Monday, March 5, 2007

Environmental Extremism

I was brought up in a family with deep ties to business. My father and grandfather, both Stanford men, were very successful businesspeople, which means I grew up in a home that propagated pro-business and open-market beliefs, where any extreme stance against these two pillars of Americana was considered an assault on freedom. I learned at a young age that many of my father's contemporaries considered the environmental movement to constitute such an affront. They considered many of the laws to have passed in recent decades to be devastating to the American economy, and to be the work of environmental extremists. Many a dinnertime was spent talking of different ways to kill a spotted owl, whose addition to the endangered species list prevented many landowners from developing their properties. This, according to many of my family's friends, was a call to arms, an attack on everything they stood for.

These days, I look back on these early experiences and try to learn from them, as they tell me a lot about the people who I frequently find myself up against. Extremism in any form, especially when related to anything political, rarely achieves results. Many blame extreme religious philosophies on many of the problems the world today faces, especially war. Political processes rely on compromise, which is something that many leaders - be they environmentalists or not - sometimes fail to do. One only has to look at the partisan bickering in Congress to know what I'm talking about. They don't get much done.

In many senses, extreme environmentalism has actually hurt the cause of creating increased sustainability on our planet. That is not to discredit many of the leaders who have helped to preserve the valuable natural places we still have left. Quite the contrary, it is a suggestion to many of those who still are working towards furthering the environmental cause to be good negotiators, because it is crucial to our success. All of my experience in the field of marine conservation have taught me that we never will achieve anything if we take an extreme stance. We must understand what motivates our opponent and be willing to find middle ground - otherwise we might lose everything we are fighting to preserve.

In Madeira, our failure to properly negotiate with the government ultimately led to the destruction of some of the world's best surf spots, most notably in Jardim do Mar and Ponta Delgada (pictured at left). We were the only international organization involved with this issue, and unfortunately, we made some mistakes. Ultimately the government labeled us as extremists, and then refused to deal with us at all. We no longer had them as an audience to our concerns, and surf spots were buried by concrete without a thought. It seemed like such a crime against nature to all of us there - but at the same time, I realized that if we had been more willing to find middle ground, or at least to appear as such, we would have stood a much better chance at protecting the waves. Sure, we wouldn't have stopped all the development, but we might have been able to spare the surf from harm. That thought continues to haunt me.

Some environmental organizations take a very extreme stance towards development, and have hurt the overall cause to promote more sustainable growth. We must realize that no governments will allow for economic growth to stop. We must find better, more intelligent ways to let the growth continue. Otherwise we will lose the battle entirely.

These days, when I sit at the dinner table with my family at holiday time, and brush shoulders with some of father's business friends, I must behave myself. No none wants to ruin dinner over political beliefs. According to everyone around me, I am a self-proclaimed environmentalist. Even though most of these people have known me since childhood, I am now in the enemy's camp, a traitor in their midst. Sometimes this leads to provocation, and arguments spoil the meal - but most times we are forced to be cordial and listen to one another's beliefs. I think for some of them, it is the first time they have talked to an environmentalist that knows where they are coming from, politically speaking. I may not agree with everything they say, but I listen to their words and afterwards try to reason with them. I even think sometimes that certain things I say actually get through to them.

I have never believed economic growth and environmental sustainability to be mutually exclusive. Look at Patagonia, Inc., proof positive that a large business can also be a model for good environmental conduct. By promoting these kinds of business practices, to both consumers and business leaders alike, our world stands a better chance at future survival. It might, in fact, be our only hope. But do we achieve this by burning down new developments with acts of arson? Absolutely not. This only hurts our cause, and invalidates what we are saying.

Thankfully, when we look at the battle between industry and the environment, the playing field in recent years has gotten much closer to being level. Developers in today's world, particularly in the US and in Europe, must be aware of most environmental issues, and conduct multiple studies at great expense to themselves. It's the only way for them to get what they want. In other words, due to better environmental policy, they have been forced to compromise. I think that we environmentalists should use the same tact. We might find that, in listening to the other side of the argument, we will actually do a better job protecting what is valuable to us.