Szuhaj: Patriotic Environmentalism

Protecting the environment is necessary for America’s economic welfare.

by Ben Szuhaj | 4/14/17 12:15am

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by almost one-third. With the signing of his recent executive order, he has taken the first step in repealing former President Barack Obama’s climate policies, such as the Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce emissions of U.S. power plants by 32 percent by 2030. None of Trump’s anti-environment pro-big-business policies should come as a surprise: this is a man who, on the campaign trail, expressed time and again his desire to rebuild America’s fossil fuel industry. Doing so — resurrecting this once-stalwart center of our nation — is passed off by many politicians as a patriotic act and therefore a worthy goal. Surely there is nothing more American, more laudable, then re-opening the coal mines! Yet, once patriotic sentimentality is stripped away, the problem becomes clear: regardless of whether you believe in climate change, repealing policies designed to protect our environment and giving the coal industry one last hurrah before alternative energy sources become more accessible to all is not just short-sighted; it is economically harmful for America’s future.

To start, we need to understand certain groups’ historical advantage in exploiting the environment. American history can be viewed through a multitude of lenses, some rose-tinted, others not — for the sake of this explanation, I would like to view it through what I call, the “lens of the land.”

In this narrative, intrepid European colonists happen upon a supposedly untouched land replete with flora and fauna and Native people; a continental swath of variable wilderness home to hardwood forests and endless bison and prosperous societies; bordered by oceans swollen with mackerel and cod, innervated by rivers yet to be polluted, teeming with salmon, trout and bass.

In this narrative, scrappy Europeans heroically revolt from their tyrannous English oppressor and bravely expand across the continent under the watchful eye of their benevolent God. From there, they map the Great Unknown, reapportion land for the benefit of frontier farmers, sow “amber waves of grain” alongside other Good Old American Boys and watch as train tracks are laid by the black, yellow, sometimes red hands of 10,000 anonymous men, here and there, as industry zips across the continent by steam engine.

This is the American manifest in our political imagination. It is an America of white men striding across the continent they stole (or, at the very least, took through a combination of force and deception — what I mean to say is they did not “inherit” it) and ceaselessly pursuing their American Dream by following the ever-expanding frontier. This history is centered around an exploitation of the land. It assumes that if you are white and male, you have a right to the land. It assumes that resources exist to be consumed by white men. The American Dream is, in essence, about exploitation and consumption. Even though it has come to mean many different things to many different people over time, it is rooted in a nefarious history of white male privilege that always operates under the surface when we, and especially politicians, talk about America and what it means to live an “American life.”

What does this have to do with Trump’s environmental policy? It underscores the bias with which American politicians talk about industries such as mining. If you listened only to the speeches of campaigning politicians, you would believe that each and every American coal miner is a prosperous, industrious, religious man down on his luck thanks to the evil, conspiratorial forces of environmental regulation. Yet there are plenty of other people, from Harlem to San Diego, who are “down on their luck” but have been left out of the dialogue of the self-made man with which our country is so enamored. They are not heard, in part because they are not as politically unified as groups such as American Coal Miners, but also because they do not resemble the mythologized virtuous white male ideal that still haunts our American identity. On the other hand, this “virtuous white male” is disproportionately heard in the political arena. Mining in the third quarter of 2016 yielded $271.6 billion, or only 1.5 percent of our GDP. Despite this group’s outsized voice, coal mining does not represent even close to a majority of the U.S. economy.

So where do we go from here? The obvious answer is, “not backwards.” To stay a global political and economic power, we must cherish our environment more than we cherish a sentimental notion of a historically white America. In the near future, climate change will likely come to be seen by a quorum of world leaders as the chief threat to the safety and happiness of their citizens. The Paris Climate Agreement, which President Obama supported, is evidence that we are heading toward this inevitable outcome. Regardless of our beliefs toward climate change, American commitment to combating it will become increasingly important to maintaining our position as an influential world power. Additionally, as wind, solar and hydroelectric energy becomes cheaper and more widely used, the potential for economic growth will continue to skew toward the successful development of those technologies and away from the futile propping-up of industries such as coal and oil. We are in a strange position as a technologically advanced nation perfectly posed to invest heavily in developing alternative energy sources that also has a long, surreptitious history of exploitation, consumption and a dogged reassurance in the inexhaustibility of our land.

I do not doubt the American continent’s rugged beauty. I do, however, along with the vast majority of the scientific community, doubt the inexhaustibility of our resources. We, as Americans, are not great because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the physical limit of our nation’s natural resources. We are great for choosing to protect what remains undeveloped in our country, if not solely to protect the environment then to bolster our economy and maintain global influence. We must lead the rest of the world toward a sustainable future rather than eventually following in its tracks with soot on our face.

The current administration seeks to loosen the rules so that big business can squeeze whatever’s left from a quickly draining pot of natural riches. Because of our historical inheritance, this irresponsible, greedy act is justified by the necessity of helping “regular Americans,” which is to say, working-class white Americans. While that demographic deserves to be heard, the current ways they are being “helped” are short-sighted, crude and informed by sentimentality. We must learn to have a responsible, informed dialogue about all those political expletives: “climate change,” “alternative energy,” etc. While it may not be the sexiest conversation for political theater, it is one of the most important. Patriotism is about loving your country. If that is true, then I can imagine nothing more patriotic than a literal love for the country, a passion for the land — for cherishing its natural beauty by developing cleaner energy, protecting the environment and leading the fight to stop climate change.