these new human values in the U.S. Since then, however, enforcement (and expansion) of environmental legislation has been met with considerable opposition by parties driven by different values. What interests me is how these competing values have turned landscapes into battlegrounds. For example, I've written a lot about a remote place in Utah called Nine Mile Canyon, where ranching, conservation, oil & gas development and historic preservation have long clashed. I've also explored how reconciliation of disparate values has been painstakingly arrived at in more populated locales, where business and real estate interests bumped up against ecological concerns. India, as the Economist article puts it, is entering similar terrain:

The big question is how concern for the environment and a desire for growth will be reconciled.

That means India's competing values will have to be reconciled, which, if the last thirty years of U.S. environmental politics is any guide, won't be pretty. That also means, as the Breakthrough Institute's Michael Shellenberger said in a recent interview with science writer John Horgan, that there will be uncomfortable tradeoffs people are going to have to accept:

We are now the dominant ecological force on the planet and that means that we must ever more actively manage our environment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity and it demands that we actually make hard choices. If we want more forests and more wild places, then we'll need more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture. If we want less global warming, then we'll need to replace fossil energy with clean energy, including a lot of nuclear energy. If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed. The choices will come down to where we want development, and what we might save in the process.

A larger debate over those choices and the values underlying them would be nice.

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