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Moving beyond denial

In California, old slogan no longer works

Bee Editorial Staff
Published Sunday, April 27, 2003

"Think globally, act locally" has long been a motto of the environmental movement. In California, this has translated into banning new oil drilling and establishing fish sanctuaries off the coast, while reducing timber harvesting in the Sierra. But at the same time, other passions of Californians -- conspicuous consumption, single-family suburbia, SUVs and an appetite for seafood -- have only increased. The result of this contradiction in values is detailed in today's special report, "State of Denial," that details where the natural resources come from to fuel our consumption. It is not a pretty picture, but this scene doesn't have to stay that way.

The global/local approach to preservation misses the reality that everything is global these days. Nothing is more so than trade. "State of Denial" looks at trade and the rules that govern it and at the rules -- or lack of them -- about environmental protection elsewhere on the globe.

Free trade is good. What's not good is a free ride on somebody else's environment. And this gets into some responsibilities that should be borne by both buyers and sellers in this global market.

The case of Ecuador -- an oil-rich country with a porous pipeline system that is degrading its rivers -- is a telling one. Ideally, Ecuador should be enriching its own economy and bolstering its own standard of living by selling some of this resource. Yet Ecuador and consumers of the oil, notably California, have been equally negligent at preserving the country's underlying economic base -- its environment.

Trade with a more equal partner, such as Canada, offers different challenges. The democracies of these two countries have ended up with very different rules for endangered species, logging and fishing. Clear-cutting is the logging method of choice in Canada, as is government subsidy of the industry. This serves to lower the prices of Canadian wood in California to the point that local loggers say they can't compete.

Yet even if California decided to clear-cut the Sierra, suck all the oil from under the ocean and pluck every last snapper from its waters, that still wouldn't be nearly enough to fuel the engine of California's economy and Californians' lifestyles. A big part of why California consumes so much is how California has decided to grow -- ever outward rather than up. Particularly depressing about "State of Denial" is how precious few California lifestyles, given this sprawling growth pattern, are environmentally sustainable. In the Sacramento region, the only planet-friendly existence that reporters managed to find is one that requires living in midtown, sharing an apartment, rarely driving and eating a vegetarian diet.

Obviously, this isn't practical for everyone. What is realistic, however, is to begin confronting the contradictions in our lifestyles and values. Locally, that means questioning patterns of growth that consider farmland as an infinite commodity to be consumed. Internationally, it means reforming trade practices, and being willing to pay more for oil from countries such as Ecuador if the money cleans up its rivers.

Think globally, act globally. That's now the world we live in.

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