In the past decade, environmental discourse in America has been wholly dominated by climate change. Americans are natural born world police – we cannot help looking for another West, another frontier. At the same time environmental theorists have struggled to define sociology or economics in their work, preferring to make natural resources the unit of analysis. Yet it is agreed that nature is invaluable, without a good justification.
As we have advanced towards urban life, we Americans have craved rural life and frontier life in our own – organic food and flannel shirts, however trendy, are call-backs to that world. But we are not the first urbanites to idealize and romanticize the outdoors. Manifest destiny was colored by a portrait of a grand landscape. For who and what has always been split between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian vision of economic society. The latter camp would see the forest for sawing trees to make houses, clearing land for agriculture and pasture, setting up new postal bureaus; the former would see the same, only much greener and less pavement.
Today in the New York times an op-ed piece pointed out neither Romney nor Santorum have even the slightest idea of either notion, completely lacking a sense of land in American history. In Romney’s case, having grown up in Michigan, the irony of singing ‘America the Beautiful’ at every chance is only too ironic. And Santorum follows the standard of his conservative base by promising to sell off all public land to the private sector, in a race to out-do anyone else’s plan for expansion.
Does this heinous proposal mirror the will of the American people? It is unclear. We are mostly an urban and suburban population now, and our concept of forests, open-space, and frontier are mostly dominated by forgotten ideals on one side, and polemical economic debates about labor and industry on the other. These have very little to do with the economic, developmental, or social reality of rural-urban geography. It is rarely in a company’s interest to build far away from cities and in uncleared land unless it is an extractive or polluting industry with no barriers to land use. Santorum’s ugly, thoughtless plan would certainly decimate the remaining pristine land we have left.
In the past several years, civil society in America has reawakened. There has been a massive shift in possibilities for renewal since the last major dip in our economy in the 1980s. While our global outlook is commendable, we must return to protecting our own backyard. It is folly to think that our greatest virtues are in protecting people elsewhere in the world without first taking stock of our own. As Egan points out in the article,
Gifford Pinchot, was the founder of the modern Forest Service. Pinchot was a rich man who spent his life advocating for places where “the little man,” in his parlance, would be king.
From a point of view where society’s merit is measured by how it treats its poor and vulnerable, protecting the environment is inherently not a matter of reducing pollution and protecting species in every which way possible, but negotiating development’s windy road to preserve what is possible to preserve for future generations of people, so that people have space to return to and seek out in times of need, not simply to fuel the middle class dream of owning land.