Archeologists tell us that the symbolism of the winter solstice, which occurred this last week, was not lost on even the earliest human communities—longer days and the triumph of light over darkness.
The people who lived in those primitive communities were not insulated from the rhythms of the natural world as we are in the U.S. today. There were no brightly lit cities sprawling across hundreds of square miles. Only the flickering light of wood fires and the most basic shelter separated people from the forests and steppes that surrounded them. They knew that their lives were completely and utterly dependent upon nature. They noticed, recorded, and attributed meaning to even the subtlest changes in the world around them.
Most Americans today are increasingly separated from the natural world. They live in urban areas. They don’t know where their water comes from. They are often not clear on how their food is grown. They have few experiences in the outdoors. Their separation from land, air and water seems now made more complete, particularly for young people, by the amount of time they spend looking at the screens of electronic devices.
The commentators (of which we have no shortage these days) suggest that this separation of people from nature is leading to a loss of support for conservation of land and water and that it makes folks vulnerable to misinformation from anti-environmental interests. There is some truth in this, of course, but recent public opinion polls reveal that the vast majority of Americans still consider themselves conservationists. And the debate over the final Federal budget for 2012 suggests that important political leaders from both parties realize that being against protection of the country’s natural resources may well not be as popular as some of those special interests would have us believe.
The track of the Interior Appropriations bill over the last six months is evidence of this. (The Interior Appropriations bill contains funding for most of the Federal government’s natural resource and environmental protection programs). Last July, for the first time in The Nature Conservancy’s history, our CEO, Mark Tercek, wrote to all of the members of Congress urging defeat of the version of the Interior Appropriations Bill for 2012 that had been proposed by the House of Representatives. He was against it because that legislation zeroed out or slashed the budgets of some of the country’s most important and successful conservation programs and because the bill was full of provisions (called riders) that would undo fundamental protection of our land, air and water. The potential impacts on natural systems were alarming. The Conservancy joined with other conservation and environmental groups to create coalitions to provide stronger voices for American conservation and environmental protection.
The result? Last week an amended Interior Appropriations Bill was made part of the Omnibus Appropriations package that was approved by both the House and the Senate. The bill includes enough funding such that almost all of this country’s conservation and environmental programs can continue in a workable and functional way. There are even a few cases where budgets for conservation activities (Land and Water Conservation Fund, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program) have increased over Fiscal Year 2011. And the final budget passed without significant riders curtailing the ability of government to protect our environment.
What happened to change the course of events since July?
The conservation coalitions reached out to their members and supporters across the country. They visited their Senators and Representatives at home and in Washington and made compelling case that conservation is good for the economy, good for communities and good for regular people like hunters and fishermen. The leadership of the Interior Appropriations Committees of both parties worked together to continue the long tradition of bi-partisan support for American conservation. And, I’d suggest, there was something else. Politicians got a sense from their constituents that, despite what some might say, nature remains a part of this country’s feeling about itself, that we still possess a deep seated memory of our relationship and dependence upon the natural world, that we want to pass along to our children the farms and forests, winding rivers and graceful coastlines that define America’s character, that we remain not, after all, so different from our ancestors gathered by the fire, watching the tracks of the stars, and celebrating the winter dawn that marks the triumph of light over darkness.