Friday, November 12, 2004

Encounters with the Archdruid

Those of us who remember John McPhee's classic New Yorker story on David Brower will be very interested in an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Christine Todd Whitman in the November issue of Outside Magazine. As in McPhee's story, which became his 1977 classic Encounters with the Archdruid, two national figures see the environment as profoundly important and in terrible jeopardy. They connect seemingly-unrelated issues and argue about the systemic ramifications of certain actions in a way that reassures of us the ability for deep thought in this moment of "campaign-oversimplification-fatigue."

Of course, the beauty of the piece is that Kennedy's and Whitman's agreement ends at the starting premise of a threatened environment and the need for cars with greater gas mileage. The piece is a highly charged debate about how to protect the environment, the role of regulation and markets, and who should care. They both are eloquent in arguing that,"Good environmental policy is always good economic policy," as Kennedy put it.

More important, however, are the logical connections drawn between the negative environmental impact of regulatory loosening of media policy, such as the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and more recent FCC actions that encourage media consolidation. By making it harder for diverse opinions to be heard on broadcast TV, radio, and in newspapers, these "non-environmental" policies have had profound (negative) environmental effects. Similar logic is used to show how campaign finance reform might be the most important policy issue facing environmentalists, who otherwise stand no change of drawing politicians away from big-spending, big polluters.

The proper roles of regulation and the market are the key points of contention for Kennedy and Whitman, other environmentalists, media experts, and politicians.

What this published debate helps us see are the intricate lines of reasoning that connect so many disparate elements of our regulatory, market, and social systems. Perhaps Kennedy and Whitman's roles as environmental voices predisposes them to systems thinking.

The article is an easy read and useful reminder for the rest of us - systems are complicated. What may look like an indirect force on the issue you care about, could, in fact, be the most direct route of influence. As philanthropists think about their programmatic strategies in the arts, education, health or whatever, the systemic connections matter. And as we think about philanthropy - and its nature as a regulated industry - we need to think about how the systems we've created require that we connect disparate ideas and forces to argue our points of view and develop visions of improvement.

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