Thursday, September 6, 2012

Of Buffaloes and Polar Bears

I'm reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. I'll have more to say about that when I write my review (maybe like how it's completely understandable that a political party might deny evolution when it's own history descends from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush). For now, I want to talk about one item of Teddy Roosevelt's biography - his reputation as a big game hunter. One offhand comment by Roosevelt in earning that reputation caused me to question one of my fundamental beliefs about society: "Roosevelt wistfully remarked that he would like to shoot a buffalo 'while there were still buffalo left to shoot.'"

After the jump, why I was so discouraged about this sentence ... and what it has to to with polar bears.

I always had a view of history as continuous progress. Slavery eventually came to an end. Child labor eventually came to an end. Denial of the right to vote to women eventually came to an end. Jim Crow eventually came to an end. Marriage inequality is slowly coming to an end. History moves slowly, but it does move in the right direction. Eventually, injustice can't be tolerated, logic can't be denied, society does get around to doing the right thing.

What does this have to do with shooting a buffalo? A child of today learns the history of the slaughter of the buffalo (and by "child of today" I mean "me" and "yesterday") and he forgives our ancestors because they didn't know better. That's why that Teddy Roosevelt quote is hard to reconcile. It shows that Teddy Roosevelt did know better. He was well aware of what was happening. He knew that the buffalo was becoming extinct. Instead of this triggering a desire to preserve the species, his knowledge triggered an irresistible urge to hurry up and get himself a trophy "while there were still buffalo left to shoot." It's like big-game hunting, always a pastime for Roosevelt, became an obsession as the knowledge sank home that the buffalo was becoming extinct. Progress took a step backward as a hard truth became evident.

What does all this have to do with polar bears? Read the changes to the national GOP party platform between 2008 and 2012. As reported by Brad Plumer, the 2008 GOP platform "had a long and detailed section on 'Addressing Climate Change Responsibly.'" That 2008 platform said, "common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment [from carbon in the atmosphere]." And the 2012 GOP platform? "Common sense" is gone. That whole section about taking "reasonable steps" is gone. Disappeared. Instead, the GOP now opposes cap-and-trade, opposes greenhouse gas regulations, even questions the integrity of climate scientists. In his convention speech, the GOP nominee reduced the threat of rising sea levels to a joke. The delegates hooted and hollered.

It's not like there's still a question that the globe is warming and that humans play a role. Unfortunately, the ever-growing scientific evidence leads society, not to reverse course, but to behave ever more recklessly. Progress takes a step backward. It's like the late 1800s, only instead of big-game hunting, it's our fossil fuel economy that we become even more obsessed with. Instead of coming together around "common sense" and "reasonable steps" to address the problem, there is, metaphorically speaking, an atavistic urge to get a polar bear while there are still polar bears left to shoot. The only way I can still maintain my naive belief in the irresistible march of progress is by noting that the parallel is only metaphorical. The campaign schedule for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan does not literally contain a stop to shoot polar bears.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

Every time I'm discouraged by global warming deniers or evolution deniers, something happens to restore my faith in progress. For example, can you imagine any presidential election ever before featuring an African-American and a Mormon and having neither fact play a significant factor in the campaign? Sweet.