Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Jack Rice, Associate Counsel with the California Farm Bureau Federation, and published in the California Farm Bureau Federation's newsletter, "Ag Alert."
Whenever a movement goes through change, it presents an opportunity to influence the future of that movement. The environmental movement is undergoing just such a change, providing farmers and ranchers just such an opportunity.
For the past four decades, environmentalism has primarily been defined by conflict. And the miners, loggers, oil producers, factories and, increasingly, farmers and ranchers who provide society with essential resources are the focus of this conflict.
Although this 40-year history shows a trend of ever-increasing regulation and conflict, there are signs of significant changes to this old form of conflict-based environmentalism. I believe that if we recognize these signs and invest in a strategy to approach environmental issues differently, we can shape 21st century environmentalism into something far better than the conflict that defined environmentalism in the 20th century.
Although conservation is not a new idea, the current manifestation of combat environmentalism can be traced back to the mid-20th century. By the 1960s, it was feared that the bald eagle was headed toward extinction. In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring described how the pesticide DDT was decimating bird populations. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River once again caught on fire, capturing the national attention. As a society, we concluded that the national bird should not go extinct and rivers should not catch on fire.
As a result of this general consensus, there was bipartisan political will to pass legislation, resulting in passage of the National Environmental Protection Act in 1969, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973—the four pillars of environmentalism in the United States.
While these laws helped to protect and improve the environment, they also became the weapons of environmental warfare and created an infrastructure of conflict that largely defined 20th century environmentalism.
Although much has changed about how we as a society approach environmental issues, the movement itself remains mired in conflict. Now is the time for farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations to recognize some of the key changes and develop a strategy that will help shape 21st century environmentalism into something with which we can live and even thrive.