Saturday, December 17, 2005

Wilderness and Economic Priorities

A Washington Post article recently described BushCheney and his “Drill Everywhere” administration in their final throes of pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. The article contrasts the grandiose rhetoric used by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao with the reality of ANWR’s relatively small contribution to America’s energy security and economic security. Norton and Chao promise decades of oil from ANWR–29 years’ supply for Florida, 315 years to New Hampshire–but they demur when asked about national supply, which turns out to be about 18 months or four percent of national needs. Norton discounts the relatively small numbers saying that perspective assumes “...unless a source of energy is going to meet all of America's needs then it's not worth looking at.”

Norton’s point logically flows from a world view that all economic activity should be pursued at the decision of those who stand to profit. This view offers no place for the Common Good, the values and needs of the larger community. In Norton’s view enterprise and profit create the economics that support individual liberty and security; government only serves to harm business so it just needs to get out of the way. Norton is hardly alone; this world view is the core of the entire BushCheney claque that hijacked America in 2000 and 2004. It is a false conclusion based on a reasonable premise.

The reasonable premise is that business creates jobs that support Americans, a premise evident in the myriad industries, retailers, tradesmen, professional and other entities that perform the work of society and provide its goods. The transactions that occur create the economy that supports workers.

Except that it does not. Many are excluded from the economy because of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and health. Those who work are often unable to support themselves and their families working full time. Even workers in industries with progressive labor practices are finding their economic security threatened by outsourcing, wage reductions and reduced health benefits. Health care is at best tenuous for most Americans. So simply citing job numbers and assuming that ends the arguement about the Common Good makes no real case for unfettered business discretion.

The article quotes Secretary Chao that oil exploration in ANWR will create a million jobs, a figure “ compelling that even environmental groups might be willing to chase the caribou out of ANWR.” The actual result is considerably less, naturally. Even at a million jobs, though, I would continue question the wisdom of opening ANWR to exploration. ANWR represents one of the few places on earth not yet subject to large scale (ie, motorized) human intrusion. Drilling supporters make much of the very few acres of actual drilling sites but ignore the more extensive impact of the logistics network needed to support the activity. The impact would forever change one of the last, wild places on this planet. In my world view, saving the few remaining wild places is very important. These places represent to me the soul of life on earth, life of which human beings are a part but hardly the only part. Using our advanced brains, motor skills and dexterity we have systematically conquered the natural limitations of habitat and disease so that our numbers have overwhelmed much of the earth, crowding out other species and natural systems. It’s time to slow down and give this fragile blue planet a break. ANWR is the place to stop.

But what about jobs and the economy, you ask. We must have energy from somewhere if we are to survive and prosper. True, but America has options other than eternal reliance on oil. Conservation is the cheapest, most readily available source of new energy. Alternative technologies offer new opportunities to meet our energy requirements, especially so if this nation commits resources to development in the same manner it did for the moon landing program four decades ago.

What it comes down to, then, is that I strongly believe that wild places should remain wild, that they are an essential component of nature’s soul, without which we lose our humanity, our connection to the natural world that created us. I would look for other ways to provide our economic security. The Drill Everywhere crowd sees it differently. They accept no restraint.


The Drill Everywhere crowd is especially distressed at the likelihood of yet another failure to get into ANWR. This was the year they figured that they finally had it made. Knowing full well that drilling in ANWR could never pass a likely fillibuster, they tucked it into the budget bill which cannot be fillibustered and where debate is limited. Imagine their horror as that bill ran aground on the differences between House and Senate on budget cuts and tax reductions, not to mention growing doubts about he wisdom of opening ANWR to exploration. No wonder their rhetoric is inflating. Their latest best hope is fading.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Eugene McCarthy (1916–2005)

Eugene McCarthy died December 10. He was 89. (His death ends an political odyssey from obscurity to national conscience and back to obscurity. After 1968, McCarthy became largely irrelevant to politics. His last years were erratic, with quixotic campaigns for president and a litany of grievances against those who did not meet his standards for political courage and policy. But however diminished in later years, Eugene McCarthy will always be the man who demonstrated that the Emperor (Lyndon Johnson) had no clothes.

As a member of the draft age pool in 1968 with two years left on my student deferment, McCarthy kindled the hope that the war in Vietnam would end before it swallowed me. And for that hope, I was profoundly grateful. Up to that point Vietnam was about me, about whether I would be swept into the war. I was only beginning to realize the death and destruction that my country was bringing to Vietnam so my motives were mostly self-interest. Eugene McCarthy (and, belatedly, Robert Kennedy) helped me understand the full tragedy of America’s war in Vietnam. He also taught me the value of political courage. His anti-war stance and presidential campaign showed me that one individual can make a difference. That the war continued for another five years (and did, in fact, sweep me into its maw) does not diminish McCarthy’s contribution. Eugene McCarthy gave me hope and understanding. I will remember him fondly for those gifts.

McCarthy’s death comes at a critical juncture for the United States in Iraq. One post at Daily Kos links to an interesting article at Foreign Policy in Focus that describes how McCarthy was a harbinger of the growing discontent with the war in Vietnam, just as Edward R. Murrow was during the Joseph McCarthy era. The article goes on to discuss Representative John Murtha plalying the same role in the debate about the Iraq war. Rep. Murtha would be well honored to wear this mantle. I only hope that his call to rethink our Iraq policy has more immediate results and that the United Stats and Iraq are not fated to suffer another five years (or more?) of combat.

This year has seen the passing of several others who were prominent in the debate about the Vietnam war, George Kennan and William Westmoreland. I remember Kennan and McCarthy with considerably more fondness than Westmoreland.