Imagine you’re taking a luxurious two-week vacation in Florida. Having finally quenched your thirst for Mai Tais and achieved your dream tan, you decide to spend the last day on a mission to spot endangered species. But Florida is a big state, with 115 species listed on the Federal Endangered Species Act. And when it's time to leave Palm Beach, I’m guessing you’re more likely to drive a couple of hours in search of the West Indian Manatee than bushwhack through nearby shrubbery in search of the equally endangered Florida Perforate Cladonia lichen.
Public preference for so-called “charismatic megafauna” is one of the most obvious ways public opinion shapes policy, and it’s no secret to government agencies like the Florida Fish&Wildlife Service, which uses the manatee as a poster-child and lists dozens of manatee studies and recovery plans on its website. (The lichen gets by on a page with broken hyperlinks, where it's lucky to garner a passing mention on broad restoration initiatives.) Conservation groups have alternated between lamenting the ecological limitations of such foci, and plastering their own campaigns with polar bears and pandas in hopes that help for a few species will percolate through to entire ecosystems.
Of course, cuddle appeal isn't the sole dictator of spending patterns. Last year, scientist David L. Leonard published evidence of imbalanced spending on endangered birds by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Biol. Conserv. 141: 2054-2061). Between 1996 and 2004, the F&WS spent $753 million on 95 listed birds, but a lion’s share (roughly 1/3 of the total) went to only four species. Which four? Not the iconic bald eagle or the prehistoric California condor. Instead, the money went towards two species of the infamous spotted owl, the marbled murrelet (all three are caught up in dramatic battles over logging rights), and the red-cockaded woodpecker (it interferes with military drills at Fort Bragg, where it’s dodging outside habitat destruction). That left scant supply for other birds, like the thirty-odd critically endangered native Hawaiian species, which got less than 5% of the recovery funds.
In other words, funds were distributed based on economic and political interests, rather than spent on the species that could benefit most.
Conservation spending is only one example of a pernicious problem. Legislative action rarely follows the wisest course because issues are not put into proper perspective. This typically occurs when one side of an issue is overrepresented, because its constituents mustered the enthusiasm or the moolah to make themselves heard.
For example, we spend $5.7 billion annually searching for a cancer cure, despite decades of increasing death tolls and no breakthroughs. (By contrast, incidence of heart disease, which receives only $1.5 billion in research attention, has declined since 1960.) Those cancer research dollars could serve us better by funding prevention and causation studies, or by evaluating treatment success rates to alleviate needless suffering and reduce healthcare costs. But cancer patients are understandably far more motivated and vocal than those of us who’ve never been diagnosed, so their demands for cure research will continue to outweigh the majority.
Financial imbalances are even more insidious and permeate nearly every aspect of environmental reform. Noticed how the call for clean energy has turned into soundbytes favoring the oxymoronic idea of “clean coal technology”? Or how our government has ignored the protests of environmental watchdogs and opened Alaskan land and coastal waters for oil drilling? That’s because powerful industrial lobbies contribute millions of campaign dollars before every election. Combined, the Oil & Gas and Coal Mining industries contributed almost $40 million in 2008, with 77% of that money going to Republicans (see Opensecrets.org for more details). That’s about $39,999,000 more than most of us have ever donated to anything. And as long as Big Oil keeps footing the political bills, the government will keep weighing in on its side.
Our conflict- and drama-hungry society can also inflate disputes to gargantuan proportions. Take, for example, the scientific issue of humanity's role in climate change. Ninety-seven percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe we are causing climate change (EOS 90: 22). Yet a well-funded minority of “climate skeptics”, drawing funding from (you guessed it!) oil companies and press from conservative news networks, have managed to convince Americans that the issue is still up for debate. Clever politics are delaying climate action in the United States when this country's leadership is needed most.
So how do we inject a dose of perspective into a political machine driven by dollar signs and emotional pleas? First, by training ourselves and our children to be skeptics. Powerful industries will always be able to outshout public service announcements with their advertising. Lobbying groups will always try to buy their way to decisionmakers' ears. We should, therefore, routinely ask two questions: First, who paid for this? And what's in it for them?
If such an attitude seems cynical, remember that a healthy dose of doubt goes a long way towards untangling a meshwork of overt and covert interests. Once we see through the layers of bias, we can put the facts together for ourselves and become an educated public ready to hold our politicians accountable. After all, no matter how many golf games and fancy dinners a senator is invited to, he still answers to his voting base back home.
Global-scale imbalances, though, are far harder to combat. We live in a world driven by a rapacious lust for more: more money, more possessions, more years of life. As a species, we have placed monetary gains above human dignity, pursuing profits while paying a slim tax of lip service to human welfare and environmental reform. In reality, poverty and environmental degradation provide a hefty subsidy to wealthy nations.
Here, only choosing a moral high road can help us. We must demand better of ourselves, creating a culture of equality and justice instead of demand and ignorance.
Consider the issue of sea level rise. The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, once named the happiest place on Earth (see happyplanetindex.org, recently renamed "The Unhappy Planet Index"), was the first country to commit to zero-emissions by 2020. But, as a Connecticut-sized patch in a part of the world that releases only 0.0012% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Vanuatu's gesture is largely symbolic.
By contrast, the United States (a nation of 305 million on a planet of 6.8 billion) burns through 25% of the world's annual fossil fuel production. The EPA estimates it will cost $350-450 billion over the next 100 years to shield the US coastline from a projected 1-meter sea level rise. While we can certainly afford the sum (we've spent roughly twice that in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001), it seems unethical to buy our own way out of a problem that would drown most of Vanuatu's cropland, displace millions of Bangladeshis, and leave the planet irreversibly altered.
Until we decide that these outcomes would leave us morally, if not financially, bankrupt, and until we establish international cooperative efforts that demand accountability beyond personal self-interest, we will continue to drive the Earth towards disaster.
The good news, though, is that our views are already shifting. Where we once existed in aloof ignorance, we now raise these issues in everyday conversation. Now, it's time to make them part of everyday action by staking our own claim in environmental reform, and demanding the outcome reflect a new and more equitable reality.