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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2017

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Election Fever

As I write this, we in the United States have had one of the most momentous elections the republic has ever experienced. It is hard not to think about the stakes in this election, stakes for our nation as well as the whole world.

The stakes for the environment are huge. Despite all the polls that predicted the opposite, the United States has elected a climate change denier, who has promised to bring back the burning of large amounts of coal, and has said he will roll back President Obama's climate change agenda. The appointments he has made thus far seem aimed at carrying out this agenda.

It is very timely, then, that the articles in this issue remind us of the consequences of decisions to be made in the next American administration. And an article in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Jefferson Cowie entitled “The Great White Nope: Poor, Working Class, and Left Behind in America” tells us much about why the battles have been so ferocious. Cowie points out that many working-class people feel abandoned by the very policies that leading politicians of all ideologies have promoted for decades. Cowie writes, “Technological and financial innovations have fostered economic and social vitality in urban centers on the coasts.” However, much of this vitality has bypassed the former industrial areas, which have become increasingly known as the “Rust Belt.”

Susan L. Cutter, an executive editor of this magazine, tells us in her article “The Perilous Nature of Food Supplies: Natural Hazards, Social Vulnerability, and Disaster Resilience” that “the disproportionate impact of food insecurity on lower income households has a direct bearing on adverse health outcomes such as obesity.” The “increasing frequency of more extreme weather events” leads to even more food insecurity, again affecting poor people more seriously. It is a vicious cycle we must interrupt if we are to have any hope of a more sustainable world.

From Matthew J. Currell and Dongmei Han's article “The Global Drain: Why China's Water Pollution Problems Should Matter to the Rest of the World” we learn that America is not the only country where anger has been expressed over disproportionate impact on the disadvantaged. In this case, the focal point is pollution of drinking-water supplies. As everyone knows, China has had dramatic growth in gross domestic product (GDP) over the last decade, with great wealth accumulating to many. We also know, however, that much of this wealth has been accumulated by the few, leaving many behind. The authors report that, for example, “more than 80% of the shallow groundwater in large parts of northern China is affected by pollution, rendering it unusable for drinking without treatment.” They report an increasing public outcry, with many in China feeling that those who get the benefit of this rapid growth are not the people paying for it in terms of environmental degradation. Pointing out that many might feel that this is primarily China's problem, the authors state that China's pollution problem is, in fact, an international concern. The success of the country's policies in stimulating its tremendous growth “required extensive bilateral cooperation, which was fostered and encouraged by foreign governments, particularly the United States.” Even seemingly local issues, such as the pollution of a local source of drinking water, must therefore be seen as part of a larger, global, whole.

Turning back to America, we know that Alaska, the only part of the country that extends above the Arctic Circle, has significant problems resulting from rising sea levels. Many Inuit communities are in danger of, or have already experienced, flooding that makes their villages uninhabitable. In his column for this issue, Henry P. Huntington points to a success story involving the protection of Pacific walruses by the Iñupiat community of Point Lay. I will leave you to read the compelling story, which includes the World Wildlife Fund bringing hunters from Chukotka, Russia, to Point Lay to share experiences in protecting walruses. As Huntington says, these kinds of success stories show the potential for cooperation among indigenous communities, often among the very poorest populations, and government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This will be extremely important in the future, as the increasing attempts to develop Alaska's natural resources gain momentum. For a very interesting example of the tensions that can result from such proposed developments, see Sam Snyder's two-part series in Environment magazine on the Pebble Mine controversy (“Bristol Bay Wild Salmon, Pebble Mine, and Intractable Conflict: Lessons for Environmental Studies and Sciences,” March/April 2014; “Controversy in Bristol Bay: Coexistence, Mitigation, and Common Ground Over the Pebble Mine,” September/October 2014).

Finally, the tensions brought to the fore by the U.S. election have been felt in the halls of Congress for years, and the failures resulting from the political gridlock in the U.S. Capitol are detailed in the commentary by Janet Wilson and Oladele Ogunseitan, “A Call for Better Toxics Policy Reform.” The title tells it all; we simply have to do better to prevent people from being exposed to potentially toxic chemicals.

Now that the election is over, our activity should not stop. The job of the citizenry is not to sit back, but to get to work. To tell our elected representatives, whomever they may be, that we want action, not a rollback of environmental policies. The idea of an election is to choose people who will govern, not posture and make speeches. To do that requires negotiation for the public good, not for some ideology, whether it be on the right or the left. There are many things on which we disagree, but let us not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. There is a reason people are angry; we need to turn that anger into positive action.       

—Alan H. McGowan

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