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OpEd by Yvon Chouinard

By Yvon Chouinard
from a 2004 Patagonia Catalog

According to various polls, Americans by a 4-to-1 margin support stronger environmental laws - and tougher enforcement.

But debate about environmental policy does not loom large in presidential election years and never has. Other issues elbow to the front of the national consciousness: jobs and the economy, security and war, health care, the price at the pump, education. We argue that environmental concerns trump all others.

America is now well on course to leave our children if not a dying country, one that is irreversibly damaged in all ways that count. In recent years, this country has suffered serious erosion of its hard-won environmental protection measures. We have to correct course now.

A few quick facts about the twin heads of the environmental beast that confronts us: Between 1950 and 2000, world population more than doubled and economic activity increased sevenfold. The change to life in the United States has been extraordinary. We were no paradise in 1950; ask anyone who lived in Pittsburgh then, or near a Nevada test site. But the Great Plains still had its aquifer and most of its topsoil, the Northwest still had its salmon runs and much of its forests, acid rain had not deadened every third Northeastern lake and the Everglades had more freshwater than salt. We had twice as many acres of wetlands as we have now. We had more acres of rangeland and they were in better shape. The oceans off our coasts teemed with fish. There was as yet no Northwest Passage through the melting polar ice cap. There were no factory farms; pesticides had come only recently into use. The countryside had not yet been industrialized.

That was then. In 2004, we are no longer over pruning the branches of the fruits of the earth: we are chopping away at the roots. Where will it lead?

Consider that American babies born this election year will turn 46 in 2050. What will their world be like if we continue to roll back our modest gains of cleaner air and water? Or continue to tolerate ever-increasing waste and toxicity as ordinary by-products of human activity? Or fail to reach accord with other nations to reduce carbon emissions? Or maintain the same standard of living as most Europeans yet go on using twice the nonrenewable energy?

Forecasting is an imprecise art, but here are a few basic strokes to the picture. Even Pentagon planners are concerned that global climate change may reach a "tipping point" after which widespread drought would turn farmland into dust and forests to ash. Even without accelerated weather change, parts of the Great Plains and Midwest will become desert as the Ogallala aquifer further shrinks. In Appalachia, more mine waste will choke more rivers below more decapitated mountain tops. The soil of California's San Joaquin Valley will be too polluted to grow food. There will be fewer wetlands and forests to sustain fewer species of birds, fish and mammals. By 2050, our children will pay dearly for scarce water as well as energy and food. Ditto for national security, because large parts of Africa and Asia will suffer great harm induced by global warming before we do. Cancer incidence will be higher; viruses are likely to be stronger.

Our children will not miss the world we know now, as we do not miss the world our parents knew in 1950. Memories are short. The natural world we have, diminished from the one our parents knew, will slowly become irretrievable to the imagination. But the dread we now suffer, dread none of our parents could imagine in 1950, will play a central role in our children's lives -face to face, as they may be, against the failure of the earth to sustain itself as an organism complex and resilient enough to support a species as extractive and destructive as ours.

We can do better than that. And we do know how to do better: to conserve our dwindling fresh water supply, to switch to renewable energy. Three states alone have the wind power to provide electricity to the nation as a whole. We do not have to pay public subsidies to poison our fields. We have the capacity to develop a sophisticated, low-impact agriculture free of pesticides. We are beginning to understand how to make products from recycled materials that can be recycled again, which would bring to a close the era of junk. And we can save wild lands to give a diversity of species a rest from exploitation and some distance from the human hand.

We can use our human ingenuity to steward rather than pillage our remaining inheritance. But the need is urgent. Many ecologists think that turnaround may not be possible much longer.

Jobs and the economy, national security, health care, education: all are important. But this is the time to vote the environment first - locally, statewide, nationally - so that a civil human society and a survivable planet will be possible by the time this year's babies reach early middle age.

Vote the environment November 2nd.

Yvon Chouinard is an alpinist, surfer and fly fisherman, as well as the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. He also founded 1% For The Planet, Inc. an alliance of businesses committed to donating at least one percent of their annual net revenues to environmental organizations worldwide. For more information, or to join the alliance, visit Register to vote, get informed, vote the environment. Register to vote online via Research the candidates' environmental voting records.

Note: Yvon Chouinard is the founder of The Great Pacific Iron Works, Black Diamond and Patagonia. --Robert Speik





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