A conversation for Earth Week 2016
Centre College | April 21, 2016
You are probably wondering about the title of today's convocation. Let me share Margaret Mead's list of things to do that she would give her students though these are not what today's conversation centers on:
(Ms. Mead later qualified this, in response to a student's inquiry, and said the Russian didn't have to be old.)
It is a distinct pleasure to be here with you today, and I thank Professor Miles for the invitation to participate in this year's convocation.
I have been asked to reflect on the state of Kentucky's environment: where we've been, where we are and where we are going, and most importantly, on the role that each of us plays in shaping our future.
I always like to begin with full disclosure of my background so that you may appropriately discount all that will follow. I direct the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and technical assistance without charge to low-income individuals, to community organizations, and to local governments on air, waste, water, land use and resource extraction issues. My perspective has been forged by thirty-six years of representing those who live downhill, downwind and downstream of mining operations. In that time, I have buried one friend and client who was crushed to death by slurry from a coal waste dam collapse, and I have seen the lives and peace of mind of countless others subject to avoidable injury and damage.
If the field of environmental protection can be characterized in gross terms as the adjustment of the rights and responsibilities as among those upwind and downwind, the uphill and downhill, and those upstream and downstream, KRC represents those who live downhill, downstream and downwind, and who have borne disproportionately the adverse health and quality of life impacts of our economic and political decision-making. These are impacts that should be internalized but which are instead shifted off-budget and are paid, at dear cost, by those least able to bear them. No one ever calls KRC because they are having a good day they call because they are in crisis because those things most precious to them home, health, family - have been placed in jeopardy and they are frightened and angry.
And they have lost their faith.
Those costs come from our thoughtless, careless, indifferent expenditure of our natural capital the building blocks of life, as if they were interest. They are costs borne disproportionately by disadvantaged people, by people without means and lacking political power, by people of color.
Unquestionably, during the intervening years since the first Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million Americans took part in a national teach-in on the environment, we have improved in stewardship of our natural resources. The level of responsibility for the management of wastes, and for air and water pollution has been raised from the era when strip miners indiscriminately bulldozed family cemeteries over the outslopes of east Kentucky's mountains, and hazardous wastes were dumped into ravines at the Valley of the Drums. We no longer dig trenches and shoot drums of waste to dispose of them, as did the M&T Chemical Plant in Carrollton. Our major rivers do not catch fire as did Ohio's Cuyahoga. Releases of pollutants into our air, land and water resources occur under controls contained in permits issued by state or federal agencies. Our tolerance for the most obvious abuses of the environment is less than in the past, and even the largest polluting industries seek to spin a "green" image.
Yet despite the progress that has been made in reducing pollution loading, we have not kept pace with the needs in improving and safeguarding our air, water and land quality. It is only the most undiscerning person who could state with any confidence that our efforts have been successful in mitigating the legacy of environmental damage, in preventing current damage, and in achieving a level of performance and accountability that assures that our children will have the choices that we have, and will have the quality of environment and life that we enjoy and take for granted.
While most people believe that the time in which they live is one of "great choices," ours is indeed a critical time in which we will, by design or by default, make choices in our economic and natural resource policy that will define the future of our state.
We face growing natural resource development pressure and witness the adverse impacts of that pressure on our private and public forest lands, and on land and water resources damaged by oil, gas and coal operations.
Our family farms face an uncertain future due to loss of the traditional twin sources of financial support, to our cheap food policies, and increasing urban development pressures that threaten the viability of agricultural communities as independent, small and moderate-scale operations.
The biological integrity of our streams, the quality and supply of our water, the productive capability of our forest and agricultural lands, the air quality in, and the quality of life in our commonwealth hang in the balance, depending on the wisdom of our decisions concerning regulatory and budgetary policy.
Our economic fortunes as a state have been largely linked to cheap energy powered by coal combustion. It is cheap, but it has cost dearly. We have among the lowest combined rates for electricity, yet far from the lowest utility bills, because we have not valued efficiency in conversion and use of that energy.
Kentucky's challenge is how to prepare for the inevitable transition from an economy that has been powered by extractive industries and low-cost electricity, to an economy that can better sustain and meet the needs of all of our state's residents, and remain competitive in a regional and global economy while more fully accounting for the ecological costs of resource extraction, energy generation, and industrial production.
We have cooked the books on energy and fossil fuels for some time, and we are entering a period where we are reaping globally the bitter harvest of our ecological arrogance. We are at a crisis point during which our political will and our technological capacities will be sorely tested. I believe we are up to the task, but the first step is to recognize that our actions and our inactions are directly related to the continuation of the practices we find so disturbing.
In the agricultural sector, the challenges are no less pressing. With the dramatic changes in the markets for both tobacco and livestock, the two reliable cash producers have declined. It is not happenstance that Kentucky has had among the highest number of small and moderate independent farming operations, and the challenge facing rural Kentucky, and indeed the state, is how to grow markets, to invest in farm communities, to create a stable, environmentally responsible, sustainable agricultural sector in the state.
The rise of the corporate, industrial agricultural model in chicken, hog and other livestock operations in the state has a corrosive effect on the fabric of rural communities, pitting farmer against farmer, and rural towns against adjacent farms. The concentration of poultry and livestock on feedlots brings attendant air, waste and water pollution problems, and replaces independent farming operations with a contractual production model in which the control and financial gain is concentrated up the chain and drained from communities while the risks and responsibility for adverse environmental impacts are shifted to the backs of the individual contract operators.
Another issue of significance is the legacy of waste mismanagement. We have thousands of sites across the state in which hazardous substances were released, uncontrolled, into the environment and have contaminated land and water resources. Among these are the category of former industrial or commercial sites known as "Brownfields," ranging from mildly contaminated to superfund-eligible sites, and hundreds that are under the current control and ownership of the companies whose previous activities caused the contamination. In the area of hazardous waste management, the past two decades have seen a steady drumbeat from industry to lower clean-up responsibility, to make less conservative risk assumptions, and to erode accountability for improperly-disposed and poorly-managed wastes. There are profound scientific and moral issues associated with remediation of contaminated properties, and defending a regulatory framework for assuring that these sites are returned to productive use while protecting human health is a constant fight.
In land management, our future is no less challenging. I don't agree with Robert Kennedy Jr. that we are "hard-wired" to be destructive, but we certainly are an interesting and dangerous mixture of arrogance and ignorance in our manipulation of our physical environment.
In our unrelenting pursuit of creature comfort, we literally upend heaven and earth to get at natural resources, pave and widen more roads to move more quickly from one place to another, fill floodplains, wetlands and river headwaters to reshape the face of the earth to our whim, simply because we can. In our community of Metro Louisville, and probably elsewhere, we punctuate our destruction of habitat and conversion of farmland and natural areas with a flourish of contempt, by naming the development for the prominent natural features we drained, ditched or obliterated to make way for the development. We have our Fox Runs and I'm sure they did when the bulldozers arrived. We have our Thousand Oaks.
We are, as Paul Ehrlich once noted, in a spaceship hurtling through the universe, pulling out the bolts of species diversity and ecological health from the ship's hull and discarding them one by one.
Our great challenge lies not in any particular practice. It lies in ourselves in our inability to envision that we are and can be better than we've become. We are so used to being a cheap date a state whose attractiveness to the industry has been a combination of rock-bottom environmental standards and cheap power -- that we have a hard time envisioning ourselves otherwise. The tension between the new economy and the old, between community health and our unquenching desire for cheap power and the efforts by those who stands to profit in the short-term to advance the interests of the Kentucky extractive industries over the public interest, is unrelenting.
Perhaps our greatest challenge in protecting Kentucky's natural resources is to change a mindset that doing the bare minimum required of us is a fit legacy for our children to become firmly and creatively intolerant of environmental injustice and of mediocrity in our management of our environment. Our public policy has been driven for many years by a powerful myth that environmental quality is at odds with economic progress. We have enshrined in each of our major environmental laws the NO MORE STRINGENT policy converting national minimum standards, adopted in order to prevent states from racing to the bottom, our maximum standards, shackling us to the bottom rung of environmental progress. We starve the budget of the agency sworn to protect the very building blocks of our states health, and wonder why it is that many of our rivers are unsafe to wade or swim, and why the air quality in our state's largest city continues to injure public health each summer.
Margaret Mead was right, when she said We won't have a society if we destroy the environment. You cannot build a healthy economy with an ailing environment.
We won't have a society if we destroy the environment.
You cannot expect to create a healthy economy while failing to invest in public health and environmental protection. We have eked by, doing the bare minimum required of us, and as the federal framework of environmental protection has been dismantled since the advent of the Reagan Revolution, we have seen an erosion in polluter accountability at the state level.
Where formerly the rule of law was that if you contaminate land, you clean up your mess, we have eroded that accountability and shifted the cost of cleaning up the mess to the public and in particular, to future generations.
We profess to value children, yet we shortchange them at every turn, saddling them with the ecological costs we refuse to pay as the bills for our lifestyles come due.
Where our goal was to end pollution of air and water by 1985, we now have stalled, reducing our agencies to licensing degradation rather than setting the bar higher to keep pace with the need and our capability.
We aspire to a healthy environment, even to the point that the polls consistently show that environmental protection is favored even over economic growth (as if that were a real choice), yet we accept so much less as public policy and in our elected officials.
So how we get the job done? What can you do to effect positive change?
Just as we are each a part of the problem, you are an important part of the solution. Your voice, your actions, can help to create the changes needed to foster a more just and sustainable community.
Just as we are each a part of the problem, you are an important part of the solution. Your voice, your actions, can help to create the changes needed to foster a more just and sustainable community.
You have got power - as a consumer, as a voter, as a citizen, as a mentor, as a student, as a participant in electoral politics.
We can make a cleaner Kentucky, by being more accountable in the waste we generate and demanding that those who contaminate land and water resources bear the full cost of cleaning up, not hiding, paving or masking, their mess.
We can make a safer Kentucky, by requiring that those who store, manufacture, transport and use hazardous materials reduce their reliance on those materials and in so, reduce the risks to host communities. Homeland security comes from risk reduction through decreased reliance on hazardous chemicals, not from duct tape, plastic and depriving communities of the right to know of the chemical risks posed by their industrial neighbors.
We can demand that environmental agencies be fully funded, not as an afterthought, and not on a starvation budget but at a level sufficient to assure that environmental laws and permits are fully enforced. And we must demand that they do enforce those laws.
We can make a healthier Kentucky, by investing our consumer food dollars in locally owned, healthy agricultural products providing Kentucky farmers with fair prices for their product. Just as you can't complain about the loss of your community's small businesses or the plight of workers not paid a living wage while you're buying at Wal-Mart, you can't complain about the inhumane conditions and pollution problems of factory farms while you're buying factory-produced chicken and pork. The direct link between contract agriculture and farmer's markets and the consumer is a simple, yet radical, rebuilding of relationships that sustain community.
We can make a healthier Kentucky, by investing our consumer food dollars in locally owned, healthy agricultural products providing Kentucky farmers with fair prices for their product...The direct link between contract agriculture and farmer's markets and the consumer is a simple, yet radical, rebuilding of relationships that sustain community.
Margaret Mead was right when she said never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does!
Our recent history is replete with examples of how people of good will can become so much more when working together as co-conspirators for positive change. The recent successful battle regarding the Bluegrass NGL Pipeline, and the current fight against the Kinder-Morgan UMTP project, reflect what can and what needs to be done, working together.
Citizen campaigns are often "retail, focusing on a crisis and reacting to the crisis, without affecting or altering the policies, the institutions, and the politics that spawn the crises. We must become more focused on the institutions, on the economic policies, on the politics that create such a disconnect between what we profess to value and believe, and the policies of our elected officials and business leaders.
Build coalitions. Retail (issue or crisis-centered) organizing campaigns are exhausting and unsustaining. Durable (wholesale) change comes through the creation and recreation of institutions to meet community needs and to sustain and uplift communities. Become that smart grid by working together across lines to create change!
Get wet. Take the plunge into active volunteerism.
Connect the dots and work for reform in governance. When offices go to the highest bidder and the wealthiest candidate, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, the poor, children, the environment, the public's interest suffer. As we go forward together, we must remind ourselves always that accommodating injustice never made the unjust more just.
Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office.
Quiz candidates on their environmental platforms. Support those who stand for improved environmental quality, and oppose those whose records justify that opposition. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate those candidates who don't.
Hold your elected officials accountable. Environmental quality and justice should be the defining issues for your votes in the upcoming election cycle and beyond.
Bear witness, risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity. We must reconnect our policies with our moral values. Our failure in the stewardship of natural resources, and the careless and at times horrific damage inflicted on nature in war and in peace, reflects a moral crisis. Our policies must be driven by values more enduring and more robust, than the quarterly bottom line.
Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
God did not call us to succeed, but to serve.
Not to win, but to work.
Not to be happy, but to be hopeful.
Not to fame, but to faith.
Not to seek power, but to seek peace.
God did not call us to loot the earth and each other,
God called us to love our earth and each other.
Margaret Mead was right when she said Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.
Think about the behaviors you pattern, and sit at the feet of those who came before you, just as you mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political and economic environment?
As Mother Teresa told the interviewer who wondered how she persevered in the face of overwhelming need "one soul at a time" beginning with our own. Never despair that your efforts are too small; too little to make a difference.
Recall the words that Marian Wright Edelman penned in prayer
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
Be creatively intolerant. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in environmental pollution never made a polluting industry or an indifferent politician more responsible.
Approach problem-solving with an open mind, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, that we arrive at solutions. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words in the early 1950's at a time like now when, it is at times difficult to find evidence that we have made progress in those things that matter:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing that is true and beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe
as it is from our standpoint;
therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Let us aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and our environment. Let us be catalysts for good, facing our tomorrows with hope and humility and continuing together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the environmental legacy we will leave to our children's children.