The Consensus Scam (February 19, 1997)

While the gap between the very rich and the rest of us continues to widen, “common ground,” “bi-partisanship,” “cooperation,” “consensus,” and “accommodation,” have become the watchwords of the 90s. On any subject, we’re supposed to consider all the options and give an ear to every opposing view.

Obviously, Citizens’ Advisory Committees, Blue Ribbon Panels and other fine-sounding groups are formed merely in order to diffuse opposition to already pre-determined actions that will be taken by the few powerful players who determine policy. (Cf., Environmental Impact Reports, public “input” and Forestry’s so-called “alternatives.”)

Particularly in the area of ecology, corporations like Chevron Oil are donning the mantle of the Greens, while national environmental groups continue to crawl into bed with political and corporate bedfellows.

Now my Mamma told me that I “couldn’t have it both ways,” and that I couldn’t “eat my cake and have it, too.” But thanks to the present tendency to equivocate and compromise, environmental laws are now burdened by qualifications that usually include consideration of “cost effectiveness,” “social disruption,” “human values,” or “loss of jobs.” Buzzwords that actually stand for the interests of business and industry. 

But consensus only works if those involved have fairly similar goals and equal power. (For example, if you want to go downtown thi morning and I’d rather wait until the afternoon, we can probably get together and agree on an a mutually acceptable time. We both intend to make the trip. If you want to get a dozen apples and I’m afraid they’d go stale before we finish them, and only want to get six, we can probably compromise on eight. We both want the apples.)

But when goals conflict fundamentally, compromise is absurd. (Say I want to go to the beach on vacation and you’d prefer the mountains. Would a holiday on a dude ranch or in Las Vegas please either of us? If I want hot tea and you want iced tea, would either of us be satisfied with tea that was lukewarm?)

Even more illogical are decisions involving the fate of a third entity. The current dispute between environmentalists and industry involves the actual survival of neither. It impacts on ancient forests, endangered species, wetlands, estuaries, the Arctic and Antarctic, wilderness areas, fish, wildlife, and the heritage of future generations, none of whom have any voice in any of the proceedings.

Bargaining on these resources has already depleted them severely, some point to the point of no return. Already most of the salmon streams and old growth forests have been irreversibly degraded.

I recently wrote to Albert Gore, our “Environmental Vice President” concerning the continuing loss of wetlands. His response concluded:

“While the importance of wetlands is clear, this Administration also recognizes the need for economic progress. Please be assured that the President and I are committed to environmental laws and policies that work for, not against, the people of this nation.”…

The chairperson of Oregon’s Sierra Club’s Executive Committee (in urging moderation on those of us who backed a Clean Stream Initiative to fence cattle from riparian waters) wrote an editorial which said:

“What I am saying is that we need to beware of environmental fundamentalism, that is to say, of such devotion to our beliefs that we can’t hear the other person, a sense of righteousness about our cause that disallows for consideration of all costs. And an inability to see the whole picture or to look at many possible solutions to a problem.”…

A scientist who directs an experimental station for the Department of Agriculture who privately agrees with quite radical changes in range management, still feels he has to qualify his statements by saying:

“It may all come down to how humans value different landscapes. And, if so, social values will always transcend ecological theories.”

Colleges and universities tailer their courses to please the existing political climate. (When I questioned a procedure that purported to “restore rangelands,” the University of Oregon bombarded me with papers that validated present livestock growers’ methods and even had an Extension agent visit me personally and take me on field trips to try to convince me of the error of my ways. When I remained obdurate, they merely stopped responding to my correspondence.)

In other words, even when it is know and documented how best to manage the range (or any other natural resource), politicians threatening “local economic downturns,” “lost jobs,” and “social disruption” will always influence the way people vote on management policies, regardless of the long term results. And our western rangelands (already 74% overgrazed — by Bureau of Land Management estimates) will continue to be devastated by the livestock industry as long as short-term profits for the influential few have precedence over sustainable use.

With political, educational, organizational and scientific leaders caving in to pressure, and with those in power (and those who control them with their votes and financial clout) setting the rules, unless the public stops compromising and shows that it will stop tolerating the fraudulent “win-win” of consensus and mealy-mouthed compromise, the future of our country’s natural environment may just as well be written off as a lost cause.

Historically, Americans have idealized the traditional heroes now part of our myths and legends — the pioneers, cowboys, explorers, trappers, miners and loggers “of song and story.” We romanticize the past, writing and speaking proudly of our Captains of Industry, The Winning of the West, our exploits in Conquering Nature and Taming the Wilderness. These icons are part of our heritage, and to criticize them is considered nothing short of treasonable. Images of Wagon Trains, Mountain Men, Prospectors, Cowboys and Homesteaders, still resonate, not only in our literature, television shows and movies, but in our collective unconscious.

In contrast, our concerns about the environment and the depletion of natural resources are relatively recent (for most people dating only back to the 60s and 70s.)

The general public still believes that environmental concerns (including global warming, the ozone hole, chemical and waste pollution, unsafe and diminishing fresh water supplies, loss of biodiversity, the impoverishment and erosion of soil, and the extinction of species) are overblown, exaggerated and unfounded bogeymen dreamed up by deluded liberals and New Age wackos.

Predictably, the anti-environmental forces have the upper hand in all final decisions. They are manned by people who feel secure in their sense of privilege. Many proudly boast that they have been ranchers, miners, cowboys, farmers, foresters for many generations.

Their organizations are established and well-disciplined (the Farm Bureau, Stockmen and Cattlemen’s Associations, Forest Products and Mining Associations, etc.). They contribute generously to Political Action Committees that elect their own members as well as lobby governments from County through State and Federal levels, thus controlling legislatures and universities. They have, after all, not just their history, but their “way of life” at stake, and react violently to any changes that could cost them greater expense or inconvenience.

Their hostility towards conservationists and environmentalists is based on the conviction, not only that they are in the right, but that they are morally superior. After all, don’t they supply America with its “necessities” like beef, wool, produce, gold, copper, and timber? Wouldn’t we all starve without their admittedly arduous toil and hardship?

In contrast, environmentalists are fragmented into a dizzying variety of organizations, championing different facets of what ought to be a single biosphere instead of putting their emphasis on electing environmentalists to positions of power. There are groups specializing in non-game birds, ancient forests, game an non-game native wildlife, salmon, native plants, international wildlife, whales, dolphins, etc. These divisions are often carried even further by differences in philosophy or tactics, and petty personal animosities, resulting in a babel of different appeals for funds and membership. The inevitable result is that their capital is diluted and their effectiveness dissipated.

Not only are environmental organizations competitive rather than united, they function mainly with the help of volunteers and underpaid or poorly trained staff. Their membership often includes easily caricatured or demonized fringe groups, such as New Age exhibitionists, clownish extremists, or urbanites far removed from rural realities. Others appear to exist mainly to profit from offering camp-outs, hikes and eco-tourist junkets to over-equipped Yuppie dilettantes who contrast poorly with the perceived rugged individualism personified by their opponents.

Until environmentalists stop looking for consensus, the whittling away of America’s forests, rangeland, wildlife and wetlands and the pollution of its air and waterways will continue. Until environmental groups unite and show the same determination, maturity and single-mindedness of the groups who are destroying the earth for the bottom line (or even just protecting their personal livelihoods) no real progress will be made to preserve what’s left of America’s natural resources.

Until they stop “sleeping with the enemy,” and stand firmly by their principles, electing their own representatives, neither the general public nor the environmentalists will ever have the votes or the funds to change present policies, and all their efforts will continue to be futile — any “victories” of the public good over the entrenched oligarchy coming (if at all) too little and too late to have any real impact on the decisions that shape our planet’s future. 

One Response to "The Consensus Scam (February 19, 1997)"

  1. Betsy Cawn   February 14, 2020 at 8:26 am

    The Governor’s sweeping declaration of an “emergency” requiring the removal of vast amounts of “vegetation” that is believed to be the main problem — being ignitable “fuel load” materials adjacent to electrical lines and their acoutrement — as the culprit in the state’s increasingly volatile ecosystem where for decades developers and realtors have made the invasive occupation of retirees and retailers catering to them the desirable destinations for ex-metropolitan wage slaves, removes even the paid lip service nominally given to environmental preservation.

    The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection issued on December 30, 2019, a controversial (to environmentalists) but wildly popular (to authorities responsible for a vast range of fire suppression and recovery activities) “Final Program Environmental Impact Report” for a massive vegetation removal program, called the “CalVTP” (California Vegetation Treatment Plan) which is working its way through the system of “compromise” described so eloquently by Ms. Jones.

    https://bof.fire.ca.gov/projects-and-programs/calvtp/peir-certification/

    Locally-assigned UC Davis Agricultural Extension Services’ licensed forester Mike Jones, at a recent meeting of the Lake County Risk Reduction Authority, said it would be a long time before the program would be finalized (because of the controversy and large number of those fragmented environmental groups referred to in the handsome scold provided by Ms. Jones, groups whose inability to coalesce into a juggernaut of real “land stewardship is painful to behold.

    And the rhetorical abilities of the master class (builders, brokers, bankers, and their retail hungry hand maidens) to obfuscate and stultify the few brave souls who venture to challenge their bafflegab in public hearings, have established the catechism of dismissive buzzwords uttered with shameless disdain in response earnest pleas of “concerned citizens” bearing the brunt of the cost and injury as their peaceful lives are torn asunder to “protect” the landscape from “hazardous vegetation” threatening only property values yielding pension-supporting property taxes.

    [For a glimpse of the “long view” as seen by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, see the USDA’s “National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy”: https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/strategy/thestrategy.shtml.%5D

    Kudos, Ms. Jones, on your fine explication of the linguistic and cognitive abuse of the King’s English to ignore the real plight of the 21st Century for short term plunder of the remaining shreds of this once profound forest province. Made me laugh out loud, and recalled memories of my early days here in Lake County, where the State Water Resources Control Board, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Lake County Land Trust, and the faux Sierra Club — now all married to the latest “Blue Ribbon Committee” supported by the good germans with UC Davis degrees and solemn matrons of the Resource Conservation District — presented a highly choreographed series of public meetings wherein “members of the public” were allowed to “participate,” but with no meaningful engagement in the process of pretending that their government sinecures in publicly-funded “oversight” of the fragile watersheds, wetlands, lake bed and shoreline wonderments had any intention of “restorating” the public trust asset called Clear Lake.

    And the “public process” grinds exceedingly fine, slouching toward Bethlehem in “incremental” changes paid for by public monies invested in “capital improvements” for “health and safety” infrastructure — such as the proposed water/sewer system in Anderson Valley based on the “decision tree” rationale offered by Ms. Wildflower (described in Mr. Scaramella’s account, above). Wildflower’s ilk wield unchallengeable authority throughout our once placid “communities” and compounds of cheaply subdivided “rural lands.”

    Once “ripened” for development — by insertion of water and sewer “mains” inlaid in agricultural plains with “zoning overlays” and “land use designations,” favorable to construction of unattractive traditional 3-bedroom “homes” on quarter-acre lots, using the “free money” from federal and state Housing & Community Development agencies feeding generational families of real estate agents and cement salesmen — the land of course must be ridded of environmental threats including predatory wildlife, native and rare flora, delicate soil composition, absence of microwave communications, lack of transit corridors for the 10-12 trips per day each household is predicted to add to “greenhouse gas emissions” (we can’t have that, now can we — people have to “run to the store” as often as the impulse occurs), and the bureaucrats must be sated with permit fees and compliance paperwork in the recondite system of “planning.”

    Wholesale manipulation of the state’s “environmental quality act” is the cryptic practice established by the Lake County Municipal Ordinances as Article 64 of the Zoning Code, granting the head of the Community Development Department “ministerial” authority to allow unmonitored extraction of finite groundwater supplies by agricultural land converters, with the merest wisp of consideration for the neighboring users of shared basins dependent on annual rainfall for sustainability.

    No sooner had the California Environmental Quality Act been enacted than its romantically envisioned “balancing” of environmental impacts with economic benefits been supplemented by the Permit Streamlining Act (Government Code §65920), sponsored by departments of Commerce and Transportation.

    The state cottoned onto the benefits of controlling natural resources for profit in tandem with “job creation” (for the population that “regulates” the “diversion” of every drop of water falling from the skies, mostly, and the bastions of treatment system operators) and unstoppable “growth.”

    Elected officials take umbrage at any notion that their actions are motivated by anything other than the best interests of society, the “greater good” that justified the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation (which operates the dams impounding watershed-originated flows of potable water without which vast tracts of agricultural bounty and massive metropolises cannot continue to expand).

    Woe betide ye of little faith in Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, and Corporate Personhood — the courts hath pronounced your life inconsequential, trivial, and subject to removal as a public nuisance, and don’t even think about how to survive the coming cataclysms and catastrophes without that “Real California ID.”

    From your obstreperous admirer in Upper Lake, California, fanning the flames of dissent and discontent in every possible way — which would not be possible here without the dispensations of the Anderson Valley Advertiser (elsewise, amongst the intellectually impoverished population of mainstream patronage dispensers, Mum’s the word!).

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