by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
What is the role of government in creating and implementing policies that will help hold us all accountable to caring for our shared environment? This question may be on your mind as those of us in the United States participated in local, state, and national elections last week. Creating environmental policies that are measurably helpful for the environment as well as remaining palatable to all relevant stakeholders is both important and difficult. Jake Plante, author of Uncle Sam & Mother Earth: Shaping the Nation’s Environmental Path (2015), wrote about his experiences spanning four decades as he engaged in nonviolent activism against nuclear energy, then worked to create environmental policies in roles for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His book is written in first person, and the text is readable and engaging. He writes about his own experiences as well as the environmental policies he attempted to enact. This book offers a rare glimpse inside the process of attempting to write and implement environmental policies that, while not perfect, are better than no policies at all. Plante’s insights regarding the process of coordination between agencies provide a helpful and realistic view of how and why environmental polices do and do not make it through to approval, from the political climate of the moment to the interpersonal relationships between staff members, from fixation on one solution to the willingness to think outside the box.
Plante approaches his text in a way that is unusual for environmental policy: through storytelling. While this has the downside that he is not explaining the entire history of environmental policy in the United States during these years, it has the definite positive aspect that stories are more interesting to read than policy histories. The text is also helpful in giving examples of the ways to negotiate so that policies can succeed. The reader is assured of his commitment to a pro-environmental stance through his riveting story at the beginning regarding protesting the Seabrook nuclear facility, with consequent arrest. As he moves through the story of his career, therefore, the reader can see the opportunities and setbacks that occur as he attempts to live out his commitment to sustainability through shepherding agreements and regulations regarding, for example, airplane noise over national parks, airport emissions standards, and measuring the efficacy of environmental impact assessments. Along the way, he does tell some of the history of the environmental movement outside his own experience, telling the stories of change-makers from Theodore Roosevelt to Ladybird Johnson, from Rachel Carson to Bill McKibben.
Uncle Sam & Mother Earth is self-published, which at first was a bit troubling to me. How do we know his stories are accurate if they have not been crosschecked and approved by a good publishing house? Why not utilize one of the excellent publishing houses that focus on environmental literature? At the same time, self-publishing allows the space for authors to write their own honest truth, without a publisher having to be willing to take on any liability for agency ire if the agency is not portrayed in a flattering way. Additionally, Plante engaged two independent professional editors to review the work prior to publication. While I do think publishing houses can offer a layer of accountability and data checking that is not always present in self-publishing, Plante does a good job of sharing from his own experience as well as writing in a way that is both accessible and well researched. Plante’s style matches Whole Terrain’s emphasis on reflective environmental practice, communicating through narrative nonfiction to help the reader understand history as well as be prepared for the future. This text would be a helpful supplement for college or graduate-level courses in environmental policy, offering a more personal perspective in combination with other texts that relate the history of environmental policy more broadly. Plante agreed to answer a few questions about his book.
Whole Terrain: How did you get the idea to discuss the environmental history of the last several decades through the lens of story: your own professional and activist experience, as well as the stories of other environmentalists?
Jake Plante: It was a combination of several factors. I lived in Silver Spring, MD for 25 years, a few miles from Rachel Carson’s home where she spent her last years writing Silent Spring. Her spirit was an inspiration for my writing.
Other reasons for doing the historical chapter, which highlighted the environmental contributions of nine people who made a lasting imprint on public awareness, was to explore the power of individuals to shape government policy and events. Also, each of these individuals, whether they worked inside or outside of the system, knew a lot about how government operates. I also find it interesting to note the similarity between Carson, who spent 17 years with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Al Gore, who spent 24 years as a Representative, Senator, and Vice President. Arguably, they made their greatest contributions outside of government (Carson with the book, Gore with climate change science and effects). The scope of their abilities and influence can be attributed to their years of first-hand government experience.
WT: Many of our readers and contributors are interested in the environmental publishing world. I noticed that you chose to self-publish this book. What was the reasoning behind that choice?
JP: It kept me focused on writing, so I didn’t worry about finding a good agent who had a genuine belief in my style and message. I tried to be realistic as a first time author who worked behind the scenes in government for 30 years. I felt it was better to simply get my work out there and generate interest based on the book’s merit.
WT: In the intervening time since you published this text, a lot has happened that relates to environmental policy in the US, from the Paris climate accords, to the water crisis in Flint, MI, to the use (and abuse) of environmental impact studies in the situation at Standing Rock with the Dakota Access Pipeline, to the election of a president who encourages climate change denial. In light of these changes and your experience in activism and in the world of environmental policy, how do you suggest that concerned US citizens approach environmental protection?
JP: Yes, a lot has happened this past year, but the fundamental relationships between federal laws, government programs, and environmental protection remain. I’m pleased that Uncle Sam and Mother Earth is holding up to the test of time.
In one case, I warned about the perils of the National Park Service (NPS) refusing to reach a deal with the FAA on aircraft overflight noise levels (Chapter 5). Unfortunately, the NPS is now facing an anti-environmental administration with no national standards in place to protect natural quiet in national parks.
As to what people can do, it’s any and all things, from writing editorials, to pressuring elected representatives, to supporting legal action (note the recent victory to bar the EPA from eliminating stricter controls on methane releases). We also have tremendous power together as local citizens and consumers. In my hometown, we just passed a plastic bag ban, which took two years of grassroots work by a lot of people. Little actions like this will add up over time, setting the stage for another wave of progress at the national level in the future. Finally, as my story about the Seabrook occupation illustrates, civil disobedience is always an option if things get too bad in the short-run.
Bio: Author Jake Plante has thirty years of federal environmental experience and has also worked in local government and on citizen energy initiatives. He holds a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His current home is in Maine.