Almost 30 years ago I worked in India as a Peace Corps volunteer. Returning
there recently for a long vacation gave me a new appreciation not only for the country
but for American environmentalism and the Sierra Club.
The subcontinent faces environmental problems on a scale that dwarfs our own.
Nearly a billion people, a third of them desperately poor, occupy an area about
one-third that of the United States. Forty percent of the population of New Delhi
suffers from asthma as a result of air pollution, the Ganges is dying from water
pollution, and deforestation unleashes catastrophic landslides that kill hundreds
of people. To combat these problems India has a bare-bones infrastructure, a
relatively undeveloped body of environmental law, minimal enforcement of what
laws do exist, rampant government corruption, and a financially strapped
Indians are well aware of the causes of their ills. I asked a shopkeeper in the
provincial city of Ranchi what had changed since I left. "Oh, there are way too
many people," he replied. "We are cutting down the forests around the city, and
air and water pollution have skyrocketed. Now we are even changing the climate."
Ranchi currently has a million people, up from 150,000 in my time. (I guess the
family-planning program I worked on wasn't all that effective.) During my recent
visit, the city was a furnace. If India counted heat fatalities as carefully as
we do in the United States, last summer's death toll probably would have reached
50,000. Bubaneshwar, a city of 5 million, ran out of ice to treat heat-stroke
victims in its hospital emergency rooms. Imagine what happened in villages with
no hospitals and no ice when the temperature rose above 130 degrees and people
had no choice but to work in the fields in the full sun.
Despite its overpopulation and poverty, India's heritage still provides hope for
environmental sustainability. Its religious traditions encourage a reverence for
nature; Hinduism found its spiritual center in wild mountains thousands of years
before Muir found his in Yosemite. And the Gandhian tradition of mass nonviolent
mobilization enables Indian environmentalists like those fighting dams in the
Narmada Valley to turn out supporters by the hundreds of thousands-numbers
American activists can only dream about.
I realized, however, that we in North America have our own cultural strengths.
Chief among them is our sense of ourselves as a unified public. We cherish the
concept of public service, and are proud of our public spaces and lands. Our
legal traditions, for example, describe waterways and wetlands as being held in
"servitude to the public trust."
Indians are committed more to their families, castes, and religions than to an
abstract public. Their homes are immaculately clean inside-but litter begins on
the doorstep, even in prosperous areas, and the owners of new villas rent out
their garden walls as billboards. There are common lands, and their role is
critical, but their use is designated for a particular community, not a broader
Returning to the United States, I was struck by how this sense of the common
interest lies at the heart of the Sierra Club's mission-and by how desperately
some are trying to erode it. Despite the nation's exaltation of close communities
and small-town values, we are moving in the opposite direction: the mall replaces
the public square, the gated community substitutes for public safety, vouchers
threaten the public schools. "There is no public," former British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher once announced. Her view is echoed in the halls of Congress,
where public land is equated with communism. Fred Smith of the Competitive
Enterprise Institute recently blasted so-called free-market environmentalists for
being soft. The problem with their approach, he said, was that it admitted a
public obligation to protect the environment. "We should no more spend time
seeking to make environmental 'market mechanisms' work," Smith said, "than
[conservative economist Friedrich] Hayek wasted on seeking to make market
socialism work." The right's solution is to let individuals take care of their
own environmental problems. If your neighbor is polluting your property, you can
always sue. As for land in the public trust, the right is trying to convert it to
private property as quickly as possible, as we saw in the effort to privatize the
parks in the 104th Congress.
In India the notion of a greater public is eroded by appeals to religion and
ancestry. Here it is undermined by the vast amounts of money channeled into
political campaigns. Our corrupt system of campaign financing buys
disproportionate influence for the donors, replacing the basic principle of our
democracy-one person, one vote-with a sale of leverage to the highest bidder.
Seventy percent of Americans, for example, want to end logging on national
forests. The forest-products industry, however, donated $3.5 million to members
of Congress in the last election, so the wasteful cut continues.
By doing the hard and messy work of writing letters, making phone calls, drafting
legislation, and educating voters, Sierra Club members are doing more than just
protecting the environment; they're helping to maintain our vital tradition of
democratic accountability. We're able to play a larger role than
environmentalists in India or indeed most other countries could ever imagine. Our
system-"the last best hope of Earth," as Lincoln said-puts our rivers, seashores,
wild places, and resources into the public trust, for our common protection and
stewardship, for our common benefit and enjoyment. We love our garden, and we're
not about to let anyone put a billboard in it.