Monday, December 2, 2013

Governance and Nature: Tulsa Eco-Politics

By Tony Boese

The environment is a vast and multifaceted concept that, in reality, can have no single definition. Yet, questions like ‘do you support protecting the environment’ are met with ready answers usually heartily given. There is a social meeting of the minds. However, there is not a united zeitgeist. Why and how is this? A massive question, but one I have tried to tackle in the smaller scale of Tulsa, and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, politics.

I interviewed three individuals who shall remain anonymous. One is a former state senator with a respectably inactive filter, who I shall call Athos. One is an up and comer in the Democratic Party of Tulsa, who I shall call Aramis. One is a knight of the right, who I shall call Porthos. Below is an exploration of the issue through their answers.

What is this ‘environment’ we all seem able to visualize? It seems to be the air and grass, mountains and adorable little hedgehogs, water quality and farming methods. Somehow, all these very different things, and more, fit in the nice package that we call the environment. We all seem to understand the type of thing it is, the type of thing that is bad for it, and the type of things we ought to do to help it. Yet, there is no singular concrete definition. One of my interviewees argues that this very vagueness is a core issue, that the issue is too large and nebulous for the average voter to fully wrap their head around.

Since this is an article for a political section, and is over a massive issue, I carved out some smaller parts on which to focus. First, I asked if the environment proved to be a major issue in local elections, specifically for Tulsa mayor and state congressional seats. Going in I assumed that the answer would be no, given my personal experiences and observations. Athos agrees, indeed, the whole of his answer to this question was ‘no.’ Aramis would say we are only half right. His experience shows that the environment does come up and can sway votes, but remains a small issue and only locally focused. Porthos gives a bit more depth:

“I wouldn't say elections are won and lost based off environmental stances but they most certainly matter and environmental issues can usually motivate a niche block of voters. In the recent Tulsa Mayoral primary the new waste collection system proved to be a fairly debated topic…”

So, environmental issues are present in local elections, but largely less important than most all other issues. Is this because of the people, or the politicians? Here, there was more differentiation among answers.

Aramis applauds Tulsa for giving attention to environmental concerns,  but notes that it only happens when it’s an issue in our backyards – like Tar Creek and hydrofracking. If you want to talk about up stream, or the air, then that is talk to have with someone else. Why is this the case? Porthos suspects that Oklahomans are willing to trust that Kansas and Missouri are being responsible with the waters up river, and are uncomfortable inviting ‘federal influence’ into the local way of life. This is especially true when said federal influence would control something omnipresent and necessary, such as air or water quality, or ‘the environment’ full stop.

Athos argues it’s all money. Indeed, all three would at some point make the link between money and local resistivity to environmentally concerned efforts. Not enough money is put towards pro environment, there isn’t enough money in the city or state to get everything done, and the rich and institutionalized are oil wealth and aren’t about to want to lose it. He also reminds us that legislators are ‘lemmings’ with far too much focus on image and reelection, and almost zero interest in making waves or championing issues until doing so helps his or her image for the next election. So, if environmental issues are not getting the attention one might think they deserve, then the onus is on us to fix it. This is especially true in situations that boil down to a question of appropriations, and thus the environment is fighting everything  from schools and roads to prisons and ‘big oil’ for a slice an all-too-small pie.

Setting aside elections, as that picture was quite clear and less than heartening, I began to ask for more generalized evaluations on whether the government is doing a good job in respect to the environment. Sure, it’s not what makes or breaks a campaign, and sure, money rules all and the focus is (I’d say alarmingly) local; however, all that aside, at the bottom line are we doing okay?

Porthos thinks the city is doing well, plain and simple. Take that as you will. Aramis maintains that the city is doing a fine job, or at least that it wishes to. The problem, he continues, is that it is too weak and disorganized to tackle the big fish “such as Tyson chicken farms polluting the river as well as the industrial sites across the river from [downtown].” Issues of that size, and against such deep pockets, would require the State in intervene, or to devolve more enforcement powers to the cities. It is a shame that this is the case because, as Aramis notes, “the local government is in the best position to provide effective, intelligent environmental policy, as they have more familiarity with their constituents without running the risk of governing with broad policy and ineffectual enforcement.” I might not go as far as he did, but am firmly behind the sentiment--the city, if anyone, should be set up to handle these issues, and then should handle them. Athos stands opposing, and is quite ready to say the job being done is far from ideal, but reminds yet again that the issue isn’t systemic within the city, but instead falls back--yet again--on the people to push in order for things to budge. He granted, upon being pressed, that there are organizations like the Sierra Club that should be helping bolster the people, but here in Tulsa such groups find themselves more often on the list of victims than champions, finding themselves underfunded, unorganized, and unconnected.

What’s the take away?

The basic picture seems to be that the city is doing somewhere between two and seven on a scale of ten, and--wherever their score would truly fall--it will only go up if we make it clear that we the people care and will vote and lobby based on these issues. While this may seem cynical and lazy on the part of leadership, I think it is nevertheless the case. Do not expect help from outside--our city government’s party line is that the people care, the city is responding, and that they “hope to see us lead the nation in business friendly solutions to environmental problems.” Indeed, while “the environment should be a concern of every elected official,” overly burdensome regulation is not always the answer, and “we need to seek out economically sustainable ways to create more environmentally friendly policies.”

To the onlooker, it might seem like things are going well and wisely here in T-town, but we know better. More importantly, look closely at those quotations. While they are crafted to placate those in our camp, they still very clearly keep a strong focus on business interests first and foremost. Luckily, Aramis isn’t quite so starry-eyed. He recognizes that the people will only follow on if the focus starts local--Tar Creek, Ozone Alert Day efforts, etc.--and that it is the duty of all public servants to “take into account the environmental impact of their decisions and actions.” Unfortunately, however, he could not--nor could the other two--give any prescription for how to go about getting the people organized, the issues heard, and the politicians doing their duty.

Perhaps a regional media, focused on these issues and available to all, is a place to start . . .

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