Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Environment of the Commonwealth

James Skillen


October 28, 1996

Environmental concerns have not topped the campaign agendas of President Clinton and Senator Dole. In fact, the environment seems to top only the agendas of environmental groups. And who are they? Environmentalists are the ones who decry the loss of wilderness areas, warn of the dangers of increased water and air pollution, and worry about the long-term implications of the world's growing human population.

What about the rest of us? The ranks of the supposed non-environmentalists include people who want jobs more than a slight increase in air quality, who value the expansion of business more than the expansion of the national park system, who prefer the independence of commuting long distances alone to the burden of carpooling or using public transportation just to save a small amount of non-renewable energy. In fact, the more that environmentalists warn of ecological destruction the more many non-environmentalists seem to grow weary of the warnings.

Society, however, does not exist apart from the environment, and the latter cannot be adequately represented by a special interest group. Human society exists hand in glove with land, air, water, and every living creature. This fact requires that we gain a new vision of politics and the commonwealth.

It makes no sense to demand an economy that will provide ever-expanding job opportunities while ignoring the degradation of air and water quality that makes life increasingly difficult for an ever-expanding number of workers. It makes no sense to promote more and more irrigated agriculture on Western lands at a rate that leaves less and less water for agriculture in the future.

What many Americans do not seem to realize is that their share in the country's commonwealth should include participation as a trustee of the commons. When we allow politics to be dominated by competing interest groups we lose sight of the commons, the shared public trust, the res publica ("republic" or "public thing"). If we think of the environment as simply one cause among many, we will inevitably overlook the fact that all of us share in the ecological commons of a single, interdependent creation.

The fact is that most people do want clean air and water, a healthy environment for their children, and a world in which valuable resources are not used up by a single generation or by a small number of rich nations. All of us are environmentalists at some level. Nevertheless, our politics tends to place the environmental cause in the hands of a few interest groups who then pit themselves against groups promoting business, industry, and government deregulation.

To be sure, Americans have diverse special interests, ranging from agriculture to education, from fishing to advertising, from health care to publishing. But together we share one environment which requires public care from all of us.

Neither Clinton nor Dole has proposed a serious alternative to interest-group politics or offered a vision of the commonwealth that would help us achieve a more balanced and environmentally sustainable society. Unless Americans come to realize that we all share in the responsibility of creation stewardship, our children may end up holding nothing more than a "commonpoverty" instead of a "commonwealth." Unless we accept that government bears a special responsibility as trustee of the commons for future generations as well as for ours, our politics will continue to degenerate, making it more and more difficult for citizens and officials to practice the high art of public-trust statecraft.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”