Today, more than 500 elementary school students in our local public school hauled recyclable bags filled with more recyclable plastic bags to school to mark America Recycles Day. Our green clubs are counting the bags – we already know that one kindergarten class brought in nearly 2000 – and putting them aside to reuse (for our school book sale), repurpose (we’re making tote bags and other crafts) and recycle.
It’s important to me that our kids understand the importance of reusing, repurposing and recycling plastics, glass, paper and other goods where possible. It’s something that I learned as a young girl from my dad, who was a big advocate of conserving and preserving our resources. I know what you’re thinking. He was some long-haired, tie-dye wearing, hippy liberal, right? Wrong. Try a clean shaven, gun owning, khaki wearing, church going conservative.
I grew up in rural North Carolina, not far from the intracoastal waterway. I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods with my brothers, crabbing off of the neighbors’ bulkhead, wading through the sound for clams and crabs and combing the shoreline for shark’s teeth with my dad. It was, in many ways, an odd paradise.
My dad was (and is) fiercely proud of the land that he owned. He taught us to have a healthy respect for our land. We took care of it. We gardened and composted: a pile across the creek served as a great spot for building compost for our plants – and more often than not, food for the local foxes and possums.
We also recycled. We brought our bottles back to the store and we bundled our newspapers and magazines in a pile to drive out to the recycling center when we took the trash (we didn’t have private or municipal pick up in our little town). We did our part not because the government told us to or because it was trendy. We did it because it was consistent with our priorities that you take care of what’s important.
Over the years, I remained committed to the values that my dad taught me. I recycled. I bought locally when possible. I conserved energy – even now, I can still hear his voice in my head yelling at me to turn off the lights. I even turned vegetarian for a bit for totally ecological reasons, though while it was easy enough to give up a steak or a hamburger, I couldn’t stay away from a good pulled pork sandwich for long.
But over that same period of time, something else happened. Somehow, caring about the environment became a political statement. And necessarily, the same could be said for not caring about the environment. Breathable air and drinkable water have become political symbols.
Interestingly, while conservatives have increasingly turned away from environmental protections as a government mandate, it was President Nixon who signed the Environmental Protection Agency into law. He went on to ask for federal dollars to improve air and water quality; to establish guidelines for lower motor vehicle emissions; and launch federally-funded research to reduce automobile pollution.
But in this new era of faux fiscal conservatism, it’s not okay to spend money on the environment. As politicians talk more and more about ditching the Tax Code, they seem to suggest that less government interference – and less tax dollars – is the solution to all of our problems.
Funding for the EPA continues its downward spiral (reduced 13% from 2010 for 2012). And federal income tax credits for energy efficiency which were promoted in 2006 have been eliminated or scaled back for 2011 – some are set to disappear completely in 2012. In an era where tax cuts are generally promoted by conservatives, tax breaks for energy efficiency and environmental measures have been discounted.
How did this happen? It’s clearly political, not economic. Somehow, the message of environmental responsibility has been co-opted as a liberal agenda; increasingly, conservatives try to put forth the idea that the environment isn’t a priority item. I’m not sure how or why that happened.
The fervor that would divide conservatives and liberals on environmental issues was most apparent during the Bush-Gore Presidential race in 2000. Gore painted himself as a champion of the environment, a move that many used to characterize him as out of touch and anti-business. Ironically, after his win, Bush quietly introduced a number of tax incentives meant to promote conservation and energy efficiency (seemingly at odds with Cheney’s position).
There has been very little energy policy talk in the latest run up to the presidency, save for the occasional stab at oil prices. Americans are smart enough to understand that energy policies and environmental concerns don’t start and stop with drilling, oil production and the cost of gasoline. That said, there’s not been any significant dialogue about what might happen moving forward with respect to energy credits and tax incentives. Is it because taxpayers and voters don’t care? Or because politicians are scared to take a position? I would suggest that it’s the latter.
I’m not about big government. And I don’t think that throwing money at a problem is ever a complete solution. But I am skeptical about a budget or a tax plan that would suggest that taking money away from a problem is a complete solution. Is it possible that there’s an answer somewhere in the middle? And if so, does either party want to talk about it?