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Beyond Bashing Bush: Grassroots environmentalism and the prospect for a populist resurgence

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Everybody had a good laugh at Bush's EPA claiming that the long feared destruction of wetlands had miraculously slowed. And who could blame them? The obvious layman response, otherwise known as the 'huh' factor, was more than on point. Environmentalists and laypeople alike have watched as runaway development and greed have gobbled up our wetland resources along with the last remaining open space in many of our urban and suburban areas.

Call us cynical, then, when the Bush administration trumpeted what could only be a godsent decline in the destruction of wetlands--a trend which has worried opponents of rampant development for a generation. Alas, the honeymoon was indeed shortlived: Bush junta officials managed to achieve the impossible by, well...lying about it. I know, I know--most of you will be shocked. But the administration managed to slow the decline of wetlands destruction with a simple sleight-of-hand: including man-made ponds and such gifts to nature as golf course water hazards in the wetland registry. Problem solved! If they include the puddle around my bird feeder, then we'll really be in good shape.

But as with many aspects of the current political crisis, opposing Bush's policies--ridiculous though they may be--hardly qualifies one for the environmental hall of fame. In fact, it is often the local gatekeepers--by and large Democrats in a liberal state--who grease the skids of runaway development that threatens our neighborhoods, compromises the viability of our wetland resources, and push for the "progress" of more building...higher, faster, stronger, as it were.

What then is a concerned environmentalist to do? The local liberal channels--likely controlled by the Democratic Party--are often closed. In "liberal" Massachusetts, this oversight contributes to the on-the-ground fact that the destruction of open space is proceeding at nearly seven times the rate of population growth. We need to ask ourselves: what interests is this phenomenon serving?

Without seeming alarmist, however (or perhaps by appearing just so) we should point out that local development--the "engine" of economic growth, if you listen to the experts--is munching through every available hectare on the planet. So why should we be any different?

Why indeed? That is, until you consider the rate of cancer, asthma, and misery that our addiction to development costs us. In Massachusetts, as in many locales, final decisions on who gets to build the huge building on what unclaimed swamp is a local one: the Wetlands Protection Act spawned a myriad of local Conservation Commissions to help sort out this gigantic mess. But like their counterparts in transnational business predation, developers too straddle jurisdictions: Don't worry your pretty little heads about the effects of this or that project--they're all upstream--or downstream, depending on the breaks.

Such plump geographic idiosyncrasies make sections of coastline, rivers, marshes and wetlands ripe for the picking, and the smaller their carved slices are, the more successful the growth curve of developers seem to be.

And in many cases, local laws and regulations seem to grease the wheels. Even in "liberal" Massachusetts, wetland law is tragically and forever two steps behind the science of wetland protection; what's more, all developers sense this, and, like flies to a corpse, hone in for the kill as soon as the first blade of grass becomes available.

Specifically, with regard to wetland law, Lynn Boyd has argued in an eloquent thesis that current wetland regulated buffers are demonstrably inadequate to protect the range of fauna that depend on a wider "life zone" for sustainability--and thus, for true wetland health. For an industry intent on building up to water's edge, of course, Boyd's science is a nuisance, an inconvenience to be dealt with using the tricks of every powerful landowner: intimidation, obfuscation, and whatever else comes to mind.

In dealing with one such local issue, I have learned a thing or two. On the one hand, large environmental groups, who have pegged their power, prestige and fundraising potential on big victories, are often not interested in boots-on-the-ground battles. Understandable. But local politicians are wary of the lack of cover they face when taking on powerful developers.

It is into this gap that I suggest we must leap. The promise of grassroots environmentalism, I contend, is in its ability to reach almost every citizen where they live. The simple fact is that people just don't like bulldozers coming into their community and changing it overnight without their approval. This is a basic gut feeling of residents worldwide. For an appropriate analogy, one must travel all the way to China, where local governments wield as much power as the MWPA gives to local councils. Just as Chinese farmers are wary of local elites selling off their land in the middle of the night, local residents in our hemisphere fear being railroaded into projects that will be of great harm in the long term.

The collapse of the Bush house of cards has given way to--or it may be better said, exposed--a grassroots phenomenon to which the Democrats had better take heed if they wish to regain power. Some may question the connection between environmentalism and Bush's demise; but in the trenches we can see not only the growing mistrust of Bush, but a growing and wholesale rejection of officialist dogma.

Officialism can be summed up as the experience of people who claim to be smarter than you telling you that you needn't be afraid of such-and-such an official plan. It's all worked out: there's nothing to be afraid of. In the trenches, one can sense a remarkable shift: so-called 'normal' people think this is a crock of sh*t, and instinctively reserve their support for such a system.

The potential should by now be self-evident. People are radicalized by the things that threaten them most. Of course, the militarism of society, the use of people's tax money to inflict horror on the rest of the world--should not be taken for granted. But if people can be engaged in this radical moment, when their homes, their neighborhoods, and their very health are threatened, then a whole door opens up for those who would dare step into the breach.

Sure, I'm aware of the limits of environmentalism to shape human attitudes toward social justice: need only remember the controversy over a racist, xenophobic splinter trend within the Sierra Club to realize just how narrow a window is open to us. Still, there is room here: room ignored by the traditional environmental groups because these fights are losers, as locals face off with well-funded developers in thousands of projects nationwide. But as Michael Crichton was fond of pointing out, complex systems can only emerge on the edge of chaos. The internet allows us to jump into the breach of such fights in defiance of previously impenetrable boundaries. Who's to say that each of these fights might not be won with a concentrated application of heterarchical web-power.

In this spirit, I offer a challenge of sorts to my fellow activists, environmentalists, and anyone else who gives a damn. We have made it incredibly easy to participate in this particular fight, no matter how far away you may be. I invite "our people" to join use by seeking out the post card campaign at An experiment, if you will. Outfunded, outgunned, and outmaneuvered, we may never be able to push back the foe on this level. But this, after all, is where the rubber meets the road. If we can't win here, and in the other 10,000 fights worldwide where bulldozers "sit at the ready," as the saying goes, then we are truly facing dark times.

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(c) 2014 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to Political analyst, writer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife. Together (more...)

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