Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Conserving orcas, and humans too

One of the words you don't hear used a lot in the debate over global warming is conservationist. Most of the people raising the alarm about its effects are described as "environmentalists."

The two are related, but significantly different. Conservationism is about trying to keep the environmental resources we currently have intact; it's about ensuring that those resources are not being wasted in the short-term pursuit of the dollar. It is, in reality, conservative in the best sense of the word.

Environmentalism, in contrast, encompasses a whole panoply of beliefs aimed at improving the planet's environmental health, many of which take a much more idealistic approach to issues. Some of these -- including the so-called "deep ecology" movement -- are in fact profoundly inimical to the approach taken by conservationists. And many are, frankly, fairly radical in their belief systems.

This is partly why so many of the apologists for global warming are able to get away with pretending that their opponents are radicals with an anti-business agenda -- just call them "environmentalists" and you're halfway there to framing them negatively. It doesn't matter if you're actually talking about a mass consensus of trained scientists.

But the fight over global warming, when you get down to basics, is essentially conservationist -- it's about conserving the environment we currently have. It's about trying to prevent the catastrophic effects that radical climate change could have on all of us -- on our livelihoods, on our economies, on our survival itself. There's nothing the least bit radical about it. If anything, it is often criticized for being too accomodating, in its approach to using natural resources, to those who would exploit them.

Unfortunately, the American right -- in its knee-jerk defense of all things corporate, as well as its complete capture by religious fundamentalists -- is eager to obliterate the hard scientific realities presented on a number of political fronts, not merely global warming. So it keeps presenting a picture of scientists and their supporters as radical environmental wackos with an anti-business political agenda.

They also take a ridiculously short-term view, both economically and in the raw impact on human life (which always becomes an economic issue anyway), of the effects of their own agenda -- namely, unfettered exploitation of the environment -- on the rest of us. The results, in fact, are responsible for what is about to be a significant, and perhaps irrevocable, change in the natural world that supports us all.

When you contrast this with, say, a strictly conservationist outlook, it becomes fairly clear which party is the more genuinely radical of the two. Take your pick: the faction conducting a radical experiment on the global environment, or those warning that the change is a major disaster in the making -- and, moreover, that it can be at least ameliorated if not prevented altogether?

Yet somehow -- mostly by wrapping themselves in the mantle of "traditional" capitalist values -- the corporatists and their enablers manage to depict their opposition as the "radical" faction and themselves the "common sense" side.

This dynamic is starting to take root in the battle over the Puget Sound's endangered orcas. Lynda Mapes had a pretty solid feature on the difficult road to recovery ahead for orcas in the Sunday Seattle Times. It included this passage from the people who are filing suit to overturn the listing:
"I see catastrophic economic impacts," said Tim Harris, general counsel for the Olympia-based Building Industry Association of Washington, a plaintiff in the suit. "I see it slowing and crippling development, driving up housing costs and hurting jobs."

This is, of course, simply a short-term view of the matter. Because there will be other catastrophic impacts, of a much broader, more severe, and longer-lasting variety -- if the Puget Sound orcas are allowed to go extinct.

As Mapes' piece explains (and as I explored in depth in an earlier piece for Seattle Weekly), the orcas are an ideal indicator species of the overall health of the Puget Sound ecosystem, precisely because they are long-lived creatures who reside atop its food chain.

What we know is that when orcas start disappearing, the chief reason is that they're not getting enough to eat -- particularly the chinook salmon that constitute the large majority of their diet. There is, of course, the impact of the loss of tourism dollars drawn to see the killer whales here (estimated currently at well over a million dollars annually) would be only the first felt. If those salmon are disappearing, then whole other segments of the Puget Sound economy that make their living from it as a resource (particularly fishing) will begin to suffer. In other words, the traditional conservationists who use the Sound to make their living are going to be affected, disastrously, as well.

There is, moreover, the stark reality of the waters they inhabit:
Secondly, the recovery plan is expected to seek a reduction in pollution and chemical contamination in the orca's habitat. That would mean addressing industrial-waste disposal, agricultural and household use of chemicals. It also would mean dealing with discharge from wastewater and stormwater. And it would mean cleaning up contaminated sites and sediments.

Today, the orcas' home waters are a stew created by 17 pulp and paper mills in the Puget Sound and Georgia Basin region; 34 million gallons of raw sewage a day spewed by the city of Victoria, B.C., into the Strait of Juan de Fuca; and thousands of discharge pipes from industries, sewers and storm drains. Contaminated areas dot the region, including 24 Superfund sites around Puget Sound still not cleaned up.

Southern residents have become the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. They carry loads of toxins high enough to suppress their reproduction and make them more susceptible to disease.

The story concludes with a quote from Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research:
"It's not a popular solution. But what's called for is looking at the big picture. We have an endangered whale eating a threatened fish. We have to change our ways. I hope this is part of the wake-up."

The problem is that the armies of the right are fully invested in keeping everyone asleep on issues where science, and hard common-sense reality, are not on their side. And they do this by constantly muddying the issues, presenting false choices as the only ones available, and grossly distorting both the science and the scientific debate.

A prime example of just how intentionally obtuse they can be was noted by Chris Mooney the other day, in the form of Peggy "Divine Dolphins" Noonan's recent ruminations on global warming:
During the past week's heat wave -- it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday -- I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world's greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? Also, if global warming is real, what must--must--the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them?

Well, as Mooney points out, many of these questions were in fact directly addressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which put out a detailed report answering most of Noonans's questions back in Geneva in April 2005.

But the IPCC's answers weren't the ones that Noonan, and the Republican right generally, wanted to hear. So they keep asking the same questions, and when they get the same answers, they pretend that the politics that they say is "contaminating" the science renders any serious judgment impossible -- when in fact the only people injecting politics into the science are those on the right who are busily plugging their ears to the evidence.

But as weather maps like this become increasingly common -- as do the rolling blackouts caused by the demand for air conditioning as a result -- the evidence will keep getting harder to ignore. You can pretend, as the Bush administration has been doing, that we can all just "adjust" to the realities of global warming. But when those realities include a frying-pan America addicted to air conditioning and the energy it consumes, the economic equation begins to shift, heavily.

That, in the end, may be what finally awakens Americans to what has been happening to our national policies, especially those in which science plays a significant role. Playing semantic and partisan games with science in pursuit of short-term political and personal gain is bad for a lot of things: bad for the environment, bad for wild animals, bad for humans. But it's also bad for business.

The conservationist ethic, with its eye on preserving what we've got, always recognized this reality. It might be time to start breathing life back into it.

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