Sunday, November 13, 2016 Blog

Foxes vs. hedgehogs. The environmental meaning of President Trump. Prospects for the next four years.

by Andy Hollis

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus, by way of Isaiah Berlin


Like most of America, I’ve been fascinated by the discussion about the meaning of Donald Trump’s election.  I divide the commentators into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes.

Hedgehogs have discerned one big theme from the Trump victory.  A popular example is the mea culpa theory: Progressive elites ignored real problems created by a growing inequality of income and wealth, and thus failed to appreciate the resentment rural residents and lower income people harbor toward the eastern liberal power structure. According to this view, the solution is to engage with this disaffected constituency so they will buy in to the progressive agenda.

Another theme is the desensitization of Americans to candidate Trump’s violations of basic civility and his callous disregard for “our shared moral ecology,” as David Brooks writes.  This perspective expresses astonishment that such a large percentage of the population appears not only to tolerate, but even embrace, the crude, misogynistic, racial slurs that punctuated the campaign.

To these interpretations I say, yes, to a degree, but I would add a handful of more circumstantial explanations – like an especially flawed and vulnerable Democratic candidate, gender bias, James Comey, WikiLeaks, the electoral college…

I suspect the hedgehogs have fallen prey to what Daniel Kahneman calls the coherence fallacy – the inclination to try to make more sense out of complicated circumstances than actually exists. We are all subject to the urge to unify and simplify the world, especially when the explanation conforms to our preconceptions and personal narratives.

In the case of Donald Trump, given the choice between unity and multiplicity, I vote for the fox.

As important as it is to understand the factors that led to Donald Trump’s election, it is even more important to examine as objectively and honestly as possible the prospects for the next four years.

First, there is a great deal we simply cannot predict.  It seems unlikely that President Trump will pursue many of the high profile causes he promoted during the campaign.

My guess is that immigration reform will be vastly less radical than he has proposed, and that he will not substantially modify international trade agreements. The business community and the US Chamber of Commerce, whose core positions on these subjects conflict with Trump’s, are simply too powerful to overcome.

Who knows about health care?

I am certain, though, that Trump will aggressively attempt to dismantle environmental laws and programs. There could not be a worse time for America to reverse course to curb greenhouse gas emissions, to secure wildlife habitat, to protect clean water and air, and to preserve wetlands.

Yet candidate Trump made it abundantly clear that this is exactly what he intends to do.  This article from the New York Times by veteran environmental journalist Andrew Revkin presents a thorough and thoughtful summary of the situation, (with a few notably optimistic observations.)

Perhaps most important, President Trump’s advisers and potential cabinet members are unified in their disdain for environmental safeguards and conservation investments.  Although Donald Trump may have only modest loyalty to the ideology of the right wing, that is absolutely not the case with these potential cabinet members.

As Revkin and this article from Science report, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency transition team is Myron Ebell.  Ebell comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that has consistently presented a biased and misleading perspective on the science of climate change, denying both the extent and causes of global warming and challenging the importance of acting to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Perhaps the most important climate initiative enacted by the Obama administration is the clean power plan. Trump has pledged to terminate the program.  (As I mentioned last week, South Carolina is well positioned to comply with and benefit from this program.)

President Trump has also promised to pull the US out of the recent Paris climate agreement, the goal of which is to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less.

As a reminder of the seriousness of the situation, here are three articles that illustrate the perilous condition the planet is in and underscore the urgency of action.

The first, from the New York Times, reports that the World Meteorological Society has announced that the past five years have been the warmest on record, with 2015 the hottest during that period.  2016 is likely to break that record.

The second article, from the Washington Post, reports on the global die-off of coral reefs precipitated by a warming ocean and predicts the extensive economic and social impacts.

The third article, from the Post and Courier, reports on the wildfires burning across western North Carolina, a result of a prolonged drought, which has been paired with more severe, intense rainfall as a result of a warmer climate.

But the threats from this administration are not limited to reversing progress on global warming.  Public lands are also at risk. Congress and prior administrations have periodically threatened to sell important public properties, including pieces of the Francis Marion National Forest.

This will almost certainly escalate.  Names that have been mentioned for appointment to Secretary of Interior, the agency responsible for the stewardship of America’s vast system of public land, include oilman Forrest Lucas and former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

Among the most important natural assets in South Carolina are the state’s extensive freshwater wetlands, most of which are on the coast. South Carolina has lost fewer wetlands since European settlement than most states in the country.

Candidate Trump campaigned against wetland regulations and vowed to reduce these protections.

What are we to make of all of these threats?  First, we need to renew our support for the national organizations that have led the way for the past few decades. We will be fighting a rear guard action in this arena.

Here are links to the Environmental Defense Fund –, and the Natural Resources Defense Council –, two of the leading groups working on federal and international environmental policy.

Here is a link to the Wilderness Society –, one of the premier organizations focusing on public lands.

These are not the only groups doing important work on federal policy and international agreements.  The Sierra Club –, Greenpeace –, the Union of Concerned Scientists –, and Bill McKibben’s global climate action group, –, are also on the front line. We’ll need the whole team in Washington over the next four years.

Second, we need to understand that any forward progress over the next four years will not come from Washington. Instead, it will occur at the state and local levels. Fortunately, in South Carolina many environmental causes have bipartisan support. This is especially true for land conservation.

We have escaped the intense polarization that has characterized the federal debate. This is not to say that we have an environmental majority in Columbia.  But the challenge is not as much one of partisanship as it is of generally building a broader coalition for conservation.

Now, (finally), I’ll indulge my own inner hedgehog.  I think underlying the Trump phenomenon is the increasing detachment people have from their own communities.  Instead, immersed in a vast sea of electronic media, they are confronted with a steady stream of ideologically loaded global abstractions.  Thus detached, they become vulnerable to the sort of simplistic, partisan signaling that characterized this presidential campaign.

The solution, I think, is to reconnect locally – to engage in local initiatives.  (Think GrowFood Carolina…) It is on this scale, one that humans are evolutionarily designed to understand, that practical, tangible community goals (establishing a functional public bus system … protecting farmland … improving neighborhood schools) trump (so to speak) ideology and party.

I’ll admit “localism” is no panacea.  There’s plenty of rancor over local issues, but the path to progress is clearer, and individuals can have a much greater impact.

And I’m not suggesting giving up on the national scene.  But I think federal policies are more comprehensible when we view them through the perspective of our experiences in our own communities.

So thus armed, let’s go forth this week and change our world for the better!


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