The media baroness Arianna Huffington, ever a quick wit, has pointed out that Barack Obama’s nice-sounding phrase, the “Audacity of Hope,” has taken on a different spin during his presidency. Originally intended as a slogan of bravery – the courage to be optimistic in dark times – it now appears to signify the idea that hope alone is sufficient to effect social change. Yes, President Obama’s eloquent tenor is inspirational, and I have no doubt he’s well intentioned. But the hopefulness he brought to his office seems more insufficient by the week.
Huffington was writing about the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street gamblers, but she could have been addressing any number of issues. Gay and lesbian groups feel burned over Obama’s hesitation to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Peace activists are seething over the escalation in Afghanistan. Just about everyone is in some way disappointed about the pace of healthcare reform.
We environmentalists have our own reasons to be disappointed. In June, Obama’s EPA failed to place a moratorium on mountaintop removal coal mining, as green groups had wished, and instead merely tightened the rules governing the destructive practice. Then, just a few weeks later, the administration approved logging in the Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
Perhaps the biggest worry among environmentalists is the still unfinished business of climate legislation. Yes, the White House used its political muscle to help pass the Waxman-Markey bill, which barely squeaked by the House. But the legislation is thin gruel. Watered down with offsets and pollution giveaways, it’s unclear how much the law will do to cut back US greenhouse gas emissions. Green organizations were torn: Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace opposed the bill; NRDC and Environmental Defense supported it; the Sierra Club held its nose and gave the legislation conditional approval, hoping to strengthen the measure in the Senate.
Such divisions over strategies and tactics are a natural part of politics. As Michael Stoll reports (“Rumble in the Jungle,” page 56), tensions are playing out in Guatemala, where environmentalists are divided over how best to preserve the forest there. Similarly in Florida, where, as Alex Halperin writes in “Cat Fight” (page 26), some conservationists are working with developers to protect the native panther while others are opposed to future home building. Even more intense debates, on a much larger scale, loom on the horizon. As I write in a commentary about geo-engineering (“Hacking the Sky,” page 40), we will soon have to decide whether we should manipulate the sun’s light in order to slow down the greenhouse effect. That’s bound to cause infighting.
Among friends and allies, it often makes sense to agree to disagree. But I think that when it comes to mountaintop removal, climate legislation, or logging in the national forests, we are best served by standing tough. I’m reminded of the words of David Brower, the founder of this magazine, who said: “Every time I’ve compromised, I’ve lost. When I held firm I won. The problem with too many environmentalists today is that they are trying to write the compromise instead of letting those we pay to compromise do it.”
Obama gets paid to hope for the best. Our job is to fight for it.
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