This PRBO perspective is adapted for the Observer from an essay for the June 2010 Bulletin of the British Ecological Society. Ellie M. Cohen's "letter from the CEO" will return soon to its regular place on this page.—Editor
|Stewart Udall, circa 1960s.|
Stewart Udall died not long ago. Udall was Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s, when the cornerstones of the environmental movement were being laid. He used his political skills to help pass, among others, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Udall was instrumental in establishing dozens of National Parks, Seashores, Monuments, and Wildlife Refuges. He probably did more to promote conservation and protection of the environment than anyone since Teddy Roosevelt.
Udall was also a visionary. Shortly before he left office in 1968, he gathered his thoughts together in 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow. Reading it, one realizes how much progress has been made, yet how little some things have changed. Udall was concerned about the "gospel of growth" that prioritized parking over parks. He wanted people to find that elusive balance between economic growth, the livability of cities, the value of open space, and environmental conservation. Udall saw politics as the pathway to implementing his agenda. He argued for a fresh political framework that encouraged local and state governments to be sources of innovation. He proposed that leaders from all segments of society come together in town meetings to "think aloud for the country, to try out new ideas, to question possibly outdated assumptions." People would debate and discuss what kind of future they really wanted. There would be civil and intelligent discourse, carried on within a civil society.
Udall bemoaned the failure of Congress to think and speak for the nation as a whole. He saw Congress as too constrained by arcane rules, such as the Senate's "egregiously unconstitutional filibuster rule." The recent debates about health care and the initial skirmishes over legislation to address climate change suggest that Congress still suffers from these constraints. Public support for environmental conservation, which Udall considered central to civil society, has waned as the economy has worsened. Almost half of the American public now believes the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated.
Udall might despair at the persistence of special interests and gridlock in the body politic, but he would also be astounded at the progress that has been made. Climate change is now being discussed in the halls of Congress. Millions of acres have been set aside for conservation, enabled by the growing influence of conservation organizations and facilitated by some of the legislation that Udall helped frame.
What is needed to carry Udall's vision forward? Udall observed that society had developed "a new Myth of Scientific Salvation, persuading ourselves that the fouling of our own nest could be quickly cleansed by a sorcerer's apprentice from the house of science." Many people still expect that, whatever the problem, science and technology will find a solution. But scientists (even those at PRBO) are not sorcerers. Through our scientific studies we have gained a better understanding of how future environmental changes may affect ecological systems and how the places where people live and work are likely to change. We at PRBO can help to implement Udall's agenda by explaining clearly and simply, again and again and yet again, how science and nature work, what the future is likely to hold, and how we can help nature and people adapt to the coming changes. It's not too late to heed Udall's agenda.