Once an idea has taken hold of the American people’s minds, whether it’s a just one or an unreasonable one, nothing is more difficult than to uproot it. The same thing has been observed in England, the European country which for the past century has had the greatest liberty of thought and also the most invincible prejudices.
Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
H. L. Mencken
I spent the last half of last week in Oberlin, Ohio attending a conference called “The State of American Democracy.” The event was envisioned and organized by the remarkable David Orr – author, conservation activist and Oberlin College professor who has spent much of his life trying to uproot the “invincible prejudices” that are undermining our communities and our planet.
The roster of issues ranged from social media (the good, the bad and the fake), to the Paris Accord (It’s flawed, but the U.S. should stick with it…), to the bloated military (57 percent of all discretionary spending in America, 30 percent of which is wasted…), to the U.S. Constitution (We have the only “middle class” constitution in the western world), to “Birth of a Nation,” (which premiered in the Wilson White House in 1916).
On these topics we were challenged, enlightened and inspired by the likes of Gus Speth (South Carolina’s premier environmental luminary and former CCL board member), foreign policy scholar Jessica Tuchman Mathews, former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, conservative commentator Peter Wehner, New York Times journalist Timothy Egan (“The Worst Hard Time”, “The Big Burn”, etc.), author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance (“Hillbilly Elegy”), and a dozen more speakers of comparable stature. About the only authority on democracy who did not make an appearance in Oberlin was Alexis de Tocqueville (for obvious reasons). Appropriately, though, some of Tocqueville’s most insightful observations on American society came from his visit to Ohio, the “West”, in 1831.
Talk about drinking from a fire hose!
The two final speakers could not have been more electrifying or more different. The first, Rev. William Barber, a minister from Goldsboro, North Carolina, delivered a fiery sermon conveying the “fierce urgency of now.” Then, in the campus chapel, Terry Tempest Williams, the great poet of nature, presented a gentle, introspective talk that concluded with a ringing call to action on behalf of the natural world.
You’ll undoubtedly hear more about Rev. Barber, but the short story is that he made an unqualified case for action on critical challenges at the intersection of society and environment. Talk alone doesn’t cut it for Rev. Barber! We must focus like a million laser beams on changing the laws and policies that threaten our communities and our planet.
This editorial from the Post and Courier sounds a similar note, pointing out the importance of adopting housing policies that allow families with modest incomes to live close to their jobs and schools. (And, by the way, these policies will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion. Seriously. More on this later.)
From the editorial:
The county and its municipalities will also have to take a proactive approach to gentrification and residential development, ensuring that more homeowners and renters can afford to stay and live in their communities.
Terry (I think she would like me to call her that…) answered seven questions posed by an “introverted” (her description) Oberlin student who interviewed her for the college newspaper. Those answers framed the talk, which celebrated the imperiled beauty of the West, highlighting our responsibility to act in the face of grave threats to the planet, and revealed the wellspring of environmental activism (our hearts).
So much beauty, so many threats, such fierce urgency! Terry reported that on December 1, Interior Secretary Zinke will announce an 80 percent reduction of the newly created Bears Ears National Monument, established one year ago in the waning days of the Obama Administration, and a 50 percent diminishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created in 1996. The decommissioned land – approximately 2 million acres total – would be leased to oil companies for $2 per acre.
The Administration’s companion proposal for the aquatic realm, according to this report from the Stanford News, is to reduce the size of our already wildly inadequate system of ocean sanctuaries.
From the article:
The Trump administration is considering rolling back federal protections for a number of national monuments. While most are on land and relatively accessible, three are deep below the ocean’s surface and many miles from the mainland: the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, both in the central Pacific Ocean, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. While most people will never explore the canyons and reefs of these watery realms, their value is hard to overestimate, according to Stanford scientists with years of experience exploring and studying these and adjacent areas.
If a trawl fisherman runs a net along the bottom, the destruction can be near total. Ecosystems may not return to a pre-disturbance state for many thousands of years. Fish recruitment declines, and the fisherman has killed the goose that lays golden eggs. It’s short-term gain and long-term disaster.
At least the changes to Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante will inspire a wave of resistance from conservationists, Native American tribes and ordinary people who love the natural beauty and culture of our indigenous West. (These places do, after all, belong to all U.S. citizens!)
Unlike terrestrial national parks and monuments, ocean sanctuaries are hidden underwater and, thus, unappreciated by the average citizen and even most conservationists. As such, they inspire relatively little public advocacy. Phil Dustan, College of Charleston biology professor and environmental activist, has been trying to change that – in his classes, with movies (Chasing Coral), and now with a TEDx talk.
South Carolina Public Radio reports on Phil’s work, including a four-minute interview on the status of coral reefs:
But… All is not bleak on the federal front. This article from the New York Times reports that President Trump has reconsidered the inconceivably bad idea of removing the ban on importing elephant trophies. Who on this earth could have thought this was a reasonable idea?! (Answer: the Safari Club International and Fox News host Laura Ingraham.)
If there were ever an animal that embodies the grandeur of the earth uncompromised by Homo sapiens, it is the charismatic, indigenous African elephant. So, good for President Trump and for everybody who spoke out against the earlier proposal!
One charismatic animal that is not indigenous, but is nonetheless a welcomed addition to the Lowcountry, is the marsh tacky, a small horse that still roams a few less developed, and undeveloped, islands of South Carolina and Georgia. This article from the Island Packet reports on the first marsh tacky born on Daufuskie Island in the past 40 years!
From the article:
Marsh tackies are the descendents of horses originally brought to the Sea Islands by Spanish settlers and had completely vanished from Daufuskie Island in the 1980s. Veit said it is unknown when the last marsh tacky was born there. “Some say 50 years, some say 60, nobody really knows.”
This next article, from Garden & Gun, by Daufuskie resident and protector Roger Pinckney explains more about the tacky’s origins and habits.
Roger will be speaking in Charleston on his most recent book. More details on this soon.
Roger is a force for nature and an authentic Lowcountry character. So is Sidi Limehouse – Johns Island farmer, politician and environmental activist. Sidi has, among other things, regularly led a kayak navy to Captain Sams Spit, campaigning against the desecration of that ephemeral, imperiled sand bar. (You’ll appreciate the term “ephemeral” even more when our Conservation League news magazine comes out shortly.)
This next article, from the Post and Courier, reports that Sidi’s farm, Rosebank, has produced a calendar celebrating Lowcountry food. The proceeds will help put a young boy who helps with the Rosebank farm stand, Denny Gonzales, through college.
From the article:
Each month of the large-format 2018 calendar features a classic Lowcountry dish or ingredient, such as deviled crabs, tomato pie and Frogmore stew. (Sidi’s partner, Louise) Bennett wrote the blurbs which accompany each selection, confiding that she had to learn to like shad roe and suggesting collards as a base for slaw.
Speaking of champions for nature, this article from Georgetown’s Coastal Observer reports on Rudy Mancke’s presentation at “Wild Side,” the South Carolina Environmental Law Project’s (SCELP) annual extravaganza at Hobcaw Barony.
From the article:
When he discovered a rattlesnake in the road while en route to Hobcaw House, Rudy Mancke immediately began searching for a pillowcase. He wanted to show the snake off to attendees on his afternoon nature walk on the bluff overlooking Winyah Bay.
“Naturalists study the world of nature and marvel at it,” Mancke, the naturalist in residence at the University of South Carolina, said. “When you understand the world around you, you appreciate it more. I think our natural heritage is important. I think we should do everything in our power to make sure this wonderful, natural heritage of ours is protected.”
It’s hard to think of anyone who has done more to inspire a sense of wonder and reverence for the native plants and animals of South Carolina than Rudy. And, as of this year, SCELP has been an invaluable force in the effort to protect that landscape for 30 years. Thank you, SCELP!
Snakes and birds can teach us a great deal, but who would have thought we could learn about football from red-bellied woodpeckers? This article, from the Island Packet, provides that revelation.
From the article:
Studies suggest that a woodpecker can strike a tree with its chisel-like beak several hundred times per minute, up to 12,000 times in a single day, and with a force 1,000 times that of gravity.
Why doesn’t all this heavy pounding cause serious brain injury? Recent research suggests that the answer lies, in part, in the microstructure of the woodpecker’s thick skull. Here the bones are unusually spongy and mesh-like, tightly surrounding the brain and cushioning it from high-impact trauma.
Also, the unique structure of a woodpecker’s beak may allow it to deform slightly while the bird is hammering away. These tiny shape changes help the beak absorb some of the impact of pecking before it reaches the brain.
Scientists are hoping that a further understanding of the complex shock-absorbing adaptations of woodpeckers may help us learn more about the forces leading to brain trauma, as well as how to design better protective headgear for humans.
Finally, back to the subject of endangered species, this editorial from the Post and Courier reports on one such example – Homo ambulator.
The authors condemn the idiotic comments by Charleston city police and the S.C. Highway Department, basically asserting that pedestrians have no right to walk across the street, and that if they are hit by cars while doing so, it’s their fault. (Shades of the infamous comment by Charleston City Councilmember Keith Waring warning bicyclists to stay off the Ashley River Bridge: “People will have to die…”!)
From the editorial:
At least 21 pedestrians have died on tri-county roads so far this year, and in most cases those pedestrians were considered at fault for the accidents that took their lives because they were walking in the road or crossing without a crosswalk.
In too many cases, sidewalks and crosswalks are nowhere to be found, leaving people without cars to put their lives at risk just to get around town. But that didn’t stop local law enforcement officials from using some pretty harsh language against pedestrian victims in Monday’s Post and Courier report.
“Generally it’s the car doing the right thing and the pedestrian running out into the roadway and leaving the car no place to go,” said Matthew Wojslawowicz of the Charleston Police Department.
What about when pedestrians have nowhere to go but into the roadway? It’s wrong to blame people for getting hit by cars when lack of infrastructure invariably leaves pedestrians in harm’s way.
“The only place a pedestrian can legally cross a roadway is in a crosswalk,” said Matt Southern of the S.C. Highway Patrol.
But crosswalks are often miles apart in Charleston area suburbs, and are completely nonexistent on most rural highways where cars traveling at high speeds regularly share space with pedestrians walking in the grass alongside the roadway.
The guilty pedestrian. One more “invincible prejudice” to dismantle!
So, get ready to man and woman the barricades! And have a great week!