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Environmentalists and the Dilemma of 2012

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President Obama with beach tar from the Oil SpillAs the primary season approaches, my political conscience increasingly feels like a double-headed hydra, each with a mind of its own. A lifelong Democratic activist, I am compelled to support Barack Obama, especially given the grandstanding and utter lack of seriousness among GOP candidates on virtually every issue I care about. Moreover, Obama’s list of accomplishments is impressive from health care reform to the phasing out of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

And yet, the environmentalist in me is so bitterly disappointed in this administration that I am sorely lacking the passion I felt in 2008.  From the lack of White House effort on climate change, to not opposing legislation exempting pesticides from discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, to the premature delisting of wolves in the northern Rockies, to this week’s announcement that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should not hinder new exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, this administration has consistently, repeatedly, callously thrown environmental issues under the bus.

This isn’t just my view.  

An editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times puts it succinctly: “In the 2012 campaign, environmentalists don’t matter.” The subheading: “That’s the message President Obama is sending as the administration caters to smokestack and other industries.”

I don’t want to be a single issue voter who turns on my president and party in such a critical time (although from Guantanamo to Libya to debt management, I’ve got other reasons!). I realize that the progressive vision is bigger than the environment and often depends on incremental change.  A recent interview with playwright Tony Kushner about his new work, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, speaks to this:

He was talking about his own discomfort at how quickly his friends turned on Obama. “Instantly, before the inauguration had even taken place, it became ‘oh he’s betrayed us, ‘oh he’s so terrible,'” Kushner said. “Well, it’s very important to criticize the president no matter who the president is…but the impatience, and what feels like to me underneath the impatience to be a kind of comfort with powerlessness and a discomfort with power, was astounding…You have to make really horrible compromises [as president]. You have to swallow a sense of pride, not to the point where you’ve given up true north but…I feel this guy has done an amazing job keeping the country functioning, asking people to invest imaginatively in the processes of Democracy.

He’s not a grand-stander, he’s not somebody who sees his main task as being the making of speeches. Turning this around is…Herculean. I think we can accomplish it, but this has been 40 years of the build towards Reaganism, and 30 years of Reaganism plain and simple. And what I’m struggling with in the play is that I don’t believe the dream of revolution is to be mocked or rejected, it is a dialectic of progress as in all things of how we move forward, but I just feel the rejection at the end of the Sixties of the notion that real change can come through democratic means through this electoral system was an absolute catastrophe for humanity.

To be fair, much as I and my green friends may have projected our desires on Obama’s message of “hope” and “change,” environmental issues were never a core item in this administration’s agenda. And yes, we are impatient. We have reason to be. The latest report from the National Academy of Sciences is stark minces no words: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” The report, “America’s Climate Choices,” is simply the latest to conclude the risks of inaction far outweigh the risks or disadvantages of action. Our environmental health, economic stability, and international security are at risk if we do not act now.

Yet, no sooner had this latest statement of scientific consensus been released than President Obama announced a bold new energy plan to combat the horror of $4 per gallon gasoline: “I am directing the Department of Interior to conduct annual lease sales in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, while respecting sensitive areas, and to speed up the evaluation of oil and gas resources in the mid and south Atlantic,” Obama said in the address. “We plan to lease new areas in the Gulf of Mexico as well, and work to create new incentives for industry to develop their unused leases both on and offshore,” he added. Astonishingly, the speech did not even mention Deepwater Horizon.

Like Kushner, I want very much to believe real change can come through democratic means each November. I could accept incremental progress on environmental issues as a tactic toward more far-reaching change, especially in light of other progressive goals. But on the environment we’re actually regressing. Our present environmental laws are inadequate to the climate challenge and yet even these important bulwarks are under attack in this Congress like no time since 1994, and worse, this administration is not even defending them, let alone pushing for new initiatives.

How much more of this are we supposed to take? Loyalty has its limits, and I’m damn close to mine. The environmental community needs to speak up louder and bolder than ever before. If we don’t we have only ourselves to blame for our continued political marginalization.

As the LA Times put it, “Here’s an argument Obama and his political advisers might grasp: It’s possible for a president to so alienate his base that it fails to show up on election day. Something to keep in mind before November 2012 rolls around.”

  • If Obama alienates his base so much it fails to show up, the Democratic Party establishment will portray it as the fault of his base – much like Al Gore alienating his base to the point that many voters turned to Nader is portrayed as the fault of the Nader voters.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    When unemployment is still above 8% (with the true unemployment much higher), any politician who wants to get elected (or re-elected) will focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. Sadly, that also means catering to business, which provides the jobs.

    The “base” failed to show up in 2010. Tell me exactly how that helped the environmental cause? Did flipping the House to the GOPers so that Bone-er and Cant-er control the agenda advance the cause of environmental protection? Will the environment be better off if we have a GOP president after 2012, one that is bound to be owned by and owe allegiance to the corporate elite.

    The problem lies with the political system itself. As long as we have a political system that makes candidates raise money from private sources, we will have a political system controlled by the corporate and Wall Street elite.  Add in the SCOTUS decision in Citizens United, no term limits for office holders, and a revolving door from the halls of Congress to K Street and we have the mess we are in right now.