The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dirty Hands Environmentalism

I have addressed this before in footnotes, but it is something that has long bothered me, so I want to write an actual post about it.

Seven years ago, I took a position as an intern in the environmental conservation office at an Air Force base in southern California. I was still in graduate school at the time, and this was an ideal place to gain some nuts-and-bolts experience in the actual application of historic/archaeological preservation regulations. It was, on the whole, a good experience (if at times a strange one), and I do not regret having done it.

However, as soon as I signed on to do the work, I began to catch flak from some of my friends. So much of the reaction was based on knee-jerk political liberalism. People who knew my philosophical and political views seemed genuinely confused that I would work for the military.

But this confusion had more to do with people wanting to place a label on me (in this case, the label is "liberal" - a label that I reject) than with what was really happening.

The simple fact of the matter is that the military is one of the largest land-holding organizations in the U.S. This means that it has great potential to either preserve or damage environmental and historic resources. We can sign all of the petitions and attend all of the rallies that we like, but the simple fact of the matter is that if we are not willing to get in and work with the organizations that have the ability to impact the environment, then none of that matters. Whether you like the military or detest it (personally, I have more issues with the way that our elected officials use the military than I have with the military itself), the simple fact of the matter is that if you are truly in favor of the conservation of the natural and historic environment, you have to be willing to work with it. To refuse to do so is to cut off your nose to spite your face. When the military brass were serious about environmental protection, we helped guide them through a maze of often opaque laws and regulations. When they weren't, we had the tools to protect resources that were in danger.

I have since worked with and for many other organizations and industries that my friends tend to view with suspicion, especially with the petroleum industry. And I keep running across the same sort of accusatory questioning - how can you call yourself an environmentalist and work with those people?. And my answer remains the same: if you don't trust these people/organizations, then you should view me as extremely valuable - I'm the guy who can keep them honest. If they are as bad as you think (and they usually aren't, although sometimes they can be worse), if you don't trust them to follow the regulations on their own, then why are you giving me grief for making sure that they do? It is the height of hypocrisy to scream about the need for environmental protection and then to attack those of us who actually do the necessary work to see to it that the regulations are obeyed.

People who are honestly interested in historic preservation and environmental protection need to understand that it is not sufficient to forward emails, place "Go Green" stickers on your personal property, attend rallies, and talk about the evils of whatever organization is your bogeyman for the day. Rather than asking why I work with various different government agencies and private corporations, ask yourself why you don't. Yes, I work with organizations with rather questionable track records. Yes, sometimes I have to hold my nose while doing the work. Yes, I get my hands dirty, but that's because I'm working in the garden, not dining in the ivory tower. The simple fact of the matter is that none of the laws or directives make the slightest bit of difference of everyone who is in favor of them backs away when the work of implementing them needs to be done. If you are serious about protecting the environment, put down your silverware and haul your ass down here to work with me.

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