There’s no winner takes all when it comes to the environment

After many years of working to protect the environment, I have come to believe in two big ideas: community and civility.

The first seems simple, but is profound nonetheless: From a tiny frog to a giant grizzly, from a family farmer to the residents of our largest cities, all of us are in this together. We all rely upon the benefits that nature provides to prosper.

That’s not what we hear from some politicians who parrot discredited talking points that claim environmental protection kills jobs and cripples the economy.

The truth is that a thriving economy and high quality of life are inextricably linked to, and dependent upon, a healthy environment. We neglect – or worse, punish – the natural world at our peril.

Healthy environment, prosperous economy

Losing the coastal marshes of Louisiana, for example, doesn’t just mean wiping out the rich bayou ecosystem, where great blue herons, alligators and bobcats live among the towering cypresses. It means shrinking the vital nurseries of shrimp, oysters and fish that contribute to a seafood industry worth billions of dollars. It also means losing valuable natural buffers that protect major cities like New Orleans from extreme weather — and also shield the refineries and other massive facilities of same industry that caused much of the loss.

Similar tales of the interdependence between humans and the environment can be found all across the country. Reducing the amount of nutrients that flow into creeks and rivers in America’s heartland by improving farming practices and restoring wetlands is a boon to wildlife. At the same time, it also lessens the enormous economic toll from removing harmful nitrates from drinking water.

In the parched American West, better management of water basins not only restores vanishing ecosystems, with its rich diversity of aquatic and avian life. It also helps water managers cope better with shortages and surpluses, ensuring that cities, farms and local communities don’t run dry.

These examples, and many more, show how protecting ecosystems is essential to economic and human prosperity. And such protection becomes even more crucial in today’s changing climate, which is bringing rising seas, more intense heat waves, more extreme storms, more severe floods and droughts.

Because of this new and growing threat, we need a second big idea: a return to civility.

Collaborative conservation

My colleague Miriam Horn wrote a book, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman – which is now a documentary that will air on Discovery Channel Aug. 31 – that chronicles the approach we must take to ensure our natural resources continue to sustain life and allow us to thrive.

  • In the northern Rockies, rancher Dusty Crary has wrangled an improbable band of longtime enemies – cattlemen, fisherman, federal land managers, outfitters, hikers, hunters, “greenies” – to gain federal protection of the sprawling ranches, untamed wilderness and iconic wildlife they all love. At a recent screening of the film in Bozeman, Montana, he encouraged others to listen to opposing viewpoints and find the common ground – the 80 percent we can all agree upon.
  • On the Kansas prairie, fifth-generation farmer Justin Knopf is working with university scientists, companies and nonprofits to revolutionize industrial scale agriculture to rebuild the fertility, biodiversity and resilience of his soil.
  • And on the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, commercial fisherman Wayne Werner isn’t just saying no to regulations. He’s engaging federal regulators and environmental organizations to bring back red snapper, which will help supply local restaurants with a favorite dish and keep his buddies’ businesses afloat.

The documentary is an inspirational reminder of what we can accomplish when we avoid finger pointing and divisive rhetoric and come together to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Managing our economy and our ecosystems is unavoidably an exercise in trade-offs involving issues of culture, values, economics and equity across groups and generations.

It’s easy to foment division and then hope those divisions create an opportunity for the winner to take all. The problem is, there is no winner takes all when it comes to the environment because we’re all in this together.

The heroes of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman realize this, and they give me hope. Getting to compromise is hard. But it is the only way forward. Our future depends on it.

Related: 

Why we need a new era of collaborative conservation >>>

To help the environment, we must first help people >>>

What we've learned from 50 years of wildlife conservation >>>

 

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    Meeting growing demands for food and water in ways that allow people and nature to prosper.

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