Monday, October 1, 2012

The Passing of an American Environmentalist

A couple of weeks ago, the world rediscovered Russell Train upon his death.  He was largely extolled as a Republican EPA and CEQ administrator, but I thought of him as an historical subject I’m sorry I was never able to meet.  Train founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation and did extensive work with WWF, two organisations which shaped global engagement with Africa’s wildlife in ways both problematic and profound, and which continue to largely define our own approach to the question.

As head of WWF-US, Train was instrumental in pushing “for two landmark international conventions, one of which established the concept of World Heritage sites, and another of which regulates international trade in endangered species”.  But as the New York Times described, Train’s greatest contribution was probably to suggest that “the nation needed a new approach to economic growth—that environmental values needed to be incorporated into public and private decisions about what to build and where to build it”.  His conclusions were elementary, but remain strangely provocative in a nation largely devoid of environmental consciousness, no less anything resembling the land ethic for which renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold called in the middle of the last century.

Will Lester of the Associate Press wrote that “Train came to symbolize the bipartisan nature of the environmental movement more than 40 years ago when many conservatives were enthusiastic advocates of environmentalism”.  That a Republican environmentalist is almost impossible to envision today is a sad expression of how ideological that party has become, but also of how environmental issues, never more important than in an era of rabid obsession with growth, increasingly casual exploitation of resources, and the fall-out from climate change, have fallen off the radar. 

 The Washington Post recounts how, during the last four years, Train, who excoriated the Bush administration for its manipulation of scientific data, “worked behind the scenes to shore up support for EPA Administrator Lisa P Jackson and her ongoing effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change”.  Train’s papers at the Library of Congress paint a portrait of an old-fashioned Washington insider who was decidedly cutting-edge in his grasp of the significance of environmental and energy problems.  Train knew how to use all the political tools at his disposal to advance a cause of universal significance, and only broke with the Republican Party when he realised the extent to which its leadership was in the thrall of interests committed to advancing environmental degradation for gain. 

Bush and Cheney ushered in a new era, forcing Train back into the public debate.  Train wrote of their approach, “The White House [and here you could substitute ‘The Romney Campaign’] is making political considerations the touchstone of regulatory decisions.  We are dealing with the health and well-being of the American people, and politics really shouldn’t be a deciding factor.  During my time as EPA administrator under both President Nixon and President Ford, which covered a period of well over three years, I don’t recall a single instance of the White House ever, ever interfering with a regulatory decision I had to make”. 

Train was also willing, as someone who still believed it was possible to be a Republican environmentalist, to take on the central premise of the free market—that it is a functional, self-policing force which inevitably yields results which are in the public interest (or, as Jon Stewart put it recently, “get government out of the way and the growth fairies will come in ... then the market fairly will come in and put something under your pillow”).  Prompted by an interviewer to make a “free-market case...for clean, renewable energy”, Train replied: “Yes, I think to the extent we can harness market forces—and I think we have to—it’s all for the good.  But I’ve never felt that market mechanisms can take the place of regulatory functions.  For example, if you are dealing with a highly toxic chemical, you don’t want to leave that to the market place to decide its use”. 

Train, who believed passionately in the value of public service and the importance of the public good, couldn’t understand the contemporary GOP’s antagonistic relationship with governmental institutions.  “We will never”, he wrote, “achieve excellence in government by trashing it at every opportunity”*.  His life and work are an example of how the creation of new institutions and their constant reinvigoration through engaging the world’s greatest problems are a more productive form of service than the political sabotage and rejection of reason that increasingly characterise his party’s environmental ‘ethic’ today.


* J Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Louisiana State University Press, 2006): 216, 10.

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