Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why the Environment is Allergic to John McCain

Like any other self-respecting Californian, I have been a proud progressive since day one, so when Antonio asked me to write a diatribe against the Republican presidential candidate, I was more than happy to oblige. As the days leading up to the election are winding away, I’m finding myself more and more concerned about the outcome. Poll numbers are far too close for comfort, and the presence of a certain mayor-turned-governor on the campaign trail is making me increasingly nauseous. At this point, nearly every issue maintains a life-or-death urgency, but I feel that there is one matter that is far more ominous than the others, one that has the potential to devastate us entirely. Given the subject matter of the Upcycle Diaries, you can imagine what that might be.

I love trees. Not to be overly tangential, but I’m a huge fan. I like to think that a piece of my life began with a tree. On the Earth Day before I was born, my hyper-liberal mother bought me a ficus tree as a “welcome to the world” gift, thereby ensuring that my first lesson about environmentalism as a toddler would be: “Trees are friends. They clean our air, provide us with a nice breeze, and serve as a home to cute, fuzzy animals. Never ever do bad things to trees.” 20 years later, my tree is exponentially taller than I am and still going strong. Over the years, I have developed a true affection for trees in general, particularly when I wander around Northern California in Yosemite and Big Sur. I think that they tell fascinating stories about the character of the environment around them, and their resilience stands as a testimony to the natural world’s power to overcome the disasters that befall them. When I’m feeling particularly idealistic, I like to think that trees evoke a great sense of humanity within us, that somehow their longevity reminds us of how little we matter in the whole scheme of things. Not to say that we humans are not important. It’s just that we are such an itty-bitty piece of good old Terra Mater’s plan for the universe.

Why mention this at all? If we are so insignificant, what does my personal affinity for trees have to do with anything, especially with the upcoming presidential decision? Because if this crazy election is one thing, it’s personal. It’s not a secret that people of all walks of life feel deeply invested in the outcome because, let’s face it, we’ve hit rock bottom. Name any sector of American life, and someone will tell you why it’s a complete and utter disaster. You don’t need my overly sentimental attempt at shameless manipulation to make that perfectly clear. The environment simply cannot survive with the status quo, but with the tanking economy, it’s reasonable to fear that Mother Nature might stay on the backburner. For a lot of people, global warming is not quite as frightening as foreclosure. To me, it’s a different kind of worry. My concerns about paying off student loans do not frighten me in the same way that our national disregard for the environment does because the former does not reveal a fundamental backwardness in our general consciousness. So this is where John McCain comes in.

Senator McCain has attempted to build his campaign around the idea that he, the man, is a maverick for the people. He’s not afraid to be unpopular, to go against his own party, to get the job done, because he KNOWS what is right and real. Hm. I wonder what that would be like, you know, having a president who doesn’t pay attention to the polls because he knows the right course. Moving on. John McCain maintains that he is a friend to the environment, a regular John Muir, who incidentally was familiar with McCain’s political idol, Teddy Roosevelt. He speaks about transitioning the energy economy away from oil into the realm of wind and solar power and biofuels. Unlike many of his Republican compadres, he even believes that global warming is a real thing, supporting a cap-and-trade system for companies and a national reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. If we take him at his word, we might be willing to say that, when it comes to the environment, Senator McCain is certainly not the evilest of them all, that he might even be a semblance of that maverick. Yet over the last week, bloggers have been ignited against his congressional record on this issue. Comparisons to Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, Congress’s biggest environment-hater, abound, as reports surfaced regarding McCain’s absence at crucial votes for renewable energy. Interestingly enough, when he did manage to make it to the Senate Chambers for a vote on clean energy incentives, he somehow voted ‘nay’ rather than ‘yay’ (8 times). See here, for example. Truly fascinating from a man who insists that his administration would work to end our foreign oil dependency and promote environmental stewardship. Go team.

Of course, John McCain seems nice and cuddly when held in comparison to his lovely running mate, the ever-so-kind Governor Sarah Palin. You might as well say goodbye to the Alaskan wildlife and landscape right now. Actually, Palin doesn’t believe that humans are the cause of global warning, thank you very much. In choosing a woman who would sacrifice the health of her own state to Big Oil (she fully supports drilling in ANWR), Senator McCain upheld the conservative attitude of indifference bordering on hostility towards the environment, as if eight years of George Bush wasn’t enough of an affront to the natural world. Palin also opposes the inclusion of polar bears on a list of species threatened by climate change, and she has fought against federal protection of sea lions on behalf of the Alaskan fishing industry. Now why would a woman who also serves as Chair for the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission be so heartless? It’s simple: she fails to understand the underlying relationship between humans and the natural environment. As a staunch advocate of a literal interpretation of the Bible, she clearly maintains a philosophy that grants mankind supremacy over nature, rejecting the notion that the fates of the two are fully intertwined. But don’t forget, Sarah Palin has respect for life. It’s not okay to abort innocent fetuses, but the baby polar bears have to fend for themselves. Tough luck.

This election is not just about policy changes; it is about radically revitalizing our national identity as we make our way through the 21st century. The solutions are absolutely available, from the little ways that we can help in our homes to the grand plans for overhauling our energy sources. So why is it taking so long? This isn’t like our other problems; a $700 billion bailout is not going to re-grow the polar ice caps. So enter the visionary.

You might not agree with Barack Obama on every account – I know that I don’t, even though I’ve supported him since his keynote speech in 2004 – but it’s nearly impossible to deny that he has changed our modern understanding of politics. As Time Magazine put it in the September 1st issue, he is simultaneously a Black Man, a Healer, a Novice, a Radical, and the Future. Yes, he has policies that he plans to implement upon taking office, but he offers the country something beyond that. He challenges us to see beyond ourselves, daring us to imagine the world as it should be, regardless of the limitations before us. He embodies the optimism of humanity, the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. His brand of politics reminds us that time has moved on without us, that we have fallen into a stalemate of old ideas. His approach may not be perfect when it comes to the nitty-gritty of his plans (including some funny flipping on offshore drilling), but it is his underlying promise of change that makes me believe that he can lead us towards sustainable development and widespread environmental protection. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the people on Capitol Hill change their minds if the American people fail to see how their actions impact one another and the world at large. And American egotism is so 20th century, don’t you think?

So please vote! Please?
Laura Dominguez

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