Monday, April 15, 2013

Mapping Why North Carolina Could Use Some Gridlock

Earlier this month, Republican Governor Pat McCrory helped distribute awards in honor of North Carolina’s popular roadside wildflower program, including one named for a friend  of mine, Bill Johnson, the 30-year roadside veteran who helped  establish it.

The Governor also inducted former Governor and Mrs. Martin into the Wildflower Hall of Fame, in which Bill was one of the first inductees two years ago.  The former First Lady inspired the wildflower program shortly before I made Durham, NC my adopted home in 1989.  I first met the legendary Mr. Johnson as he was launching the state’s Scenic Byways as a follow-up.

At the luncheon the Governor vowed to do what he can to enhance scenic programs such as this.  He has his work cut out for him.

Powerful members of his party in the General Assembly still hold views of the natural world that date to the late 1700s and 1800s.  This was a time when nature was viewed primarily as something God placed on earth for us to exploit.

More on the source of my view on this and other worldviews of the natural world later.

While less than a third of North Carolina voters are Republicans, they now control nearly 65% of the overall seats in the NC General Assembly. Regardless of whether it is due to careful gerrymandering or the resulting over-amplification of swing voters it brought about, it is interpreted by these powerful interests as a mandate to “deform.”

Prior to McCrory’s election, these powerful and unchecked legislators had brow-beaten the executive branch into enabling the sacrifice of tens of thousands of flowering dogwood and redbud trees that the state had planted along roadsides stretching between the wildflower beds the Governor honored.

For instance, over the objections of 8 out of 10 North Carolinas including by 19 to 1 members of their own party, these legislators also pushed through authorization for out-of-state billboard companies to desecrate roadside trees across the state and over ride local ordinances in communities with higher standards.

It may very well be that anything the Governor does to fulfill his vision of being transformative will be similarly over ridden by these and many other similar deformations underway in my state.

North Carolina could desperately use a little grid-lock.

Helping me understand how otherwise reasonable people would seek to deform North Carolina is an incredible article published last year in the Harvard Law Review.  It was written by Professor Jed Purdy who teaches constitutional, property and environmental law here in Durham at Duke University Law School.

He is also the author of the 2010 book entitled The Meaning of Property: Freedom, Community, and the Legal Imagination but you may want to start with one of my favorites, a book he wrote in his mid-20s and published more than a decade ago entitled For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America.

It takes an appreciation of irony to stay engaged with what’s being perpetrated now by those in high office in North Carolina.  By stuck in the 1700s, I was implying that powerful interests who seem intent on deforming our state appear to have the perspectives Purdy describes as more relevant between 100 and 200 years ago.

This was a time dominated by a view of the natural world as “waste.”  Dismissing restraint or regulation as a “threat to liberty,” this mentality pillaged much of the country until the late 1800s. Purdy cites an 1883 debate over administration and funding of Yellowstone Park adjacent to where I was raised and spent my years on an ancestral homestead cattle and horse ranch.

Some senators at the time, according to Purdy, argued that Yellowstone should be divided up and sold, or in my opinion to use a word euphemistically used by those with the same view today about lands set aside in the public interest, “privatized.”

Just the last sixty years of that era saw two-thirds of the deforestation that has taken place in the United State during the last 400 years and by the 1890s the desecration began to shock the nation and its leaders into what Purdy describes as a new ideal of the human-nature relationship, what he calls “progressive management” or conservation.

It is  epitomized by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and legislation such as the creation of national forests which was inspired by immense desecration right here in North Carolina.

In recent polls, more than one in five Americans still consider themselves conservationists today, more than any other label used by the more than one in three Americans overall who are deeply concerned about the state of natural environment being left for future generations.

As a moderate independent voter, it is the description with which I feel comfortable.  Three times as many people who fish and hunt in this country consider themselves conservationists than those who belong to the NRA.  Many are Conservatives and relate to the group formerly named Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Renamed ConservAmerica, the group is represented in Washington by a native North Carolinian and last fall formed a ground-breaking partnership with Audubon called the American Eagle Compact under the slogan “Because Conservation Doesn’t Have A Party.”

The early 1900s also saw the emergence of an ideal toward the natural world that Purdy calls “romantic epiphany.”  This ideal has been at the center of a key part of North Carolina’s tourism appeal since the 1930s including the inspiration for the first efforts to roll back roadside billboards in the state.

Today, this ideal is carried forward by groups such as Scenic North Carolina, an affiliate of Scenic America.

Judging by their actions, the ideals of conservation and “romantic epiphany” are despised by those Republicans in powerful positions in the NC General Assembly today. They seem determined only to roll our state back to the era of despoliation, back to the view of nature as only indicative of waste, back to the 1800s.

Tourism is a visitor-centric form of economic and cultural development.  Trees are a signature element of the natural aspect of North Carolina’s appeal to tourists which include more than 80% of relocating business executives prior to announcing their interest.

Trees along roadsides are the state’s first impression of its natural assets.  Butchering them for billboards or even just the convenience of maintenance engineers is obviously a good way of dampening tourism interest and eroding the North Carolina brand overall.

I suspect though, that anyone with a worldview of nature that has been in disrepute since since the late 1800s has little concern for tourism or relocating businesses or thousands of small businesses.

Their latest maneuver to prohibit the high standards of North Carolina’s towns and cities is further evidence of wanting to deform the state back more than a century and with it the state’s hard-won brand.

Purdy continues by describing a view of the natural world that emerged  in the early 1960s called “ecological interdependence.”  It spawned American’s deep concern for clean air and water anchored in the interdependence of nature and the moral sanctity of life.

Those bent on deforming North Carolina back into the 1700s and 1800s are even more disdainful of this ideal, even as we begin as a society to re-imagine a future ideal around the natural world spurred by scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change.

It is ironic that even scientists who were climate change skeptics now agree that this current environmental threat is nearly all the result of from human interaction with nature dating back to the 1700s and the dawn of that view of nature as wasted unless fully exploited.

Purdy is careful to note that none of these human-nature ideals have ever been monolithic even in the 1700s.  He provides evidence that often they were defined by something society was trying to avoid.

This blog is certainly not a substitute for reading and re-reading Professor Purdy’s salient overview of these various eras of the relationship between humans and nature, which I highly recommend.

His mapping of our views of nature over time has helped me not only better understand the realities and worldviews driving those so intent on deforming North Carolina, but made me even more concerned.

As valid as parts of that reality may seem, it is imperative that it once again be with other even more valid and relevant views.

When the pendulum begins to swing back from such extremism - and it surely will - hopefully we will not only seek rectify the damage, which will take generations, but re-imagine the next era of human-nature ideals in a pragmatic, moderate and less ideological sense.

Governor McCrory can get a head start on this process by following through on his comments at the Wildflower luncheon this month.  He’ll need all the support he can get from North Carolinians and courage within his party’s caucus to bring some sense to the General Assembly.

If not, instead of being transformative, the legacy of his administration will be one of deformity.

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