Portland Press Herald

Maine Voices: At the crossroads of ethics and the environment

The values of caring for the environment are the same as caring for our families and neighbors.

By Jake Plante
Special to the Press Herald

BRUNSWICK — Walking away from the Paris climate agreement is symptomatic of our times – an information age that caters more to individualism than shared aims.

The internet has many alluring qualities: endless choices, increased convenience and efficiency and encyclopedic knowledge at our fingertips. On the flip side, however, are security breaches, erosion of privacy, fake news and, perhaps the most troubling, the coarsening of the culture. The web and social media serve as a megaphone for self-promotion. People with the loudest voices and the least humility are rewarded. In the process, bedrock character values are eroding, including an interest in sacrificing for the greater or common good.

The Trump phenomenon mirrors the cultural slide. The president’s lack of civility, which he showed again by shoving a fellow NATO leader in Brussels, reflects a general decline in values such as politeness, honesty, kindness and tolerance. Indeed, the feel-good slogan “America First” could only resonate in a society that has fallen into an ethical hole of “me first.”

Ecologist Garrett Hardin warned about the environmental pitfalls of self-interest in a 1968 article called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In the allegory, the commons was a public pasture open to all local farmers. It was entirely rational for each farmer to keep adding more animals to their herd on the commons. But after a while, these individual decisions led to overgrazing, which exhausted the carrying capacity of the land.

Enter the Trump team declaring open season on the larger commons – air, water, land and wilderness areas. Their deregulation frenzy endangers the commons by increasing risky development, especially in the energy sector, with aggressive pursuit of tar sands, fractured gas, offshore oil and coal.

At the tip of the spear is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The administration wants to slash 31 percent of the EPA’s budget and 21 percent of its staff (which would result in layoffs of 3,200 employees). Diminishing EPA enforcement could have profound consequences to human health and natural resources for years. The damage may extend far beyond the numbers and beyond the time when Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are around to see the ensuing problems.

Environmental disasters can happen overnight, while the impacts may last decades. Lasting reminders include the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan. In 1978, the discovery of toxic contamination at Love Canal in upstate New York required $400 million to handle the waste, relocate 950 families and demolish homes. Today, we’re looking at a list of 1,336 Superfund sites. If EPA compliance is weakened, the number of contaminated sites is sure to grow, adding years of work and millions of dollars to the public burden.

Defunding the EPA will also impair the ability of states to monitor and enforce health safeguards in areas often taken for granted like clean drinking water, beach safety, house safety (lead and radon), and controlled use of pesticides.

In the end, it’s less about politics and more about deeper values that bind us. In 2016, Pope Francis tried to enlighten humanity by adding the environment to Christian ministry, saying, “We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behavior. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence….We have no such right.”

The tide will eventually return to sound environmental stewardship. In the meantime, we must limit the fallout. We can urge elected officials to reject the administration’s proposed EPA budget cuts and increase congressional oversight to ensure EPA funds are spent correctly. We can support lawsuits that block the administration from circumventing the spirit of the law. And we can make our voices heard every day as citizens and consumers.

The values of caring for the environment are the same as caring for our families, neighbors, communities and the less fortunate. Eventually, stronger environmental protection will prevail out of necessity – we’re all in this together. But at this perilous time, in a culture enthralled with selfies, celebrity worship and individual gain, a healthy environment is about to be sacrificed. That’s why we must keep our eyes on the shared commons and smart governance to preserve it.


Jake Plante, a Brunswick resident and author, worked on environmental and energy issues during his 27 years at the Federal Aviation Administration.

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