My oh my. We’ve been here so many times before. Where do I begin? In its July 25 Opinion: Assessing Obama’s Record on the Environment, Yale Environment 360 (hereinafter Yale Environment 180 for reasons I hope will become all too obvious) asked “a variety of environmental leaders, writers, and policy experts to answer the following questions: How would you assess President Obama’s record on energy and the environment? And what do you consider his major accomplishments and failures in these fields?”
First and foremost, how is it that in this day and age, Yale Environment 180, a publication of The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (“internationally known for its excellence”) could interview 11 people (9 men and 2 women) and call this “a variety” when there was such a gender imbalance and not one person of color? The opinions given on President Obama’s record, had a true “variety” of people been polled, may well have been the same as the 11 chosen, although I sincerely doubt it. But, unfortunately, we are not given an opportunity to test this. Instead we get a reductionist focus, albeit erudite, on very specific scientific, economic and technical issues that one would expect from these particular experts. I can think of a gender-balanced variety of experts of color that might have been approached including Angela Glover Blackwell, Carl Anthony, June Manning-Thomas, Robert D. Bullard, Simran Sethi, Greg Watson, Juliet Ellis or David Pellow amongst others, who might have rounded out the specific comments with some broader, integrative, more nuanced and searching thoughts.
Second, and I think this relates directly to my first point, how come none of the experts mentioned the appointment of the first African American, Lisa Jackson, to serve as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu to serve as Secretary of Energy and only the second Chinese American to be a member of a U.S. cabinet? These people issues are not insignificant, especially for those of us who have been arguing for the past 30 years for a balanced concept of environment which is not purely about scientific, economic and technical issues, critically important though these are, but includes the fundamental democratic issues of recognition, inclusion, representation and participation. On her EPA webpage Jackson says she “has made it a priority to expand outreach to communities that are historically under-represented in environmental action“. Absolutely. In doing this she also recognizes that it is these very same communities that are being first, and will be worst affected by climate change. Despite several mentions of climate change, this was something none of the 11 interviewees thought worthy of acknowledgement. In appointing her, President Obama has thus made a commitment to environmental justice and to civic environmentalism. Could he go further? Sure, but let’s acknowledge and support Jackson’s work.
Third, what about President Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities? As my blog has always argued, we cannot divorce questions of environment from wider questions of sustainability. Recognizing this, in 2009, EPA was functionally partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide. Using a set of livability principles the Obama Administration has recognized the need for a just sustainability in arguing: “this partnership will coordinate federal housing, transportation, and other infrastructure investments to protect the environment, promote equitable development, and help to address the challenges of climate change”. None of the 11 interviewees mentioned this attempt at integrating traditional departmental silos to, in President Obama’s own words “create safer, greener, more livable communities”.
Come on Yale Environment 180. You can do better than this slipshod and highly problematic assessment. I challenge you to really become Yale Environment 360 by representing the whole spectrum of opinion on our President’s environmental record.