After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The Power of Constructive Anger

Posted by Fred Tutman.

I have a confession to make. For years I labored to keep my public writing and oratory dispassionate and objective when speaking about the environment. At first I think this approach managed to put a few people to sleep. But my subconscious fear was that my audience would miss the substance of what I was saying and pick up solely on my anger and I would lose credibility. People might think I was unprofessional or lacked objectivity. Besides, my disdain of becoming the stereotyped “angry black man” restrained me from saying precisely what was on my mind. Much later I learned that my passion about this subject matter is exactly why people kept inviting me to give talks, because my passionate rage sometimes leaked out. And what was on my mind? A genuine sense of outrage over the endless antics of elected officials, the public, and the environmental community in a society that consistently and repeatedly puts the environment last behind the prevailing self interest of wealth, convenience and influence.

You bet I’m furious that we blow the tops off mountains and hold working poor people hostage to brutal coal jobs in the name of massive coal company profits and huge ecological crimes. That we permit environmental practices that unemploy downstream watermen and instead offer them stipends to learn how to hang sheetrock and do home improvements to earn their bread. Sure, I’m mad as can be—that water quality continues to decline from known sources and that fish have tumors, that the food supply is compromised and that far more people go to the malls on a sunny Saturday afternoon than to the parks.

I am madder still that too many among us just take these many cuts with detachment and in stride. I am appalled that there are quite a few “environmentalists” who would just as soon study our ecological ruin instead of actually trying to do something specific to stop it. And yet, the level of detachment and tolerance that our society has cultivated over these problems is generally about as explosive…. as watching fresh bread rise. Oh gee, the fish are dying… oh poo. Goodness gracious (the crabs are in trouble); the watermen should just stop over harvesting. Maybe the water will get better if we have a drought. Bunk! Moral outrage channeled properly is an essential tool for protecting our environment. So I am learning and practicing to contain my anger and funnel it into constructive acts hoping to make a difference.

The atrocities inherent in very real environmental problems risk getting lost in the river report cards, the blogs, nature talks and all the rest. And the sheer mendacity of the senior culprits is simply amazing. It is a fraud similar to millions of people who have died from tobacco related health problems even while industry leaders testified in Congress under oath that there was no connection between smoking and respiratory ailments. The hypocrisy within and the monetary self-interest of the deniers shouting about their “property rights” while seeking more subsidies for their thriving businesses. The hypocrisy knows no bounds while we are caught in the grips of a struggle to save clean land, air, water plus entire species (including our own) from slow extinction. How much more staid patter, how many more white papers, which Blue Ribbon Panels and what PowerPoint presentation do we have to sit through before we collectively just say enough! Stop the nonsense. Just fix the problems.

The comic George Carlin used to carry on about how environmentalist were elitists who just wanted to make sure the environment did not inconvenience them. He laughingly observed that the planet is not in trouble at all, the people are. Eventually the people will be gone and the planet will get better. Sometimes I think there may have been some truth in his perception of environmentalist self-interest but I also think a greater problem is the shortage of people prepared to stick their own necks out to protect their own habitat, fight for what is theirs, stand up to injustice and to fight back for environmental decency.

Once upon a time a smallish in stature Indian lawyer got put off a train because he was dark skinned and that single indignity was the catalyst that finally got Mohandas Gandhi just mad enough to actually use his substantial mental and spiritual gifts to fight not just for a seat on future trains, but to free an entire nation of colonialism. So yes, anger can be honed into a keen blade of ingenuity, stamina and devotion that can move mountains. Inconvenience is sometimes where that anger starts. I confess now that part of my reason for contributing to this blog is to try and get you, the reader, as mad as I am about the plight of the environment. But a blog is a dialogue and not a monologue. So what is your tipping point? How much do you personally have to be inconvenienced before you put your foot down and get mad as heck until you won’t take it anymore?

If the public fails to grasp that these problems are non-elective, serious, egregious and urgent then we the professional environmentalists will have failed in our mission. Raising awareness of the problems simply is not sufficient. Our true job is to incite people to action by raising their sense of moral outrage to white hot proportions. That will be the day we see improvements on the Bay. Without the component or constructive anger we risk becoming a society of bright ideas instead of righteous deeds. So, are you mad enough to do what must be done? Are you ready for more talk or do you want change?

3 Responses to The Power of Constructive Anger

  1. You’re right. Raising awareness is not sufficient.

    And yet, it is absolutely essential if you ever, ever, ever want to change peoples’ behavior, voting, or willingness to pay higher taxes to restore the Bay.

    Marylanders literally do not understand the words “watershed”, “nonpoint”, and “anoxic.” Among hundreds of other critical concepts and words.

    What do they have to be angry about? You should look amongst the authors on this blog – you guys have been leaders in Bay restoration (that’s how this blog describes you all) for 30? 40? years now. If you are dissatisfied with the progress you have made as a group, you should have that discussion internally.

    New generations are coming. They are smart, fast, and are figuring it out. You should talk to them sometime.

    • I utterly agree that new generations are smart and completely grasp how much we have screwed things up. I teach part-time at a local college and my students are appalled at the red tape and idiocy that has been presented as reasons why this environmental disgrace has continued. It is made all the more terrible in their eyes by the fact the economy is a mess too–and they are unsure if there will be jobs for them when they graduate from college. I agree, our generation should be disqualified from making further decisions about protecting the environment. We have been hypocrites and we keep repeating the same errors….

      • There have also been amazing strides, though. The Clean Water Act. Endangered Species Act. NEPA. Yes, anyone in charge of enforcing these regulations over the last 30 years should be embarassed. But these regulations did pass and (to date) are relatively well defended laws. Those things happened when your generation was young. In no small part due to the pressure from your generation. They were real achievements.

        Fastforwarding through the last 30 years, the question is (in 2010) – how can you/we/others parlay those successes into successes in enforcement and MEANINGFUL regulations that must be developed and championed by Generations X, Y, and beyond?

        Cynicism, which you alluded to, is rampant. What should each of us do to help transfer this battle to the next generation, who feels like no place at the table has been left for them (and don’t feel inclined to fight it)?

        What can your group – this group of 57 – do to push that?

        Thank you for responding.