The Discipleship

Climate change activists might want to pay attention to this cautionary tale out of Florida.

The failure of Everglades restoration, with its many false starts, but especially the story of the latest failed attempt to overcome entrenched economic interests, has parallels to the two train wrecks that derailed action on climate change–last December in Copenhagen and more recently in the U.S. Congress.

The contemporary politics of Everglades restoration is a tortured story of compromise that can be summed up in the classic political axiom: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Hmm, where have climate activists heard that before?) Mainstream Florida greens operate by this maxim, which is understandable, given the multiple stake holders involved and the economic interests arrayed against them. (Hmm, where have climate activists seen this dynamic before?) At some point, however, this strategy has to be evaluated for performance. Which begs the question: Is meaningful Everglades restoration underway?

Hardly. Will it happen anytime soon? That was the hope and expectation after the state of Florida in 2008 agreed to buy huge tracts of land totaling 187,000 acres from the United States Sugar Corporation and convert it back to marshland. A year later, amid a deepening recession, the deal was scaled back to 79,000 acres, and according to this NYT investigation, the terms were not exactly favorable to the Everglades.

By this month, as the Times reports, the land purchase has shrunk to 27,000 acres, a fraction of what was promised in 2008.

You might think this would give long-time Everglades environmentalists pause. Here’s what Eric Draper from Audubon of Florida had to say:

I like this deal because it’s doable.

(Where have climate activists heard rationales like that before?)

So why do mainstream Florida greens still cling to the illusion of progress? And why are they still championing a watered down land deal that is widely believed to have scarce ecological value to the Everglades? On his NYT post, Damian Cave provides some instructive responses:

“It’s insecurity,” said Alan Farago, the conservation chairman at Friends of the Everglades. He said that Florida’s environmentalists would take whatever they could get because they felt so defeated after so many failed attempts to save the Everglades, after seeing algae blooms on their shores, after seeing developers given carte blanche while endangered species suffered.

Here’s another:

“The environmentalists have been sitting on the floor under the table waiting for crumbs to fall on them for years,” said Sydney Bacchus, a hydro-ecologist and frequent expert witness in Everglades cases. “I don’t blame them for cheering about these lands being purchased “” it’s a crumb they’ve been tossed off the table and they’re grabbing at it frantically because they haven’t even gotten crumbs for years.”

(Hmm, where have climate activists seen mainstream enviros settling for similar “crumbs”?)

Despite the River of Grass being an iconic national landscape, despite a multi-billion-dollar plan to revive it, despite the many years a broad coalition has championed its cause, the Everglades ecosystem remains at death’s door.

And greens wonder why they can’t get any traction on climate change.

16 Responses to “The Discipleship”

  1. GaryM says:

    Budget deficits 2010:  Florida $2,700,000,000; New York $8,200,000,000;  California $20,700,000,000; U.S. $1,350,600,000,000:
    Total U.S. debt $13,600,000,000,000.
    Total social security and medicare unfunded liabilities:  $106,800,000,000,000.
    Want to buy the Everglades? Stop electing progressive/liberal/statist/moderate politicians.  (And yes, both Bushes and the majority of Republicans in Congress fit that description.)  When forced to choose either your liberal to moderate politics, or the climate and environment, which will it be?  I know where I put my money.

  2. Nice article.
    And greens wonder why they can’t get any traction on climate change.

    Leaving aside what “greens” means, nobody is wondering whether or why. Lots of people are wondering what to do about it.

  3. Banjoman0 says:

    The budget numbers are relevant, the subsequent diatribe less so; a solution satisfactory to GaryM would probably be less than satisfactory to the majority, and perhaps unfundable in any case.
    As for the post, the story of the Everglades surely provides multiple cautionary tales and examples, but it is not clear (to me) what the ultimate point of the post is.  Should greens settle for scraps and lose credibility, not settle to gain credibility but get nothing, fight even harder, fight smarter not harder?

  4. GaryM says:

    “…less than satisfactory to the majority, and perhaps unfundable in any case[?]”  Not at all.  If you want to know what I actually think, you can see my post (50) on The Response thread.

  5. Tom Fuller says:

    I think the relevant phrase might contain the words ‘the perfect being the enemy of the good’.

  6. Steve Koch says:

    The economy is in the crapper so the Floridians are wise to take whatever deal they can get.  Personally I’d like more focus on rivers.  It would be great to see the Dalles on the Columbia River again (they are submerged under a man made lake).  I’d be willing to generate more electric power via nuclear power if it meant destroying dams generating the equivalent amount of electric power.  It would also be great to buy more land for migration paths for wildlife to enhance genetic diversity.  It would also be great to buy more land on rivers and turn them into parkland.
    This all takes tax money, which is a function of the economy.  The first step is to restore the economy.

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    I spent a lot of time reporting on the Everglades–mainly in the late 1990s and early 2000s–so I’m familiar with its complex dynamics and also a lot of the players, many who are still there.

    So it was a bit convenient of me to make the parallels to climate change politics.

    Michael-my last line was slightly tacked on, but I use “greens” in a broad sense, denoting those who are active or outspoken on environmental issues, which of course includes climate change.

  8. Scott B says:

    Couldn’t it be possible that there are more important priorities to Floridians than restoring swamp land?  If so, our government is working as designed and greens need to realize they are a minority and focus on motivating others to share their opinion.
    If this is a case where there is a clear majority wanting to use their resources for this and politicians are simply backing away from promises to acquiesce to business interests, then expose the politicians.  Investigate, get articles in the paper, online, and on news channels.  Form a group and run ads exposing their misdeeds.  If people really care about the issue, they won’t elect those politicians again.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    Scott B–There are indeed many more important things to Floridians than restoring the Everglades. (Your use of the term “swamp land” indicates that you don’t think it has much ecological value.)

    Let me clarify something, as well. There is no restoring the Everglades to some sort of pre-development phase. Can they reduce the ag pollution more signficantly and remove more blockages to the system? Absolutely. But beyond that, the Everglades will always be a heavily engineered waterway, altered irrevocably.

    Another parallel to the climate change situation, perhaps.

  10. Scott B says:

    I have a hard time grasping the term “ecological value”.  I personally don’t put much value in simply protecting nature from man.  In some areas, we should take actions to protect the environment because not doing so would have a negative impact on people.  A couple of examples of this are emissions reductions to lower smog levels in cities and CFC bans to limit ozone damage.  

    Specific to the Everglades, I may simply be ignorant of the issues, but how does the damage we’ve caused there negatively impact people?  Is the cost to restore it worth it?  I don’t see any impact except for the small number of people that live in Everglades.  From reading the linked articles is sounds like a number of peoples’ jobs rely on the status quo continuing there.

    I think there are some parallels between climate change and this issue.  In both cases, there may be general support from the people to protect the environment, but when specific policies are pushed, many of these people are unwilling to accept the immediate negatives associated with it.  My suggestion to greens in both cases would be to put together a compelling, factual argument together to explain why the short term negatives of specific policies are worth the long term benefits.   If a strong enough case can be made, then people will support action and throw out politicians that block it.  If people can’t be convinced, then greens need to accept that others diagree with what they want.

  11. Pascvaks says:

    Want to buy the land around the Everglades?  It is for sale.  Government (state and federal) are a poor answer.

  12. laursaurus says:

    After my dad retired from GM in 2000, my folks moved to a brand new condo in Naples, FL. My mom has been a volunteer at the nature conservancy from the beginning. Their community has it’s own private beach with the mangrove space protected in between . Compared to the development permitted here on the Pacific Coast, there are quite a bit of high rise residential complexes surrounding. Apparently, like Keith indicated, it’s very easy to drain the wetlands for development. The economic recession is a mixed-blessing for Florida’s natural environment. On the one hand, real estate prices took possibly an even greater hit than California’s.  AFAIK, Florida residents have no state income tax because tourism has provided sufficient revenue. OTOH, I’m sure that industry is directly impacted.
    Considering Florida’s demographics, the public attitude makes sense. Many of them are living off their retirement and the benefit of lifetime experience. The environmentalist moral argument actually backfires. They realize the true economic hardship future generations already are inevitably going to face. Remember they have survived many cycles of impending environmental doom, that either turned out to be falsely predicted or successfully reversed . Think of all the species once listed as “endangered” and the visible pollution successfully mitigated decades ago. They have also endured much more desperate economic conditions, where putting food on the table was the priority. Now we supposedly have an obesity crisis reaching epidemic proportions particularly in poor minorities. Before I go off on a tangent, I better get back to my point. Cell phones, cable TV, internet access, a separate bedroom for each child, 2 cars in the garage, iPod, medical insurance coverage,and a college education are necessities.
    These people are realistic, not ideological. They are supporting themselves off of their lifetime earnings. College students are quite comfortably living off their parent’s support, grants, scholarships, student loans, etc. In this mindset, it’s easy to demand every problem in society be fixed at someone else’s expense. Redistribute the wealth other individuals have worked all their life to earn. Young adults have a lifetime ahead of them to increase their income, and essentially pay no taxes yet. But older individuals make not burdening their families or the rest of society the priority. When it is possible to manage this financially and preserve natural areas, it is a wonderful luxury.
    You can also take into account, a good chunk of the population moved there from somewhere else. It’s a bit of a dilemma to turn around and keep other people out. I know my mom has reflected upon this.

  13. Hank Roberts says:

    > I have a hard time grasping the term “ecological value”
    KK, there’s potential for a topic in that question, if you think you could lead such readers to some kind of understanding.  Or perhaps a pointer to something you know or have previously written elsewhere?

  14. Hank Roberts says:

    Aside — if you search Google Scholar for “ecological value” the first hit is to a discussion of Marx, it’s a phrase used more often in politics than in science.
    Instead search Scholar for”ecological services” and you’ll find, for example:
    The economic value of ecological services provided by insects [PDF] JE Losey, M Vaughan – Bioscience, 2006 – Univ California Press
    “In this article we focus on the vital ecological services provided by insects. We restrict our focus to services provided by ‘wild’ insects; we do not include services from domesticated or mass-reared insect species. The four insect services for which we provide value …

  15. Keith Kloor says:

    Laurausaurus (12):
    You’re all over the map with that comment. Let me just randomly pick off a few, for the hell of it.
    1) Obesity. Ever travel around the country (outside major cities)? Lots and lots and lots of obese people from all nationalities and ethnic groups, including yes, minority communities. I happen to notice many of them eat in fast food joints, too, by some coincidence.
    2) Endangered species. Definitely not obese people. But seriously, most endangered species happen to stay endangered because by the time they are federally listed, the species is already in critical condition. The Endangered Species Act gets species out of the emergency room, but it generally doesn’t get them healthy and discharged from care.
    3) Redistribution of wealth. Major canard. Nobody’s redistributing your parent’s life’s earnings, best as I can tell.
    4) Economic hardship of future generations because of environmentalists? Huh? Also, isn’t there a fair amount of economic hardship  happening right now?

  16. Keith Kloor says:

    Hank (13), thanks for the prompt. If Scott B wanted to learn more about the ecological value of nature–to humans–then I would advise him to become familiar with the term ecosystem services, which Robert Costanza et al helped formulate an economic value to, with this famous paper.

    Additionally, there is a long-running debate over whether nature should be valued intrinsically (for itself) or instrumentally (for utilitarian purposes). I’ve read all the arguments–in graduate school. Interesting stuff, academically speaking.

    This 2008 editorial in Bioscience concisely juxtaposes the two dominant views, and pretty much captures my position, because the argument it makes would necessarily include ecosystem services.

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