Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Environmentalism and Historic Preservation Got Me Started in My "Political Career' (while I was still a schoolchild)

As I contemplated running for office in this town where "only the ‘h’ is silent” and “reality is an option,” I asked myself not only what made me take this particular step, but also what influences and paths had led me in this general direction. My instinctive answer was that it had to do with when and where I grew up: Madison, Wisconsin, a state capital and large university town, in the 1960s and early 1970s.

I was part of the tail end of the baby boom generation, too young to have taken part in the upheavals of that era, but just old enough for them to have decisively shaped our experience and consciousness. From 1967 to 1968 alone, for example, we lived through the escalation of the Vietnam War and the rise of the antiwar movement, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, the Student Revolt in Europe, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, urban race riots, and the Soviet crushing of the “Prague Spring.”

One encountered politics at the dinner table and while giving “current events reports” in school. We grew accustomed to the sight of tense face-offs between angry and often violent students and police clad in riot gear and armed with clubs and shields. We learned to recognize the smell of tear gas before we could drive. All this led to my intensive involvement in George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, although I was still too young to vote.

As I thought a bit longer, though, I realized that my practical involvement in politics had different and even earlier roots, in two of the areas that are still most important to me: environmentalism and historic preservation.

I had always been most interested in nature and the natural sciences, from geology and paleontology to chemistry and bird-watching. That I to this day recall the taxonomy and even much of the Latin nomenclature of the plant and animal kingdoms and can tell the difference between a true bug and a beetle is thanks to an exceptionally dedicated sixth-grade teacher. My first modest foray into activism occurred when I joined other residents in urging the city to cease spraying of the horribly toxic DDT—then used in a desperate effort to combat the Dutch Elm Disease that was devastating our streets and neighborhoods—and find safer alternatives, such as the locally produced methoxychlor. That effort was successful because it was riding a popular wave of ecological interest and backed by science. The State of Wisconsin held landmark hearings on DDT, declared it to be an “environmental pollutant,” and strongly recommended against its use in 1969. A nationwide ban followed in 1972.

This was, after all, the era when the modern environmental movement began. One of our Senators, Gaylord Nelson, was a leading environmentalist and the founder of Earth Day. Our junior high school class celebrated the new holiday in 1970 with “teach-ins” and a huge paper “mural” depicting the evils of pollution. We were all influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and by the rediscovery of pioneering local ecologist and environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), who called conservation “a state of harmony between men and land.”

Although I of course could not articulate this at the time, I believe that I instinctively recognized the connection between environmentalism and historic preservation. Even a child could understand: we, in our arrogance, had no right to threaten either old architecture or the osprey with extinction. I doubt that I was aware of the landmark National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, but my parents, both at home and on vacation trips, had always taught me to appreciate history in general, and the American past, in particular. I found myself saving newspaper and magazine articles about successful rescues and restorations.

When a great historic site was threatened in 1969-70, I naturally joined others in protesting. It seemed simple enough. Here in New England, we tend to take old buildings for granted. In the Midwest, by contrast, a building dating to the 1850s (Wisconsin became a state only in 1848) was quite a rarity, and this one was distinctive for other reasons, too: “Mapleside” was a grand Greek Revival sandstone farmhouse (1853), whose owners were the first white settlers to farm in the area. And yet it was going to be demolished in order to make way for—of all things—a Burger King. In this case, our efforts were not successful. We wrote letters to the corporation, the city, and the newspapers. Eventually, the realtor offered to sell the building to the citizens’ group, but it of course could not raise that kind of cash, and so, the landmark succumbed to the wrecking ball.

The pattern was one that occurred many times before and since. Although it was a matter of shutting the barn door after the cows were gone, the city finally woke up, enacted a preservation ordinance, and created a Historic Landmarks Commission.

The lesson has stuck with me ever since. Ironically, the Burger King is gone now, replaced by a gas station. The house had lasted 117 years. But whereas one can always find another fast-food franchise, our historic resources are irreplaceable rather than interchangeable.

Already back then, I think, I was beginning to learn something about good versus bad "development" and the relative strength of government authority and citizen initiatives. Although the fight against DDT and other pollutants was a long one, it was ultimately successful because we accept strong regulation for the sake of health and safety. Barring such evident risks to the public good, private property enjoys, by custom and law, a broad range of protections. Although that differential treatment still maintains, we nowadays better understand the common interest in preserving cultural as well as natural resources—and even discern the connection between them. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation tells us, "the greenest building is . . . one that is already built." In fact, the current issue of Preservation Magazine is dedicated to the theme, “Old is the New Green!”

Contemporary politics helped to deepen my long-standing interest in history, and eventually, I chose a career in that field rather than the sciences and environmental studies. That is another story, but I am pleased that, in our local work on behalf of sustainability in the broadest sense, I can pursue the two of them together. After all, Aldo Leopold’s wisdom about the natural environment could be adapted and extended to the human, built one: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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