Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What It Will Take
For We the People to Vote for and Value the Environment

We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” Barack Obama stated this morning. I was stunned by what he had to say about our country and its disastrous divides that make We the People a difficult idea to grasp, holding too many disparate parts with contradictory and antagonistic beliefs and desires.

When the colonists sought independence, the Union nearly failed in its conception because the practice of slavery was so divisive, making it difficult for Northerners and Southerners to see a common cause and identity. An ugly compromise was made then that Thomas Jefferson described as having "…the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Our disastrous reliance on a way of life that our best science shows will make it difficult for our species and many others to survive is another wolf, what appears to be another ugly compromise between justice and self-preservation. Yet really, justice and self-preservation both call for change when we pause to examine the situation with a clear head. Yet clear heads are a luxury many cannot afford in America, as we are menaced by wolves more immediately pressing.

We all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren,” stated Mr. Obama. This better future must be a bright green future where everyone contributes to the health and vitality of the human and greater biological community. Our science tells us this and our hearts tell us this. And yet no one on the national stage, including Barack Obama, will talk about climate disruption and the challenge of peak oil in anything more than half-steps and empty gestures.

I agree with Obama that we all want fundamentally the same thing, as Americans, as humans, and as living things on Earth: we want to live well and we want that better future for the next generations. This certainly includes dealing with threats like global warming, food scarcity, and other ills, but most individuals I know seem especially focused on taking care of themselves, managing their debt, getting or keeping a job, health care, making sure their children are safe, healthy, and educated. This is a lot of work, especially in a flattened world where the middle class are disappearing, pay is dropping, and costs are going up. And climate change is not the only large-scale threat we face. Obama again:

We need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”

The placement of climate change at the end and the complete omission of other pressing issues like peak oil are no accident. Real change towards a sustainable future requires much more than greater agreement and support between environmental stakeholders, or even between environmental stakeholders and industry or labor. What is required is a true effort towards unity and fairness, a recognizable We the People to act together in our own interest rather than the interest of one faction over another. I use this word faction in the sense that James Madison used it, as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The factionalization of America is so taken for granted now that environmentalism and labor are considered interest groups, factions that must act in their own interest against the interest of We the People.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education,” stated Mr. Obama. The divide in quality between schools and opportunities for Americans is staggering. Americans who didn’t go to the right school and didn’t have access to opportunities do not become involved in moving towards a bright green future. They try to survive. They live low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People like Majora Carter from Sustainable South Bronx are rare and amazing. Ms. Carter has achieved in South Bronx in a comparable way to how Mr. Obama has achieved. She is from a disadvantaged environmental justice challenged community where opportunities were and are few. She still managed to grab some however, receiving her MFA from New York University in 1997. In addition to her education and civic ties, Ms. Carter benefited from a neighborhood where the connections between social justice and environmental justice were transparent. Ms. Carter and her community connected the dots and started working for a bright green future. We need a world of people who can do that. It only works if we all play.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away,” noted Barack Obama this morning. This hit me especially hard as the descendent of immigrants. I take enormous pride in the stories of my family’s struggle to come to America and succeed there, facing prejudice against Jews, Hispanics, and women in general, and finally achieving a measure of security in the middle class. I certainly feel that anxiety as I search for the job that will pay for my rent and other expenses. And though I understand as well as anyone the need for a bright green future, I will take a job that doesn’t help me work towards it if I can’t find one that will. Times may well get tougher and I feel like I should be paying off my debt as soon as I can.

Barack Obama argued that becoming We the People once more can be done “by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” Moving to a bright green future together means starting with what we need to succeed together. Personal and environmental health, welfare, education, and safety are all the same agenda, not that of any one faction, but that of We the People. And we have already started.

See and read Barack Obama's speech I reference here. It is inspiring.

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