Environment & Politics

[From Connect Column Archives]

How did it happen? How did concerns about the environment and, more particularly, what to do about them, get so tied up in politics? I know as sure as I sit here writing this column that as soon as I take a stand on one environmental or science issue or another, I will be labeled by some as a ‘tree hugger’, a ‘green freak’, an ultra-liberal Democrat, or names I cannot print. I will be accused of being anti-business, anti-development, anti-American, or all sorts of other ‘anti’s’.

We must get past this kind of thinking. It is not productive. It is too important for us to look clearly at the issues involved to be stopped by the politics of labeling. We cannot go blind just because an issue may challenge one’s own views and values.

We have entered the millennium of the environment whether we like it or not. We can go kicking and screaming or we can go with an attitude of wanting to be involved in solutions. The way to solutions is not through screaming at one another about being conservative or liberal or of being one kind of religious person or not. The way to solutions is being willing to examine the facts and then not going into denial.

Things can get real muddied up though. Right now, we cannot agree on what the environmental problems are, where they came from, or how significant they may be. Some folks have almost literally buried their heads in the sand. They say there aren’t any major environmental problems on the planet or that things we see are just part of natural cycles. They say there are already too many rules and regulations about what people and companies can and cannot do. They oppose almost anything that restricts the rights of choice whether it be of an individual or of a business or industry. With industries in particular, most do not favor anything that would conceivably increase the current cost of operating. Fortunately, there are others who have the wisdom to look at a larger view. We do not have to look any farther than our own community to learn important lessons. The Continental Steel Corporation is an excellent example of what can go wrong. To clean up that industrial site has already cost millions of dollars. More will be required. Even then, the ground upon which it was located will be off limits for the foreseeable future for many uses. Why is this?

When in business, Continental Steel Corporation provided jobs for over a thousand people. It provided a good income for people to pay for housing, feed their families, and make a descent living. But what it did not do was to include all of the costs to the environment and to the people in the community in its cost of doing business or in the price of the products it sold. As a result, others have had to pay millions to try to fix what was left behind.

There were other hidden costs not recognized and paid for at the time or even now. What about the costs in terms of the health of former workers or property values near the plant site? What about the costs of water pollution and air pollution left behind? There are and will continue to be monitoring sites for the ground water in the area for the indefinite future to test for toxic chemicals still in the ground.

The former stockholders of Continental Steel Corporation walked away with millions in profits from dollars not spent in dealing with important environmental, societal, and health issues while the company operated. They transferred these ‘costs’ of doing business to others who, if given a choice, would not have wanted to pay for them.

How do you suppose anyone in this community who dared point these things out several decades ago would have been viewed? I can tell you. I was there. Company leadership complained vocally any time they were required to install equipment to reduce harmful air emissions. They buried barrels upon barrels of toxic wastes in their own backyard. They released thousands of gallons of pollutants into the Wildcat Creek. Out of sight, out of mind was the philosophy. We just will not deal with it.

The irony is the leadership of that company and of many companies today would, individually, say one of the ‘All-American’ values he or she holds dear is that of personal responsibility. You fix what you have broken. This presents a real dilemma. The only way, then, to not have to fix something is to deny that a problem exists in the first place, to minimize the problem, or to evade the problem with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.

How many other companies are doing the very same thing across the country or the globe right now that Continental Steel Corporation did then? Is this really why one hears so much wailing and gnashing of teeth from one industry leader or another or from those in public office that are aligned with them? Is this why many industries are in denial about environmental matters generally? Is it all about costs and profits? Is this all about short term thinking and not wanting to take responsibility for the lives of anyone else? Is it really about narrow mindedness and lack of concern? You decide.

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About Kent Blacklidge Ph.D.

As part of a newspaper family who owned a 34,000 daily newspaper in the heart of the Midwest, I have a passion for a strong “Fourth Estate”, the press. Without a diligent and assertive free press, the power would be taken from the people. People have the absolute right to know. After earning a degree in Industrial Management from the Krannert School of Management at Purdue, I spent over 20 years in newspaper management with several as publisher. I am also holder of three graduate science degrees including a Ph.D.. I have a passionate interest in science and the environment. I have little tolerance for ignorance and stupidity.
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