Empire editorial: 'State of Denial'

Provocative report on California's transfer of environmental impacts

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

The Sacramento Bee has published another brilliant report authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tom Knudson. Knudson spent a year traveling thousands of miles researching background for "State of Denial." The report explores the global environmental impact of California as a consumer state.

The Bee's advance on the report cites Knudson's observation that, "California's passion for preserving nature at home while importing natural resources from afar is turning conservation into catastrophe."

The lengthy, but easy-to-read report is divided into three chapters. The first deals with the enormous environmental impact of oil development along the Amazon basin and traces the end product back to California consumers.

The second chapter looks at the shifting dynamics between the timber industries in California and Canada. The last chapter examines how the harvest from California's once abundant fishing grounds has migrated to the Pacific Northwest where 75 percent of British Columbia's commercial but sustainable catch is consumed by Californians.

Since timber, fishing and oil represent three of the four cornerstones of Alaska's vast natural resources, "State of Denial" has relevance to Alaska even though the producer vs. consumer equation is the reverse of California's.

"State of Denial" provides an eye-opening global perspective on how U.S. environmental policy affects other countries and raises the level of debate on perhaps the most important philosophical issue facing our planet today - sustainability.

The report is loaded with maps, charts and statistics and even features a clever gauge for people from different walks to life to measure their "ecological footprint," or how many "Earths" it would take to sustain certain consumer lifestyles.

The report notes that "concern for the environment is the cornerstone of California life" and goes on to point out the dichotomy that exists in a state that consumes increasingly large volumes of finished forest products while supporting environmental policies that have significantly reduced logging on millions of acres of its own national forest land over the past decade.

For the report, Knudson interviewed environmentalists, foresters, scientists, educators, local residents and industry people.

William Libby, a professor of forestry at the University of California at Berkeley makes this framing statement: "We consume like mad and we preserve like mad. We Californians are really not very good conservationists - we're very good preservationists. Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else."

Chapter two thoroughly examines how California's vast forests have been systematically removed from production through regulation and anti-logging activism while shifting the impact to Canada's forests.

Canada's tolerance for clear cutting has, in essence, contributed to its economic enrichment. The report notes the environmental disconnect of saving trees in California, while burning tons of fossil fuels to transport distant Canadian timber to California.

Although Canada's resource management is equated to that of a Third World country, the report paints a powerful picture of the impact of oil extraction on Ecuador, a country completely lacking the will and resources to preserve or conserve the last of its vanishing rainforest.

Knudson has been challenged, however, for not digging deep enough into Canada's timber policies and practices from the government and industry side.

Canada is praised, however, for its success in developing a sustainable commercial fishery in the Pacific. The report illustrates effectively how Canada's success in sustaining commercial fishing grew out of California's failure.

The report, which can be found on the Sacramento Bee's Web site, also includes a fascinating collection of responses from readers.

"State of Denial" raises many thought-provoking questions. Can a global or even national balance between preservation and conservation be achieved?

Can consumption be contained through population control? Can our society shift from being the world's most vociferous consumer of natural resources to one of responsibility, frugality and alternative choices?

Can we manage our country's resources in a sustainable way, or are we doomed to follow California's lead by being good preservationists in our own back yard while funding the decimation of the natural resources of our global neighbors? What will happen when the resources of poor countries vanish?

"State of denial" is a must read for everyone. We would be interested in sharing your impressions of the report.

The Sacramento Bee's report "State of Denial can be accessed at: http://www.sacbee.com/denial

Don Smith



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