Monday, November 27, 2006

Conflicts of Interest

I was crushed to learn that the O. J. book and interview deal was off. The buzz in all the media was just getting cranked up when they pulled the plug. Imagine all the time, money, news resources, air time, broadcasting equipment, news reporter skills, emotional energy, and water-cooler time that would now have to be dissipated in some other way. I’m sure hundreds of diligent news people are scouring the police blotters and pounding the streets of Hollywood looking for the next important story.

I wonder what would happen if the energy and resources that were expended on just that one story were focused on the genocide Darfur. Would we take notice? Would those who shout “Never Again!” do anything? Would we pressure the UN to act, if for no other reason than because they failed to in Rwanda? How many lives would be saved if the resources used to cover just this one O.J. story were focused on Sudan? How will history judge us?

I’m no less guilty of apathy and ignorance than anyone else. There is so much to do and there are so many distractions.

I live in a town of about 18,000 people. We have a town meeting form of government. That means the whole town gets together to discuss and vote on important issues like the budget, major projects, major purchases, major zoning changes and changes to the bylaws. A town manager, a board of three selectmen and several volunteer committees keep things running between town meetings.

I’m sure most people in town like to think of themselves as good citizens. But, out of our 18,000 or so residents, only about 300 voted in a special town meeting we had a couple of weeks ago. I was one of the 17,000+ residents that stayed home.

The meetings are very difficult to endure. They try to cram presentations, discussion and voting on several important issues into one or two evenings. Meetings often run late into the night. Most people with kids, jobs and lives just don’t want to bother going. Often, important decisions are made because one side or the other of some special interest can get a few hundred people to show up to vote on their pet project.

I happened to catch a few minutes of the meeting on cable TV. I guy I know and respect was making a PowerPoint plea to protect a few acres of open space from a youth soccer association that wanted to develop the area by adding a third soccer field to the two already nearby. As I watched this earnest environmentalist do his best to educate the assembly about the value of the parcel as wildlife habitat and as a recharge area for town water wells, I felt guilty for not being there. If I wasn’t there to speak in support of his views, at least I should have been there to vote.

My shame deepened as I saw a little battle in the culture wars ensue. Where the environmentalist spoke of the value of this land to birds, a soccer supporter said any child is more beautiful than any bird. (As if one must choose one over the other.) When the environmentalist indicated that he had reached the last slide in his presentation, the crowd erupted into applause, not because they appreciated his efforts, but because he was done. They had no patience for what he had to say.

We live in the age of the special interest. Public funds are so scarce, spread so thin and squandered so liberally that the public is often on the losing end of battles against well-funded special interests. We see this all the time in Washington, but I was witnessing it here in a microcosm. There is not enough public money and will to build enough athletic fields, so when a quasi-private association comes along with lots of money to build the field they want, where they want for the use they want, people pay attention. These fields are locked and only association-approved activities may happen there even though the fields are on public land. Money talks.

I decided to bike over to the area in question to see firsthand if it seemed as precious as the environmentalist claimed, or if the soccer dads were right and that it was only scrub land.

As I biked and walked around the fields, woods and ponds that surround the existing soccer fields looking for the site of the proposed new field, I bumped into two soccer dads. One was doing some work at the existing fields. The other was fishing with his boys at the pond. I asked if they knew the results of the vote, and where the proposed field would be. These guys did not seem like monsters bent on the destruction of natural habitat. They were just dads who wanted their kids to have a nice place to play. They told me the proposal failed to get the required two-thirds majority to pass. They seemed disappointed but not bitter.

I spent a little time taking a closer look at the proposed site. I had to disagree with the environmentalist on one point. What he described as a beautiful meadow was indeed scrub. This area was once a giant gravel quarry. The flat, open surface in question was once the bottom of a mining operation that has removed about 20 feet of sand and gravel. The plant community was a collection of pioneers struggling to gain a toehold on this very poor, very dry site. While it was an interesting area to explore with its carpet of little bluestem grass and the scattered redcedars, cherry, birch, oaks and pines, it was clearly a manmade wasteland and not a beautiful meadow.

The area is important in that it is part of a fairly large unbroken expanse of undeveloped land that had been set aside as part of an agreement to allow closer spacing of the houses in the development across the street. This creates a wildlife corridor that connects a few different habitat types and allows animals to move around without crossing streets and passing through yards.

The area is also very close to a couple of wells that provide town water, and this is what probably saved it. The sandy soil is very permeable, and rainwater percolates through it rapidly to help replenish our aquifer. Some citizens voiced concern that lawn chemicals, decomposing grass clippings and vehicles in the new parking lot could contaminate our water. The fields would also consume lots of water for irrigation. One issue that seems to bring residents to their senses is the preciousness of our groundwater.

I was glad that the soccer field would not be built on that spot, but saddened that the issue was presented as a choice between natural habitat and happy children. Why couldn’t we find a way to use existing facilities more efficiently? Why couldn’t we locate less sensitive sites? Why can’t more kids find their fun and exercise by freely exploring our open spaces rather than playing in rigid sporting events carefully organized and supervised by adults? I can only imagine what would have happened if someone suggested taking a hundred kids up to Moose Hill on Saturday mornings rather than to the sports arena. It was clear from the way people spoke at the meeting that not enough is known about the natural world around us. If people have no knowledge of what can be lost when the bulldozers move in, how can they be stopped when it is imperative to do so?

I’m disappointed in myself for not being more involved and I hope to do better. It sometimes seems pointless, but that’s no excuse for failing to try. I can think globally and write to my representatives in Congress about starvation, rape and murder on the other side of the planet. But will they listen? I can act locally and pay more attention to threats to our local environment. But have the deals already been made in secret? People see threats to our democracy and environment everywhere. The greatest threat is when good people fail to pay attention.

Now, if I could only get my hands on a Playstation 3 and make a killing on eBay…


At 11:10 AM, Blogger GreenmanTim said...

Given a choice between the interests of our species and those of another, we rarely vote against ourselves. I agree that conservationists should avoid framing the debate over open space priorities as either kids or critters. Not every place needs to accomodate every use, but the discussions should be at the habitat or landscape scale whenever possible rather than focussed on the salamander that held up progress, the owl that cost us our jobs, and the plover that kept us off the beach. Each is deserving of conservation, and each is subject to regulatory protection, which tends to drive the debate.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger I_Wonder said...

We need to look for win-win solutions rather than choosing sides and accepting win-lose solutions. Perhaps I'm incapable of being objective in questions about environment but I see a strong need to protect green spaces, nature and wildlife. We need nature to live healthy lives with less stress.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Lilly said...

Another strong and pointed story from Moose Hill!

Hopelessness is a great tool of political control. When we feel like our vote doesn't count, or we haven't got the resources to particpate in community, or we're too exhausted and overwhelmed by the issues to participate, our already limited power seeps away.

Like Paul (I Wonder) wrote in his blog recently, it does help to write and read and talk about these topics, like we do here in these blogs. It gives us hope and hope leads to action.



Post a Comment

<< Home