I am an environmentalist. I'm still proud to say that, although being an environmentalist today is almost embarrassing—like being an atheist or an artist. People see you as sort of odd and pathetic and unreasonable. It often seems that the purpose of many of the major environmental groups in the United States is simply to oppose everything, adopting causes like fighting growth because it will disrupt the habitat of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Let's face it, most people don't really care about the habitat of a mouse and fighting a major battle over the issue makes environmentalists look silly and out of touch.
It shouldn't be this way. No one would argue that we should ignore the environmental consequences of development. No one thinks we should flush sewage directly into our rivers and lakes. No one wants toxic chemicals spewed into the atmosphere. But they know that modern life is full of compromises and that we can't have perfectly pristine streams when there are 285 million people in this country.
When I was growing up, my grandparents lived on a farm in Iowa. I spent many summer days at the farm and loved caring for the fields and the livestock. But there is little that is natural about a farm today. The native plants and wildlife are not permitted to survive. Most farmers use chemicals and fertilizer on their fields. A traditional environmental response would be to say that farming is inherently bad. Can you image the environmentalist response today if Iowa was untouched grasslands and people started plowing up huge swaths? But we need farms, and also new homes and new factories.
I recently read an essay by Michael Shellenburger and Ted Nordhaus entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.” The authors argue that the traditional environmental movement has become irrelevant because it is out of touch with the public. They argue that when there's an issue as big as global warming, and the environmental movement responds that the solution is compact fluorescent light bulbs or hybrid cars, they trivialize the issue. To survive, they feel, the environmental establishment needs to evolve, to adapt, to find some true vision.
Public works professionals, almost by definition, are environmentalists and are in the perfect position to help build that new vision. Part of the charter the public has given us is to protect the environment of our cities and counties, to keep them clean and healthy, to find solutions that achieve balance between growth and quality of life. Don't be afraid to call yourself an environmentalist and maybe soon that moniker will be one we can use with pride.
Editor in Chief