After so many years of yelling “fire!”, it may be hard for us environmentalists to accept that we have the leader we need; we must now help put out the fire.
I get a lot of emails from the various environmental, energy, green, progressive and other organizations I follow. It’s no surprise that after the election, there was much jubilation. But lately, there’s a bit of a sulky, mean-spirited feeling to some of the emails I have been getting. One I got today from Environmental Action started with “So far, President-elect Obama’s appointments to top environmental positions have ranged from mediocre to disappointing.” I don’t mean to pick on this fine organization — there are plenty of other cases of people who are feeling let down. But come on, let’s take a careful look.
Disappointing? Really? Mediocre? Really?
Obama’s Environmental Picks are Excellent
But come on, all you greenies out there — let’s get real. First, Salazar and Vilsack both fall into a category of being damned by association, for the most part. I mean, these guys are “pretty good”, at worst. That leaves them several heads higher than the very best appointments of the Bush administration. And perhaps a little clear leadership will help these guys use their influence for good.
But the other top positions are stunningly great, if you ask me.
Steven Chu, for Energy is an incredible (by which I mean, truly astonishing and great) choice for this critical position. To start, he’s a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. Are we not just a little glad that science might be back into our political and policy discourse? And the Times quotes him saying that New houses could be made energy efficient with an investment of an extra $1,000, “but the American consumer would rather have a granite countertop.” Snap! That’s the kind of thinking we need!
What about Lisa Jackson for EPA? She doesn’t mince words, either, saying “When it comes to the auto industry, the E.P.A. apparently is the Emissions Permissions Agency.” Jackson has pretty much impeccable credentials, and a right-minded, pragmatic approach to getting problems solved.
And because climate is important, we will have a new position, Coordinator of Energy and Climate Policy, to be run by Carol Browner, a former EPA head.
Mediocre? Disappointing? Let’s take a moment and get real.
Begin Radical when it Counts
It’s not like my positions are particularly moderate — on the contrary, I have become increasingly radical in my views as I have come to understand how serious many issues we’re facing are. Yes, conservation is important and this is, or was, the focus of this blog. But I have come to understand that food, water, population, consumption, obesity, hunger, financial crisis, poverty and of course energy, climate change not to mention disease and war are all related intrinsically. I am pretty sure we’re in for some pretty major, radical and massive changes in the next few decades, and I believe that we pretty much need to stop the world and get real, really fast if we have any chance of addressing these issues. Feel free to read my blog posts over the last four years to see the evolution of my thought. It ain’t pretty.
But I also realize that no matter how much we believe a certain thing, getting it done requires only one quality: pragmatism. Radicals have been effective at getting messages delivered and heard, and maybe even understood. I salute them, for they are the mavens, the ones sounding the alarm and making us understand, who are responsible for getting us to a point where we are ready to act.
But radicals aren’t effective, historically, at getting things done. Indeed, they tend to be polarizing, which is usually counter-productive. When we think of radicals, we might think of … Trotsky? Bin Laden? But in truth, some radicals are far more moderate, say James Hansen (NASA Scientist who raved about global warming) or even Al Gore (VP who raved about global warming).
Please, I am not comparing Bin Laden to Gore or anything, only making the point that even someone some very (very) moderate as Al Gore is seen by many as having radical views. His positions have been incredibly powerful and influential, and perhaps enough even that he has convinced some very important people to see the world his way and take action. And this will be a huge and fantastic part of this man’s legacy. But a good chunk of the country looks at Gore and thinks “What a nut job!”. It’s sad that people feel this way about him, and completely unfair. But it is true, and that limits the degree to which he can be truly effective. His strong positions are not what we need to get things done — Gore’s strong and convincing positions got his agenda on the table.
Environmentalists Must Be Pragmatic to Fight Fires
But now that the big ideas are on the table, we have to get real in order to keep them on the table, and to get things done at long last.
The time for yelling “fire” has passed. Now we need fire fighters!
Fire fighters must be pragmatic. Courage is important, but common sense, a cool head, and a realistic assessment of the problem to be solved are the true skills needed. All of those of us who saw fire coming, and have been warning and yelling so loudly need to realize that our voices have been heard. Now is time for coordinated action. Let’s not be divisive and alarmist — let’s put out the damned fire.
And with all of us as great fire fighters, we need a great Fire Chief. I have a lot of hope that we now have a President who actually understands the nature of the problems we face. My greatest fear is that he will take on too much, even if he knows he cannot really handle it. But I have a lot of hope, and have seen nothing that would indicate that Obama is anything other than the one, and only person in the world who is up to the job he is faced with.
Yes, Global Warming is the Most Important Problem, but Not The Only One
We also have a few other rather huge messes that need some attention. Can we not step off of our singular views of the world for a moment and try to understand how, in a real, complicated, messy world we have, miraculously, elected a man who may be just what we need? Can we not give him a chance, and have just a little faith that he sees a real and viable path to a solution? Can we not accept that pragmatism sometimes means we need to make “moral” compromises? Isn’t this what being progressive really means?
So to the environmentalists who are alarmed, let’s take a deep breath, and realize that as of November 4th, we live in a new world. We have a leader who is sensible, pragmatic and realistic. Thank God! He does not need more yelling “Fire”. He does not need more people to update him on the next great crisis. He needs all of us to realize that he has heard the alarms, and is now going to lead us.
We need to accept Obama’s leadership. And that also means we need to accept and support his delegates, or at least give them a chance to show us what made Obama choose them. Perhaps following is not a strong suit of us independent minded Americans, but we seem to rise to great leaders when they present themselves.
Obama can be the environmental president indeed, as long as we stop shouting and start a new course of action: doing whatever we can to support him!