A depressing myth about “the American people” has been debunked consistently in surveys among actual Americans.
The myth portrays U.S. citizens as pitted acrimoniously right against left, with no common ground between us and no interest in finding some.
Worse, it depicts Americans as hostile to our own homeland — happy to wreck our ecosystems, obliterate wildlife populations, public lands and water supplies; and eager to hand our fragile public coastal habitats over to destructive private drilling operations.
Recent polls and local actions, though, indicate the contrary. A robust majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, have expressed deep concern for the health of their lands, waters, wildlife populations and climate.
In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Americans ranked environmental problems as a top priority — something the Trump administration should address, not suppress.
Another Pew poll, on energy and environment, found that 71 percent of U.S. adults believed “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” with bipartisan agreement on this priority strongest among the young.
A 2017 poll by the Urban Coast Institute, focusing on the mid-Atlantic states, found similarly strong agreement regarding the health of coastal areas. The survey revealed that 81 percent of citizens from New York down to Virginia ranked the protection of ocean health and coastlines as a high priority. Further, 90 percent of coastal residents said they considered a viable ocean and healthy beaches vital to their economies.
Thus, a majority of the mid-Atlantic respondents expressed opposition to any loosening of offshore oil drilling restrictions — the very restrictions, we learned earlier this month, that Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke plans to lift.
Opposition to drilling in these fragile marine ecosystems rolls powerfully across partisan divides. Within days of Zinke’s announcement, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Susan Collins, R-Me., announced their emphatic opposition to Zinke’s plan for drilling operations in their state’s coastal waters, joining Republican and Democratic governors up and down the East Coast who’ve also strongly denounced the proposal.
Over the summer, in response to President Trump’s executive order clearing the way for offshore oil drilling and streamlining the permit process for exploratory seismic testing, congressmen John Rutherford, R-Fla., and Don Beyer, D-Va., wrote a bipartisan letter to Zinke, signed by more than 100 of their House colleagues, likewise citing the potential harm of seismic testing to valuable coastal habitat and wildlife.
Studies have increasingly found that these deafening underwater sonic blasts are painful and perilous to ocean species, from whales to shellfish, even plankton — thus threatening coastal communities dependent on fisheries and tourism.
These conservation issues remind us that politics is local because livelihoods are local. And since no livelihood can happen in a dead environment, conservation is naturally a bipartisan concern.
This applies to the geographical divide, too. Recent surveys consistently indicate that Americans across the continent, including Western states, proudly cherish our national parks, forests and wilderness areas. Colorado College’s annual bipartisan “Conservation in the West” poll of seven western states —those frequently characterized as opponents of federal land holdings — found that its citizens are emphatically supportive of public lands and wildlife habitat.
Why, then, is the current administration not only neglecting these unifying conservation values among Americans, but aggressively attacking our public lands, waters and vital ecosystems, handing what belongs to American citizens over to private industrial interests?
The answer lies in the stark divide that actually does exist — not between liberal and conservative voters, but between voters and elected officials, so many of whom work for billionaire donor interests, rather than the common good.
This corrupt division, long in the making, won’t be resolved immediately, to the regret of conservationists, sportsmen and other citizens across the political spectrum But another division that currently impedes conservation here in the U.S. can be bridged by anyone. That’s the gap between our concern for the environment and our own daily behaviors. While Pew pollsters found that three-quarters of Americans are concerned about protecting the environment, only one in five of us do something about it on a daily basis.
When Americans bridge this more personal dichotomy — between our love of this homeland and our own actions — a tremendously unifying force will emerge. Then, if the actions of our leaders remain contrary to the good of our homeland, voters will swiftly and happily repair that divide as well.