Commentary: Farmers, ranchers have a chance to change the future

Issue Date: January 30, 2013
By Jack Rice
Farms and ranches can become caught in environmental conflict, but changes in the environmental movement could provide an opportunity to reduce such conflict.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Jack Rice

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.

One of the most significant changes is that most people, agriculturalists and urbanites alike, now share a remarkably similar environmental ethic. Certainly the extremes still exist—and those extremes currently shape much of the debate—but the vast majority of folks share the basic desire to live, work and thrive in a healthy environment. This means that for most, the debate is no longer philosophical but practical. We no longer argue about whether we should ensure a healthy environment, but about how we should.

Another major change is found within the environmental movement itself. In the 20th century, environmentalism was driven by protectionism—the belief that the way to improve the environment was to protect it from humans by removing them from the landscape and "repairing" it to its pre-development condition.

The fundamental problem with this paradigm is that it ignores the fact that in a few decades there will be 9 billion people on the planet who all want a decent standard of living. Recognition of this reality is resulting in a philosophical change within the environmental movement. People are recognizing that we cannot go forward by going backward and that society's environmental, social and economic values must be integrated if we are to have the future most of the world desires.

A third change is that regulations as a mechanism for achieving environmental objectives are becoming more difficult to develop, more onerous to implement and less effective. For example, it was relatively simple and effective to use a regulation to control how much of a particular chemical came from a factory wastewater pipe. But it is much more difficult and much less effective to create a regulation that controls the amount of sediment or sunlight that reaches a stream. Attempting to use regulations as a means of controlling such incidental impacts requires affecting more people, at greater cost in money and liberty, all for little return in the form of environmental improvement.

The fact that most people now share a common environmental ethic, the evolving environmental philosophy, and the diminishing effectiveness of regulations are all harbingers of change within the environmental movement. This era of transition affords agriculture a particular opportunity to shape the future.

In order to do so, we need to refine our environmental strategy. Up to this point farmers and ranchers, as with other resource providers, have often been forced to react to initiatives undertaken by environmental groups. And this approach has actually been quite effective in staving off the worst of radical environmentalism. But for the new environmentalism, we need to add an offense to our game plan. This means that we need to be promoting our own initiatives and forcing others to react to our vision for the future.

Such a change is not easy, but it is very possible. We have 40 years of history to learn from and an extraordinary amount of talent within agriculture to pull from. What we need now is to turn our energies to developing the ideas that propose how to achieve environmental values while preserving economic viability and individual liberty.

(Jack Rice is associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

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