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Politics ignore middle

Published on February 22, 2013 3:01AM

Last changed on March 22, 2013 9:29AM




For the Capital Press

Culture wars are all around us. Or at least they seem to be, when we ignore the numerous reasonable discussions and instead focus on the vocal minorities at the extremes.

Take the now-popular "red state-blue state" concept. Pink, purple or -- heaven forbid! -- red-blue states are now only mentioned in the days leading up to an election and even then only until they "go" one way or the other. Never mind the fact that these colors are often separated by a few percentage points at most.

For decades, we as a society have used a similar approach to describe the supposed division between agriculture and environmental interests. This contrast is often presented with all the nuance of the old bumper sticker from Northwest timber country: "Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?"

In reality, this is not a divide between competing alternatives, but rather an overlap of interests. So to answer that question -- well it's just not a good question in the first place. See, if you cut all the trees down then you won't be working for a living for very long, but if you don't cut down any then you might find yourself working real hard to stay alive.

Instead, why don't we focus on more practical questions, such as how many to cut, when, where, how and to what purpose?

The vast majority of farmers and ranchers are aware of environmental concerns, just as the vast majority of environmentalists are aware that agriculture is an essential part of any environmental discussion.

How environmental concerns can be met without undermining agriculture -- well, now, that's a serious question -- and denying one interest or the other doesn't get us anywhere closer to addressing it.

This practical approach is increasingly reflected by the activities of people who should, by all accounts, be at war, such as The Nature Conservancy and the California Cattleman's Association.

This is not to say that strong disagreement within the overlap between agricultural and environmental interests will not continue, but it is probably about time that we stop discussing these issues as if they are a struggle of good versus evil (or evil versus good, depending on which side you're on).

As a society we are certainly not ready to all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" around a campfire. That is not a realistic or even a very appealing goal, but we could certainly do a better job of ignoring the heckling from the cheap seats.

With an increasing number of farmers and ranchers turning to social media and other outlets to tell their stories, and an increasing number of college graduates leaving the cities to apply themselves to the business end of a shovel, we can hardly even claim that there is a communication problem anymore -- unless it is one of our own making.

If we are to address any of the important problems facing agriculture and the environment, we need to at least begin our arguments by recognizing our shared interests and common ground. Let the 1 percent on both "sides" scream themselves hoarse. The rest of us in the middle have work to do.

Jon Eldon is an agricultural scientist completing his doctorate at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

He has previously worked as a commercial fisherman, wildland firefighter and farm laborer.


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