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Governments can do the right thing

Alan Braunholtz

The right, the left and some sections of the environmental movement contribute to this malaise of inaction.

Free market fundamentalists decry government action on pretty much anything as unwarranted, unnecessary and hopelessly incompetent. I guess when global warming and rising sea levels swamp Washington, D.C., their zenith will be reached: government washed away by the free market’s rising tide.

On the other side of the mirror, radical greens paint all politicians as mere toys for manipulation by the greedy corporations so it is pointless to expect government to ever look out for the public good.



As a result, many of us may get the impression that any attempt to look after the planet’s health and improve the lives of its inhabitants is doomed and little more than hot air. Laissez faire capitalists love this. A disillusioned and apathetic public leaves the fields of play and power empty for them.

Government can play a huge role in mapping out a better course for our communal assets. It is our health, our health care, our water supply, our air and it makes no sense to abdicate all the decision-making regarding common properties.



The recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) illustrates how powerful a force for good motivated governments can be where the environment is concerned. This conference began with scientists and animal activists bemoaning the political back rubbing and rumors of physical intimidation, bribery, blackmail and espionage. Many seemed to expect the worst with political wheeling and dealing trumping the scientific evidence and need for protections. Not so!

CITES benefited greatly from the USA’s participation. It is perhaps the only environmental treaty that the Bush administration actively supports. At the end of the day, greens and representatives of President Bush beamed at each other. The Japanese looked pretty glum, though. Despite its intrigues and alliances, the species they like to eat, use and destroy got more protection than ever.

CITES achieved greater protection for basking sharks and whale sharks now threatened by the Chinese love of shark fin soup. It’s tough to think about an animal as languorously majestic as a whale shark being killed for a small piece of cartilage sticking out of its back, but that’s the free market for you.



CITES also protected sea cucumbers (another Chinese delicacy) and sea horses (harvested for Western aquariums and Chinese pharmacies). We no longer have to rely on the international timber trade’s attempts to protect the illegally logged mahogany trees of the Amazon. CITES has stepped in where business failed.

Overall, CITES showed what governments (especially ours) can achieve when they want to.

not sure what makes this environmental topic so much more attractive to our government than the Kyoto treaty on global warming or the sustainable summit in Johannesburg. I guess endangered species have more of that photogenic cuddle factor with public opinion. If that is the case, let’s hope that the public starts pushing our government to begin dealing with the communal problems of global warming, poverty and environmental degradation. That’s kind of backward, though. Governments should be leading us where our common interests are concerned.

The sustainable summit got slammed as a pampered waste of delegates who agreed to little and meant less. But any time the wealthy nations see even briefly the sheer poverty of most of the planet, it’s a wake-up call and it is good for America to see now and again how isolated its positions can be.

Think of the summit’s title. A decade ago, only weirdo cranks talked about sustainable development. Now it’s accepted as obvious in concept if not in practice.

Corporations held hands with Greenpeace and sang songs about reducing greenhouse emissions. Did they mean it? Maybe, but the fact that they felt consumer pressure to at least appear eco-friendly is good in itself.

Both CITES and Johannesburg achieved little compared to the problems we and our planet face, but what do you expect when hundreds of nations try to agree. I have a hard time trying to rent a movie with only one friend. Go with a group of three and you’re there all night. Democracy is a cumbersome process – “the worst kind of government, except for all the others.”

These conventions and summits aren’t perfect. More could be done in better ways. But if we only listened to the critics of government action as either inept or corrupt, then we’d do nothing. Wait for the perfect partner and you’ll live alone. Wait and study for the perfect solution and we’ll doom the Earth.

Alan Braunholtz, ski instructor and raft guide, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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