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Nurturing Community: The Environment as Family Heirloom

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In Spanish, "La Jolla" is translated "the jewel."  And the La Jolla Cove is indeed, a jewel of the San Diego coastline.  It is also Exhibit A for absurdities born when distant bureaucracies confiscate the care for the environment which might otherwise be nurtured among local residents.

Today at the Cove, when a pelican poops and the feces land in the ocean, well, that's just nature at work.  But if those same feces land just a foot away on the rocks of the Cove, they are now a 'pollutant' under the Clean Water Act.  Anywhere else, this would not merit mention in anyone's blog or on the Op-Ed pages of the daily news.  Occasional rain would wash it away before anyone notices. But here in San Diego - where we regularly go up to 180 days (that's six months for all you jocks out there) without measurable rain, the pelican poop piles up and the prevailing winds carry the aroma of the wonders of nature up to several miles inland.

The "Jewel" kind of loses its appeal at that point.

Here in San Diego - especially in La Jolla - we are not wanting for people who both care for their environment and have the expertise to actually manage precious resources like the La Jolla Cove.  But just try to bring common sense to the table - like the idea that washing the feces off the rocks before they accumulate to the point of endangering the surrounding ecosystem - and you will quickly discover what philosophers call the 'tragedy of the commons'.

You don't need a degree in philosophy to understand this.  Just note how when something is broken and nobody owns it, fixing it is always someone else's job.  Legislation like the Clean Water Act, while certainly well-intentioned, has effectively confiscated care for the environment from local communities which might otherwise take ownership of it.  No one is willing to own the problem only to end up being fined by one or more distant bureaucracies because they failed to apply for a permit, or missed a step buried somewhere in thousands of pages of regulations.


Oikophilia and the Environment as Family Heirloom

British scholar Roger Scruton writes about this in a fascinating book every conservative - at the very least - should read.  In How to Think Seriously About the Environment: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, Scruton coins the term oikophilia from the Greek words for 'home' (oikos) and 'familial affection' (phileo).  He then takes the reader through numerous examples of where local communities nurtured this 'love of home'.  He compares them with the results of centrally planned, bureaucratic control over the environment to show that the results are uniformly superior when civil society - local communities and their many volunteer-led groups - are preferred over political society - government bureaucracies and their budgetary imperatives.

In my blog and in my book I have taken from Scruton's ideas and challenge conservatives to take a new look at the environment as a public policy issue.  The most pressing political need for conservatives today is to recognize that young people want to belong before they believe.  If conservatives wish to be heard on the other issues of the day, there is no better issue by which to foster a meaningful sense of belonging than the environment.

And those of us who have grown up here in Southern California should get this easily.  I remember having to remain indoors during PE in high school because of "Stage 1" and "Stage 2 Smog Alerts."  Our parents can tell of days when the smog looked like what we saw recently during the wildfires of 2003 and 2007.  I have also lived in Asia and have battled intestinal bugs due to poorly treated tap water.  We rightly prize our environment here in Southern California.  We should look at this place we call home and see a family heirloom - those things we take close care of that we might hand them down to our children, and they to theirs, and so on.


A Charter for 'Environmental Custodians'

As a conservative, then, I will agree to the need for federal and state legislation to protect the environment.  There is an inherent good to the environment, and our use of it incurs costs to these goods.  The concept of 'environmental justice' simply calls for those who incur these costs to be the ones who pay them.  And under no circumstances should these costs be pushed off onto subsequent generations.  If we can agree on this, then we are left to debate how to quantify these costs, and how to ensure they are mitigated or paid.  This is a public policy arena where I believe we can productively work together 'across the aisle'.

But in order for this to truly work (as opposed to merely expressing good intentions), civil society must be preferred over political society.  As a practical matter, federal legislation like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act (and state laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act - CEQA) should have provisions creating a charter for groups I will term 'Environmental Custodians'.

To use the example of the La Jolla Cove above, this would be a local group in La Jolla with the expertise to properly manage the delicate ecosystem of the Cove.  They would petition the local jurisdiction - in this case the San Diego City Council - for official designation as the local Environmental Custodian of the La Jolla Cove.  As long they are organized and operate under the provisions of the federal (or state) charter, they would be considered automatically permitted to take the occasional necessary steps to preserve the Cove - including periodically washing the pelican poop off the rocks before it accumulates to a point where doing so would threaten the surrounding ecosystem.

The Endangered Species Act currently has something like this in a provision for "cooperative agreements with the states."  But for all practical purposes, all this does is replace one distant bureaucracy with another.  The preference for civil society over political society has to be firm and clear,


Stepping Back from the Precipice

It seems we are standing on the edge of a political cliff, about to plunge over the edge into an abyss of polarization.  Others have commented on the origins of our highly polarized politics.  I believe it simply stems from seeing more and more of the inevitable problems of our life together confiscated from local communities by distant bureaucracies.  Problems on which we could otherwise work together become ideological footballs instead.  Yet if we are actually able to own these inevitable problems, we will quickly find that we are too busy solving them together as neighbors to be off in our political corners, living vicariously through our favorite political media personalities, trying to out-ridicule each other.

No other issue bears greater promise for cultivating this life together as neighbors than our environment.  We all live here.  We all call this place home.  The call to love this place we call home resonates across political parties.  All we have left to do is take ownership.

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