My Dad, The Accidental Environmentalist

BY ON June 14, 2012

An orange grove in front of oil wells

My dad’s a lifelong Republican and devout Christian Scientist whose interest in nature is only marginally greater than his interest in Kim Kardashian or Bikram yoga. A retired professor of management science, he lives in Orange County, that conservative California enclave where citrus groves got paved over to make way for suburban sprawl. And with all of those autos and asphalt has come some of our nation’s smoggiest air. It’s hardly a hotbed of environmentalism, much less a haven for endangered species, though the entrance to John Wayne Airport does boast a nine-foot bronze statue commemorating that scarce breed, the Hollywood Hawk.

My dad is an even rarer bird these days; a conservative who actually believes in conservation. Me? I’m one of those tree-hugging secularist liberals who flock to New York, my adopted home state. I’m sure I disappointed my dad by rejecting his faith and his politics. But he did manage to instill in me one of his most cherished values: a reverence for resources. So, here’s three cheers for my frugal fogey father, the square who’s squarely at odds with his own profligate party.

And while we’re on the subject of squares, let’s talk about framing. Would you support a piece of legislation entitled the Neurotoxin Distribution Act? Its annual benefits would include approximately 100,000 heart and asthma attacks, 11,000 or so premature deaths, tens of thousands of lost jobs, and health care costs of anywhere from $37 to $90 billion dollars.

Oh, wait, those aren’t benefits. But that would be the end result of a campaign that Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and a handful of his coal-friendly conservative colleagues are waging against the Environmental Protection Agency’s new improved Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The new standards would significantly reduce the amount of toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But the utility companies would have to bear the costs of implementing those changes, and Senator Inhofe and his cohorts evidently view sickened citizens as a more palatable downside than diminished corporate coffers. Call it penny wise, compound foolish (also, morally reprehensible).

Would conservation seem more alluring to conservatives if we rebranded it as “ecological austerity?” My dad hates waste of any kind, whether it’s taxpayer dollars, human lives, water, electricity, gas, food, whatever. Today’s GOP, on the other hand, preaches fiscal austerity, but promotes ecological extravagance. It’s a mindset that could drive us towards a biological bankruptcy from which there will be no bailout. Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts. Oh, and you can’t raise the debt ceiling on nature, either.

Stocks on Wall Street may tank, but they eventually bounce back. Our fish stocks are not so resilient. Once we let them collapse beyond the point of no return, that’s it. They’re gone. If Meatless Monday gets your goat because one day a week without some kind of animal fat is just too much deprivation, how can you possibly be on board with Fishless Forever?

We’ve got to find a way to restore conservation’s luster for folks on the right. Thanks to reusable bag-toting, bike lane-loving liberals like me, it’s been tarnished with an unacceptably progressive patina. Low flush toilets? Compact fluorescent lightbulbs? Solar panels? Sure, they sound like innocuous innovations to you and me, but they’re part of some sinister socialist agenda in the GOP’s parallel universe–which, incidentally, appears to be blessed with an infinite supply of fossil fuels, uncontaminated water, and pristine air.

That’s a world I’ve never had the luxury of living in; the California of my childhood featured smog alerts and gas shortages. Later on, there were drought-induced water shortages as well. But even when water was plentiful, my dad saw no point in wasting it. And he wouldn’t tolerate me or my three older brothers wasting it, either. The base of our bathroom faucet sported a strip of red Dymo label tape that practically yelled at us to “TURN FAUCET OFF FIRMLY.” When the water shortages arrived, he asked that we recycle our bath water with a bucket to flush the toilet, or water the yard.

I realize now that he was also an unwitting environmentalist, and inspired me to become one, too. I could express my gratitude to him on this Father’s Day by sending him some token gift, maybe a book or cd, but he’d be the first person to tell you he’s already got everything he wants.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not opposed to getting new stuff, if he thinks it might be useful. He bought himself an iPad, played around with it for a few days, and then returned it, saying he didn’t really need it.

So, the best present I could give him now is a heartfelt thank you for one of the best gifts he ever gave me: the gift of a thrifty nature. Whether his brand of rampant thriftiness could happily coexist with the unfettered capitalism we’ve unleashed, I don’t know. But America’s founding fathers, with their “waste not, want not” ethos, would approve–and would wince at the way we’re racking up an untenable natural deficit. Surely our great country can figure out a way to achieve a decent standard of living without fouling up our economy and our ecology.

This Father’s Day, let’s stop hyperventilating about “job-killing” regulations, take a deep breath, and remember that the air filling our lungs is only as clean as it is because our government interceded on our behalf. Tell Congress you think clean air is worth paying for. Or do you share the view that soot-stained profits are worth dying for?


TOPICS: Activism, Dads, Economics, Pollution, Religion