It happens at almost every Great Lakes event I attend.
Someone approaches and says, “Aren’t you that Great Lakes Echo writer, Gary Wilson?”
“Yes,” I say, warily wondering what’s coming next.
Relieved, what follows is a version of this.
“Thanks for asking the tough questions; the ones that challenge the popular view. I’d say the same thing but I’m not allowed to speak publicly for my organization.”
That would be an environmental group or one of the many commissions, councils and agencies that make up the Great Lakes establishment.
They then say — sometimes looking over their shoulder as if a KGB agent may be nearby — “this is off the record” and they share something they want me to be aware of.
The first time this scenario played out in Milwaukee years ago I was flattered, but also thought it would never happen again. Now it’s a regular occurrence.
I share this not to be self-congratulatory. Self-congratulation is an endemic disease in the Great Lakes region and in society in general. It’s often identified when amazing and awesome are used to describe routine accomplishments or incremental improvements. Passing out gratuitous awards is another indicator.
Besides, not all of the feedback I receive is complimentary.
Harsh rebukes received from environmental groups attest to that. They don’t agree with my criticism of Great Lakes restoration. It gets in the way of the one-way messaging that is prevalent today.
Pent up demand?
In an era where collaboration and consensus are rewarded before results, there’s pent up demand for candor and action.
The recent Climate March in New York turned out 400,000 people who are tired of politicians talking, but not doing anything of substance. It’s been 17 years since the Kyoto Protocol committed the parties to set emission reduction targets. Kyoto protocols were never agreed to by the United States.
The Climate March wasn’t driven by the Big Green environmental groups, although the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund participated. The largest of the Big Greens, The Nature Conservancy did not, and was conspicuous by its absence.
Some observers like Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein see the Big Greens as part of the problem.
They’ve dawdled along, consorting with the fossil fuel companies they’re supposed to be challenging, Klein writes in her new book, This Changes Everything. For example, The Nature Conservancy makes money from an oil well operation on one of its Texas properties, according to Klein as reported by the New York Times.
Commenting on the oil operation, Kiernan Suckling told the Times that, “The Nature Conservancy has just lost its moral compass…” Suckling is executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
No, the Climate March was organized by 350.org founder Bill McKibben. He felt the only chance of getting action on climate change was to take responsibility for progress away from the lobbyists and politicians and take it to the streets, literally. What better way than a mass, grassroots trek through the streets of Manhattan with the whole world watching?
Does a bottom up strategy like McKibben’s play in the Great Lakes region?
We’re pretty tame here, preferring to stay within the accepted norms of consensus, collaboration and accepting incremental changes, plus trusting Big Greens to get it right.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is an example. It plods along like a journeyman baseball player who has an occasional good game but will never be an MVP candidate.
And with the USEPA doling out $300 million a year for restoration, no one is likely to level serious criticism at the EPA for its hyper-bureaucratic restoration process.
That includes the Congressional delegation that likes to bring federal money back home and the environmental groups charged with keeping the money flowing.
The closest we’ve come to a grassroots uprising with a victory was when a group of Michigan citizens challenged Nestle over its taking of groundwater to support its bottled water operation. Supported by bake-sale money, the Mecosta, Mich. group bucked the odds and won a victory in court that limited the amount of water Nestle can take.
The Big Greens sat that one out.
Toledo as a rallying point?
Then there’s the Toledo water crisis.
If 400,000 people who lack water because it is too polluted to drink can’t stir a grassroots call to action, not much will.
It hasn’t happened yet.
Debates continue to follow the same predictable talking points that existed before the crisis.
The broader agricultural community — led by farm bureaus — continues to eschew regulation. They say voluntary measures to keep phosphorous out of the waterways will work. They haven’t yet.
Even urban mayors — whose cities like Toledo are at risk — have trouble calling for regulations on agriculture, the primary source of the pollution.
Reporters pressed on regulation after the mayor’s recent post-Toledo water quality conference. The responses at the press conference reminded me of the Happy Days television character Fonzie.
That pseudo-tough guy could never quite say he was wrong or sorry. He knew he was but the words wouldn’t roll off his tongue.
The same was true of the mayors and other conference attendees. They danced around the regulation issue but could never quite embrace it.
Yep, we’re pretty tame here.
And I don’t see that changing unless there’s a water crisis larger than Toledo’s.
Or perhaps it could happen if a Great Lakes leader with the attributes of Bill McKibben emerges – one who challenges the status quo, inspires and will take a risk.
But that’s unlikely. We seem comfortable suppressing alternative ideas and candid comments for the sake of — like pseudo-tough guy Fonzie — appearances.
I’ll continue to expect people at conferences to tell me what they really think.
Off the record.
Remember, they aren’t allowed to publicly say what they believe.