Traditionalist or Modernist?

There has been another upswell of a theoretical critique of environmentalism that I find both fascinating and frustrating. The relatively new eco-pragmatist / modernist critics say, “conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning one of its hardest fought battles — the fight to create parks, game preserves, and wilderness areas.” Instead of preserving the increasingly rare pristine landscapes, the pragmatists say we need to work with what’s left — working with development, not against it, focusing on sustainability in a changing world. The pragmatists promote a sort of glorified global gardening as a better way forward.

As someone who has been involved with the environmental movement in several states, covering a wide range of environmental issues, usually in close proximity to genuine grassroots, I’d generally concur with critics of the critique, captured by a twitter post characterizing the pro-pragmatist position as “all wooly thinking, strawman arguments, gross simplifications.” Indeed, to broadly characterize such a large and diverse “traditionalist” movement as strictly preservation-based, seems to neglect to acknowledge a number of different strains of traditional environmentalism. Moreover, to call preservation-based approaches ineffective, the pragmatist-theorists diminish what has indeed been preserved.

Nevertheless,  I’d also agree that in some instances, a more pragmatic approach could be worthwhile.  As I start a new position in a new organization, I expect the tension between traditional and modernist approaches will be in the forefront of my work. Coastal conservation in a time of climate change and rising sea levels, must necessarily be a mix of preservation, mitigation, restoration, and adaptation.  Hardening a coastline against future storm surges, for example, may actually be most efficiently accomplished through softer preservation of wetlands, dunes, and buffers.  Traditional environmental approaches may actually be the most pragmatic. On the other hand, coastal conservation needs to be especially pragmatic as coastlines are redrawn while climate change goes essentially unaddressed.

Having been on the job for only a day or two, I’ve obviously got a lot to learn. But I expect that I’ll have a lot more to say about all of this in the coming months.


Politicize the Storm

The “post-tropical storm” responsible for flooding the New York subways is another brief opportunity to reflect on the role of government before the polls close exactly one week from now.  As President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg, and Governors Christie, Cuomo, and O’Malley got about the detailed business of recovery, candidate Romney was asked 15 times about his opinions on the role of the federal government in disaster aid, and 15 times he said nothing.

As Grist notes:

“Because what’s he going to say? His campaign hedges on the issue, but he doesn’t want to deal with this, not now. He doesn’t want to have to explain his complicated feelings on government and climate change. His base wants him to destroy the former and deny the latter. So, what? Now, after 23 months of campaigning, he’s going to say: Yes, the government has a role here?”

In fact, as the New York Times says, a big storm requires big government help. This is precisely the role of the federal government. Romney’s tortured silence on the issue is troublesome.

“Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.”

Voters watching non-stop storm coverage punctuated only by breaks of non-stop political advertising are likely to connect the obvious dots. I suspect that they will want to hear what Mr. Romney has to say.

I don’t doubt Governor Romney’s sympathies, but even his gestures are misguided.  Romney, bless his heart, rallied his supporters to offer up a collection of  “flashlights, batteries, diapers, toothbrushes, mini-deodorants, fleece blankets, cereal, toilet paper and canned goods” for the huddled masses suffering on the east coast. And the boxes of the stuff will undoubtedly be delivered by somebody to somebody somewhere.

But such token generosity is way more trouble than it’s worth. Indeed, with millions of families affected by the storm and thousands in serious need of assistance, real responders urge a more responsible approach to donating and volunteering.  In very stark terms, a strong, well-organized and well-funded federal emergency response system is preferable to packing up a couple of random cases of mouthwash at a political rally. Though, to the campaign that washes already-clean pots and pans, it is perhaps better to have faux concern than no concern at all.


Lies, Damn Lies, and Math

While stormducken Sandy churned offshore, a good portion of the national elections punditocracy proved once and for all that the main reason most of them didn’t go to medical school is that they couldn’t handle the math. Elections statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog weathered some bizarre attacks, based mostly in utter innumeracy.

As Paul Krugman and others point out, it is one thing to have a reasoned discussion about Silver’s elections model and its embedded assumptions. It’s entirely another to completely misunderstand the nature of statistics and confidence levels. A third baseman hitting .250 is useful information in predicting a likelihood of his getting a hit at his next at-bat. It is not particularly useful information in describing the kinematics of the ball coming off of the bat.  The probability that President Obama will be re-elected is not automatically 50% simply because the only other possibility is that he won’t.

What Silver is doing isn’t really rocket science, but it does have a mathematical foundation. However, as Krugman notes, “On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.”



So, I look forward to the conservative alternative to The Weather Channel.