Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"We're in the Alligators' Backyard" by Moderator Michael Grunwald

[Discussion Topic:  The Swamp: the Everglades, Flordia, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald and Marjory Stoneman Douglas' legacy]

Thanks so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments. Let me first offer a shamelessly self-serving response to Karene, who finished The Swamp and wants more to read: You can pre-order my second book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. It’s not about the Everglades, but it’s got a lot of surprising and (I hope) compelling environmental stuff. Otherwise, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Swamplandia; the best Everglades novels are Peter Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy and almost anything by the brilliant and hilarious Carl Hiaasen. For non-fiction, I recommend Cynthia Barnett on water, Craig Pittman on wetlands, manatees, and orchids, and Les Standiford on Henry Flagler’s crazy railroad. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, while somewhat problematic as journalism, is an amazing piece of writing and thinking.

 One thing I like about The Orchid Thief is its portrayal of the way the natural world rubs up against the artificial world in South Florida, which gets at some of the issues that Mark, JO, Ellen, and Bill raised in their comments. There are over 7 million of us living in the Everglades ecosystem—not to mention over 50 million annual visitors—and most of us have no clue that a century ago this region was virtually uninhabited. We call animal control 18,000 times a year to report alligators in our backyards; it doesn’t occur to us that we’re in the alligators’ backyards. We expect our water managers to keep us dry and prevent flooding; we forget that we’re living in former wetlands, in active floodplains, that the Everglades used to provide water management for the entire region.  

Image courtesy of the NPS - Everglades National Park website
The native Americans who were chased into the swamp during the Seminole Wars—that’s right, even south Florida’s native peoples are from somewhere else—were constantly aware of the ebbs and flows of the Everglades; it was a matter of subsistence and survival. The early white pioneers who settled America’s last frontier set out to tame the Everglades, to reclaim the Everglades, to improve the Everglades; wetlands were wastelands, and water was the common enemy of the people of Florida. This wasn’t just our national destiny; this was our Biblical duty. “And God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” So now the Everglades has been walled off from humanity with 2,000 miles of levees and canals; Lake Okeechobee, the heart and lungs of the ecosystem, has been hidden and imprisoned behind a gigantic dike. When I give talks down here, suburbanites from Weston and Wellington and Coral Springs and Miami Springs, residents of drained swampland, living at the edge of what’s left of the Everglades, always tell me that they’ve never visited, that they didn’t even know it was there.

I’m a realist, and I do think the best way to get people to care about the environment is to appeal to their self-interest. It makes sense to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fisheries that feed us, the beaches, reefs and rookeries that attract tourist dollars to our economy. I remember hearing someone say we really ought to save the earth; it’s the only planet with chocolate. It’s rare to hear politicians standing up for wild places just because it’s the right thing to do, although Everglades National Park was the first park preserved for biodiversity rather than scenery, the first official recognition that a forbidding wilderness could be a national treasure. At its dedication, Harry Truman made a spiritual argument:

“For conservation of the human spirit, we need places such as Everglades National Park, where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator’s infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful and infinitely bountiful handiwork. Here we may draw strength and peace of mind from our surroundings. Here we can truly understand what the psalmist meant when he sang: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.”

[See whole speech]

But while Truman celebrated the wildness of the southern Everglades, he called for Americans to “make full use of our resources” in the rest of the Everglades. Many of the park’s greatest advocates—including Marjory!—supported the Army Corps of Engineers water control plan that has ravaged the entire Everglades. It has become a cliché that in South Florida, the environment is the economy, and it’s true, but politicians often interpret that to mean that whatever economic interests want must by definition be good for the Everglades, instead of vice versa.

I think Ellen is right when she talks about the importance of environmental education. I think Mark and JO and Bill are right to emphasize the magic of the wild, the idea that the Everglades is its own best advocate, the importance of exposing Americans to the natural world they don’t always notice in their SUV’s. But I really don’t expect most people to value nature for the sake of the bugs and bunnies. It’s got to be connected to a larger sense that these special places are part of what makes America America. Bill wants us to embrace nature in ways that go beyond pure utilitarian calculations, beyond the notion that by saving the planet we can save ourselves, maybe even beyond Truman’s idea that protecting special places will bring us closer to God. I think those calculations are a pretty powerful place to start, but I also suggest at the end of my book that the test of the Everglades—the test of whether we’re going to have a chance to keep the planet—has a moral dimension as well. It’s a test not only of restoration science and engineering and planning, but a test of our willingness to restrain ourselves, to share the earth’s resources with the other living things that moveth upon it, to learn how to live in harmony with nature.

If we pass that test, we might deserve to keep the planet.

Thanks again for your thoughts; please keep them coming. I also just started tweeting at @MikeGrunwald if you want to hit me up directly.


Bill Sherwonit said...

There's a natural parallel between South Florida's alligators and the Anchorage area's black and grizzly bears. People forget -- and many still don't realize -- that yes, we humans have moved into bear habitat and continue to encroach further and further into "bear country." Many residents also tend to simplistically talk about "bear problems," when in fact it is usually human behavior (or misbehavior) that leads to problems, for instance leaving out garbage, dog food and even bird seed -- all of them attractants for these opportunistic omnivores. It's both frustrating and disheartening for those of us who want to share the landscape with wild critters.

I appreciate the comments about the "moral dimension" of how we live on the Earth. It is indeed a test of sorts, and in so many ways we humans are failing that test. But of course we need to keep working for change, hopeful for a better, healthier, more compassionate way of being on this planet, our home, while celebrating the miracle of life, our own lives.

Katherine said...

I am deeply moved by this narrative and especially the beam of light you shine on the moral dilemma...thank you so much for this. Very grateful that you are here.

Jeb said...

This is a fascinating topic! And I've been following the narration and discussion with great interest. The Everglades has always represented a place of mystery to me, full of exotic plants and secretive creatures. Since I've never been there, I am left to imagine it from what I read and hear about it. I agree that education is an important tool toward the goal of conservation. But lately I am coming to think that maybe we need to redefine what we mean by education. Facts, figures, historical perspectives, etc. don't seem to be enough to change people's habits and attitudes. I think what's missing is the education of personal relationship with nature itself. As educators, we need to be adding that into the mix.