Of Sea Turtles, Piping Plovers and Freedom

            Many analysts have remarked on how small and churlish our civic debate has often become. As I have observed previously, today’s public conversation is also frequently characterized on all sides by an ill informed, or even uninformed, partisanship and ideology. By contrast, for its long-term vitality, democracy requires citizens who are interested in the public good and willing to invest time, energy and resources to understand and grapple with social realities, and to join together to realize shared aspirations. The public weal will not be served, nor freedom preserved in the absence of these capabilities in the body politic. Neither effective governance nor civil society action can occur without a populace willing and equipped to accept responsibility for undertaking such responsibilities in a reasonably judicious and well informed way.

            I had this reality in mind recently when on a visit to coastal North Carolina I had the privilege of watching volunteers nightly gather on the beach at the site of known sea turtle nests, which people had earlier marked, to seek to assist any hatchlings they had calculated might soon appear. These volunteers did so knowing that the island on which they live is one of a few along the Atlantic coast where several types of sea turtles return each year to lay their eggs. All of the known species of these reptiles are endangered and some populations, such as the Kemp’s-Ridley, are severely threatened. This situation has arisen from overfishing and frequent fishing line entanglements, from the growth of the sport boating industry whose devotees hit and injure or kill hundreds of turtles each year, from the usurpation of nesting habitat for housing construction and tourist use and from pollution. Pollution arises principally from litter, particularly clear plastic bags that wind up in the ocean and attract turtles, which they apparently mistake for jellyfish, a favorite food. Sea turtles regularly ingest spent balloons for the same reason and with the same often-deadly results. The turtles cannot digest these items and they starve to death as a result.

            These facts have mobilized a group of citizens in the community I visited to raise funds to support a turtle rescue and rehabilitation center, and to volunteer to help hatchlings. One cannot but be heartened to see the scale of the sea turtle rescue and preservation effort, the strong popular support it receives and the good it is doing to educate the broader population concerning the precarious status of these magnificent animals. I was struck by the thought that if our culture can produce such efforts (in North Carolina and in South Carolina, Texas and Florida, too), we may remain hopeful that it can overcome the frequently poisonous character of our current politics, which paradoxically arise in part from that same citizenry.

            If this example of a community-based conservation effort gave me hope, I saw an example soon thereafter of the sort of rancor and ire that have hampered our society’s collective politics and efforts to abate pollution and ongoing biologic degradation and destruction. It appeared in the guise of a tasteless anti-Audubon Society bumper sticker (on a car festooned with multiple decals identifying its owner(s) as alumni or friends of my university), suggesting that the organization’s conservation efforts on behalf of birds were unwelcome and overwrought. A bit of research traced the sticker to a controversy concerning whether off-road vehicles may travel wherever and whenever they like along more than 70 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, created to protect the fragile, but vital ecosystem of that barrier island. Hatteras’s beaches are important nesting sites for many species of sea turtles and the Piping Plover, a small sparrow-sized bird that came close to extinction in recent years, but whose numbers are now steadying (if still very low) due to public and private protection efforts realized, in good part, by Audubon.

            Prior to 2008, fishermen and anyone else with off-road vehicles could drive wherever they liked on the Seashore and that practice routinely crushed dozens of endangered sea turtle and bird (especially plover) nesting sites annually. Beginning that year, by means of a protracted and open rule-making process, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Seashore, sought to protect the bird and turtle species that nest on the island while also affording off-road vehicle drivers admission to the beach. But some people interpreted ANY regulation or balancing of access to the shore with these animals’ needs in order to conserve them as unduly impinging on individuals’ freedom to do as they wish. In this view, as the bumper sticker suggested, conservation organizations are asking too much, if they ask anything at all in the name of preserving wildlife, and they are therefore to be hated. Indeed, Audubon Society staff members on Hatteras Island have had nails placed in their vehicle tires, received notes threatening their lives and been called virtually every name one might imagine.

            Ultimately, this behavior is occurring because a share of Americans have come to define liberty in principle as an individual’s capacity to do whatever he or she pleases, irrespective of the action’s consequences for the commons, in this case, for ecological health. Any advocacy that might ask people to balance such personal claims in the name of competing equities is therefore intolerable and to be attacked. That this understanding corrodes social bonds is by now more than obvious, as is the fact that it cannot develop the habits of mind and heart that together sustain citizen capacity to self-govern amidst the difficult choices and tradeoffs that necessarily occur in a heterogeneous society with varied interests and values in play.

            Placing this sort of conduct in the context of our current politics helps to explain why some of our nation’s leaders and would-be leaders have promised voters that they need not be concerned about the environment in which they live and may exploit it with abandon, heedless of the current and future implications of their behavior as they do so. To employ the present example as an illustration, the notion is that turtles and birds (and all other animals) are unimportant in the face of present human desires and the liberty to drive vehicles where individuals wish and whenever they wish for whatever purposes they might wish.

            While the evidence from Hatteras Island and from the North Carolina coastal community I visited suggests that reasoned governmental and nongovernmental efforts to preserve the nation’s fragile ecology and wildlife can and are making a difference while still permitting citizens significant access to the often breathtakingly beautiful habitats in which these animals nest, that possibility is today under assault from people who contend that personal liberty permits any action individuals may wish to take, regardless of its broader consequences. Democratic politics will ever require a judicious balancing of the desires and needs of individuals with those of competing claimants, including those with concerns arising from the need to maintain a healthy biosphere. That challenge is hardly new. But as our knowledge of the long-term repercussions of the continued degradation of our environment grows, and as the implications of a definition of liberty that actively prevents shared action to address it also grows, the social and ecological perils of a view of freedom as personal license increase.

            These examples also underscore another well-known democratic reality. It is always easier to mobilize citizens around anger about real or imagined concerns and fears of some “other” (lack of beach access for four-wheel-drive vehicles because of some “misguided” bird and turtle lovers, for example) than to ask them to grapple with the very real tradeoffs their choices actually raise that might require the hard work of disciplining selfish desires in favor of identifying and maintaining shared aims. One may not agree with the particulars of every strategy sea turtle and bird conservation organizations propose and may nonetheless acknowledge the important concerns they seek to address. Failure to address these issues will do nothing to conserve the environment and threatened species, or to further dialogue and self-governance. One may hope more reasoned citizens and leaders will lead the beach access conversation in the future, lest it result in the continued diminishing of endangered animal populations and freedom alike in favor of unleavened and unthinking preferences of the moment. The risk today of the view of freedom as nothing more than untrammeled license holding sway is real. As Alfred Lord Tennyson once remarked by way of warning of this possibility, “Freedom free to slay herself, and dying while they shout her name.”