A taxpaying, meat-eating, gun-owning, Army veteran, radical environmentalist has his say

February 21, 2011|By Tom Horton

Sometimes I forget I am a radical.

Maybe because I'm a middle class, home-buying, taxpaying, meat-eating, gun-owning Methodist, proud veteran of the Boy Scouts, public schools and the United States Army — I'm lulled into thinking I'm a mainstream American.

Recently, I was set straight by a well-stated letter to the editor from a reader (let's call him Gentle Reader).

My first reaction was to dismiss it as a rant. The headline said: "Environmental education will radicalize our youth."

Gentle Reader was concerned about the Maryland Board of Education's approval of adding environmental literacy to the curriculum for all students.

The aim of this, he argued, is nothing less than "radicalization of our young."

He explained that environmentalists like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Sierra Club —and me and many other Marylanders who backed this greening of the public schools — want to stop human growth on the planet.

We want to raise the cost of energy.

We want to take productive farmland out of cultivation.

We are Chicken Littles, sounding alarms about the ozone hole, global warming and endangered species.

Well, I think Gentle Reader is on to something. I want to plead guilty on all counts. It's something environmentalists ought to do more.

If we hadn't screamed until governments banned the airborne chemicals tearing a hole in Earth's protective ozone layer, we'd all be living at the dermatologists' office. As it is, children still get more cancer-causing ultraviolet light in several years than their grandparents did in a lifetime.

If you think global warming's a hoax, then you don't believe thermometers take temperature. A thermometer read for decades by scientists off the end of a pier on the Chesapeake shows a steady heating of bay waters. This warming trend is killing eelgrass beds, submerged grasses that form one of the lower Delmarva Peninsula's most important fish and crab nurseries.

Endangered species? There are more every time scientists look. Sure, it has been worse before, when humans weren't even around. As in 65 million years ago, when a giant meteor smacked into Earth. This time we've got some warning, got some choices.

As to raising the cost of energy: Absolutely. The health, safety and environmental damage from fueling our economy are nowhere near reflected in the price of coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy. Until we account their true costs, we'll keep making wrong decisions — like living a long drive from work in homes that guzzle energy.

And what about taking productive farmland out of cultivation?

Why it's one of our greatest achievements. It's a national program that pays willing farmers to leave part of their fields in grass or trees, to filter and buffer waterways against polluted runoff.

If you seriously want to end farming, I'd advise continuing to oppose those Chicken Little environmentalists who keep sounding the alarms against sprawl development.

And finally we come to Gentle Reader's allegation that we greenies want to stop human growth.


No one seriously thinks our population or our economy can expand forever on a finite planet. Especially if we care about leaving room for the rest of nature.

There is not a shred of economic theory that says you have to grow forever to prosper. Yet we blindly accept that message from developers and land speculators, with governments planning and spending more for those yet to move in than for those already living here.

With today's "grow or die" mentality, if we were Noah, we'd be busily evicting all of the ark's occupants to pack the decks with more people.

Bottom line, though: Gentle Reader makes a point that needs more discussion than it gets. In today's hyper-consumptive United States, focused as it is on the short term and the self, espousing what is sustainable for our species and all others does come off as radical.

Environmentalists, sensing this, too often respond timidly, downplaying fundamental changes that are needed. Fundamental and radical, by the way, are essentially synonymous in my copy of Webster's.

So, for example, we see a current and laudable campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay use the phrase "choose clean water" when it ought to say "demand clean water," or "clean water is a basic human right."

Aldo Leopold, a forester and early ecologist, warned 60 years ago that by attempting to make conservation sound easy and palatable, we risked making it trivial.

Will environmentalism really lead to the radicalization of our young?

We can only hope.

Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is currently a freelance writer. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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