My elementary school didn’t have any sports teams, so when I started high school, I was bewildered when we used class time for all-school assemblies for pep rallies. Suddenly I was expected to have team spirit and cheer on teams of kids I didn’t know and boo other teams with kids I didn’t know. It seemed ridiculous. I never questioned my love for the Chicago Cubs—my grandpa loved the Cubs, and so of course I did. Had my Grandpa loved the White Sox, I’d have grown up a White Sox fan, and would find it bewildering that anyone would cheer on the Cubs. When it comes right down to it, there are no valid reasons for cheering on some teams and booing others, other than sentimental reasons and unquestioned family traditions.
People have always chosen our political parties in a somewhat similar way to how we choose our sports favorites. We start out either adopting our family’s political leanings or rejecting them to prove we’re not like our family. Little by little as we grow more mature we learn that neither party represents every one of our views. Particular candidates have specialized knowledge and passion for particular issues. That’s when we start splitting our ticket to choose the particular candidates whose stands most closely reflect our own.
But now more and more Americans seem to be identifying with political parties in the same unquestioned way that we identify with sports teams. Being an environmentalist with a particular focus on bird conservation, I was of course horrified during the last presidential debate when Mitt Romney disparaged the federal prosecutors who sought criminal charges when birds died in the Bakken oil field. He asked, “What was the cost, 20 or 25 birds were killed?” The number of carcasses retrieved was 28, and the likelihood was that orders of magnitude more carcasses from that site were never found. In 1997, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 2 million migratory birds were lost each year to oil pits throughout the United States, and they’ve been trying to reduce the problem with fairly straightforward and affordable ways which the owners and operators of the Bakken oil fields have been ignoring. Those criminal charges were reasonable, though a federal judge dismissed the case, saying the bird deaths were an “incidental or unintended effect” of oil production.
But Barack Obama never answered Romney, and doesn’t seem to be aware that the tiny bit of oversight Fish and Wildlife still has to enforce the Migratory Bird Act is being eroded. Neither of them mentioned the BP oil spill, and both of them seemed to be in a contest to see who was willing to drill the most on public lands and waters. Neither of them mentioned the word “conservation” and neither mentioned climate change or global warming.
I don’t think it’s even possible in today’s world for anyone with environmental knowledge and commitment to reach high office or to become a federal judge. The country was extremely polarized in the 60s and 70s, too, yet the same president who coined the term “environmental wacko” signed into law the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, and a bipartisan Congress overrode his veto of the Clean Water Act.
Unprecedented numbers of dead loons are washing up on shores of the Great Lakes this fall, but that news isn’t making front pages in the same way as the flaming Cuyahoga River did in the 60s. I’m afraid that the way our political system is working today, and the way fewer and fewer people have wildlife and the environment on their radar screens, things will get much worse than they were in the 70s before we’ll do anything at all to fix them.