Your economy or your environment?

Your economy or your environment? – the role of people in environmental conservation and destruction

Bill Rooney

AMERICAN FORESTS convenes a conference to begin building a new ecological underpinning for a world we can live with.

Aftershocks from the political earthquake three days earlier were being felt clearly in the nation’s epicenter as AMERICAN FORESTS brought together a group of movers and shakers to probe an issue that is on most people’s minds these days. “People as Positive Agents of Environmental Change” was the theme of a November 6 gathering of experts and observers who were welcomed to the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel by AMERICAN FORESTS President Charles M. Tarver.

Executive Vice President Neil Sampson and author/educator Daniel Botkin set the tone of the day’s fisticuffs by posing the question central to Botkin’s much-discussed book Discordant Harmonies: Are human activities “unnatural” and a constant source of environmental destruction, as the “natural-balance” school of environmental thinking has long held? Or are we people just one of the causes of change in a natural world that is in a constant state of fluctuation–and thereby capable of having either a positive or a negative role in the environment?

Botkin, professor of environmental studies at the University of California and president of the Center for Study of the Environment, urged that we as a nation take a deep look at our approaches to resource conservation, which up to now, he said, have been based on ideologies and mythologies that are contradicted by fact. Example: A California proposition outlaws the taking of mountain lions for any reason. But do these furtive creatures do best if left entirely on their own, in a time when human encroachment has reduced their habitat to a shrinking island of remote land? Does nature really know best?

If it does, then we humans can walk away, not worry about gathering scientific knowledge or making difficult choices about how we live. But if we concur that in this changing world we must do what we can to make our human impacts positive, then we must gather as much knowledge as we can. Only then will we discover our real role in the dynamics of nature, and be able to change our behavior and manage our world accordingly.

Once Botkin had drawn boundaries around the conference theme, a triumvirate of workshops spotlighted a series of “Positive Agents of Environmental Change.”

Can corporations fill that bill? Listeners would say that certainly The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, as represented by COO Ruth Otte, and Bull Worldwide Information Systems, represented by public affairs director Timothy Kilduff, are corporate good guys. Both companies are major partners in AMERICAN FORESTS’ Global ReLeaf program.

Abetted by striking video presentations, Otte proved TV’s ability to fascinate and stimulate the environmental juices, and that advertisers are very willing to support such programming. Kilduff, citing Bull’s Arbor program, said that the vital factor in corporate America’s increasing willingness to build alliances with conservation/environmental groups is the creation of trust-based relationships, and he suggested some practical guidelines.

Presenting the case for how individual citizens can effect environmental change were Charles McLaughlin of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Dona Chambers of the national urban forestry group Alliance for Community Trees. McLaughlin lauded the land-stewardship projects of his group and Iowa’s Trees Forever, many of them driven by “kid power.” And Chambers talked about Trees for Houston, a nonprofit group that has been able to generate and support a special synergy with urban-forestry professionals, government agencies, and national organizations like AMERICAN FORESTS. “The more we partner,” she said, “the more effective we are.”

And speaking of government agencies, a couple of brave speakers opined that they too can be agents of positive change. Former U.S. Representative from Rhode Island Claudine Schneider cited her current work as director of the Artemis Project, a study to determine the economic and scientific values of biodiverse natural resources. Government, she said, can and should help break the myth of the either/or syndrome–the economy or the environment.

We must know the impacts of our actions, she said. There are 1,000 new residents in Florida every day; 10 years from now, there may well not be enough water to support the people there. Using recycling as an example, she said, “Economic options abound to reduce consumption and be good stewards of our earth.”

Maryland state Senator Gerald Winegrad highlighted actions that can be taken by local government–empowering people to plant trees, recycle, and teach responsibility through partnerships. He issued a plea for government to be more involved with the technology of environmentalism, and mentioned specifically the many values of the neem tree.

After a break for a lunchtime tree planting on the Ellipse near the White House, and presentation of the annual AMERICAN FORESTS awards, there began what was billed as a roundtable discussion. Short-arms skirmish might be a more descriptive term for what happened that afternoon as winds whipped autumn leaves around outside.

Most of the morning’s speakers–joined by Mollie Beattie, until recently deputy director of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and The Discovery Channel’s Chris Moseley–were peppered with rapid-fire questions and comments by moderator Paul Solman, business correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.

Bill Rooney is the editor of American Forests magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Forests

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