Judging by results, the Florida environmental movement has been a failure. The example of the Everglades and Florida Bay predicts a future of immoveable and tragic costs of climate change.
Last week, during a week of climate change related reporting by WLRN -- that local Miami public radio station that has avoided reporting local consequences of sea level rise for many years -- reformed Keys journalist Nancy Klingener offered "Sea-Level Rise Taking the Pines Out of Big Pine Key". Her report returned me to exactly the place that made me fall in love with the Everglades: the backcountry of Florida Bay.
Nancy was a young journalist when we first met in the late 1980's in Key West, earnestly working to meet the demands of editors to "balance" environmental stories. Those days, the way to "balance", in newspaper-ese, was to portray environmentalists as enthusiasts and amateurs (or Chicken Littles) while polluters were sober-minded, civic leaders trying hard to create jobs. The distortion placated advertisers from the home builders, cars, and extractive industries, the same effect of pouring oil on roiling seas. It also fundamentally eroded efforts by environmentalists to energize the public.
In the 1970's I had incredible days fishing on the Gulf side of Big Pine and its neighbor, Little Torch Key. I had the great fortune to make frequent visits to the Florida Keys backcountry and witness the last of a grand ecosystem firing on all cylinders. On some days, through a skein of two feet of water for as far as the eye could see, life was popping: rays, sharks, bonefish, birds -- turtles and dolphin. It was as though a museum diorama -- tens of square miles to the edge of sight -- had come to life. By the late 1980's, what existed was only a dream; the dream of restoration.
The pace of sea level rise and its effects on Big Pine and its surroundings reinforce the notion that the Florida Keys are a laboratory for the effects on the environment of over-population. The Keys have also been an extraordinarily reliable test tube for the interaction of inefficient and bad politics with fragile habitats.
I had moved to the Florida Keys in the late 1980's. Thanks to earlier work in business -- manufacturing wire and cable materials -- I had time and freedom to apply skills I hoped would contribute to changing policies and politics related to protecting land and water resources in Florida.
By the time I became a resident of the Keys, the mismanagement of water resources by the State of Florida and the lazy eye of federal agencies had already profoundly changed the fragile balance of water quality necessary to support the diverse creatures that made Florida Bay splendid.
It seemed that Floridians needed to be much more muscular in combatting the special interests -- like Big Sugar -- that controlled legislatures. But, how to do it vexed us even then. From the top, political leaders like former governor, then US Senator Bob Graham, Governor Lawton Chiles and President Bill Clinton -- all Democrats -- courted sugar money. Sugar money and influence courted them, back.
With the Reagan-era Sagebrush Rebellion and anti-environmental, pro-property rights wingnuts barking from the edge of the yard, the last thing Democrats were inclined to do was to stand tough for enforcement of environmental laws protecting the Everglades.
In the Keys, the Nature Conservancy was the environmental organization with the most funding, power, and status. Its leadership at the national level decided that its local focus ought to be on "private/ public partnerships", a model of involvement that tapped the resources and donor base while preserving the environmental causes for change.
There was an alternative: to engage the public at the level of political involvement. But that is hard work, requires funding, and a purpose that is restricted by IRS rules for charities.
The Nature Conservancy has done magnificent work around the nation, and the world, in protecting habitat. Buying land and allowing private property to return to natural functions is a vital and extraordinarily important goal.
"Public/ private partnerships" ought to be a tactic in an overarching strategy whose primary purpose is to weaponize environmental issues. But these partnerships take energy, money, and the recruitment of adversaries has the unintended consequence of diluting energy of the environmental movement instead of concentrating it.
It is not that both partnerships and grass-roots engagement are mutually exclusive. The problem ties back to money. Where there is funding, it tends to aggregate to "feel good" tactics that confuse, in the end, with strategy. If the goal is political change, then at the grass roots level, the Nature Conservancy's focus on partnerships in the Keys was a failure measured against public involvement to change regulatory inaction.
Think of the environmental movement as an unpressurized airplane dodging bad weather and icing by flying into thin air. There are more passengers on the plane than oxygen tanks. In the Keys, the private/ public partnerships got the oxygen -- by reason of status, comfort and wealth -- and the necessary objectives of political engagement withered on the vine.
The most common disease of "public/private" partnerships is the green-washing of polluters; that is to say, providing forums for wealthy, powerful special interests to launder private profit through extraction industries into the goodwill of environmental causes.
Thirty years ago, this outcome seemed obvious to some observers and activists in the Keys. If you invite a pride of lions into the tent, don't be surprised at the outcome.
Humanity can't get out of its own way, and the support by environmentalists of "public/private" partnerships added to layers and reasons why Florida's environmentalists chase options to maintain programs and staff.
It is a formula that helps the causes of disinformation -- as though the polluters need any help -- and misleads the public to believing that with all the contributions to the pandas, to the bears, and the panthers, that change is around the corner.