Consider two Adirondack-loving persons. Both are reasonably decent, honest, clear-headed, thoughtful people. They work, they raise families, they vote and they enjoy the woods and mountains in their own way. They have a variety of views on the wide spectrum of issues that affect the future of the Adirondack Park. Let’s call one Mr. P and one Mr. N.
Mr. P would describe himself as a preservationist who would like to see more wilderness in the Adirondacks. One hundred percent of his home energy use is generated from renewable energy sources. He faithfully uses compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycles far more than he throws out. He commutes by a combination of buses and running. Mr. P loves nothing more than to be off trail in the middle of nowhere, far from anyone else.
Mr. N wants to see a thriving Adirondack economy. Mr. N has a business that requires a lot of driving and he enjoys a serious car so instead of owning something like a Prius he has a WRX with a couple little additions that accelerates like an enraged slingshot but only gets mileage in the low-to-mid-twenties per gallon. Mr. N is comfortable in the urban world and loves places like New York City and Chicago. Eating a gourmet meal in Lake Placid or riding a roller coaster in Lake George would be just great for him.
Mr. P would love to see the State of New York acquire more land over time and protect it, much of it preferably with a Wilderness designation. In fact, he would like to see the Wilderness protections made even stricter than they are now. He would listen to a debate on the merits of a permit system for overused Wilderness areas such as sections of the High Peaks. He would love to see trail markers removed even though he realizes that might not be a very good idea from a safety standpoint. He could put together a list of trails and roads he would close if he had the power. He would be more aggressive in removing nonconforming structures. He does not support rebuilding the dam at Duck Hole nor any dam in Wilderness. He would strongly support reintroduction of the cougar and the wolf if a plan for either proved to biologically sustainable. He supports the Adirondack Council’s vision for the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He would be disappointed to see the Essex Chain of Lakes classified as Wild Forest. Mr. P thinks that the labeling of people with his point of view as “extremists” is divisive and ignorant of who he really is.
Mr. N is concerned about the people who live in the park. He is worried about the health and future of places like Newcomb and Tupper Lake, just to mention two. He thinks that local points of view have sometimes been belittled and he resents that good friends of his who live in the park and don’t support every part of the environmental agenda have often been marginalized or characterized as if they support cutting down all the trees. He knows that many of these people are in fact some of the best protectors of land in the park. Mr. N would like to see an improved snowmobile corridor from Old Forge to Lake Placid. He supports more mountain biking trails. He opposes the ACR in current form but supports development to revitalize Tupper Lake. He imagines developing the Tahawus historic district and the ghost town of Adirondac into a world-class interpreted historic site with an excursion train to take tourists to-and-from using the recently reopened tracks. He hopes the State supports additional put-ins and take-outs in the river corridors around Indian Lake and Newcomb. If the combination of the opening of the Essex Chain, more access to rivers and the development of Adirondac led to an influx of people through Newcomb he would be thrilled and would be happy to see some restaurants and a couple new places for lodging open. Mr. N supports increasing tourism in the park with a more unified and well-funded campaign. Mt. N wants to see the entire park wired for broadband and telecommuting promoted to draw new permanent residents.
Here are some questions for you about these two gentlemen:
Who is more extreme?
Who is more likely to be elitist?
Who is a better friend to the Adirondacks?
Who more closely matches your views?
Who would win a debate on the future of the Adirondacks?
Who is right?
Those last two questions interest me particularly because the thought of a debate between them is personally unnerving and the possibility that one is basically right and the other is basically wrong is enough to make me run screaming to the nearest psychiatrist.
You see, they’re both me.
Let me assure you that I am being honest with both profiles. I hold some views more strongly than others; some could be characterized as ideas for discussion more than positions of any great conviction. Nevertheless the descriptions are accurate (and yes, that WRX is a sweet car).
So what gives? Am I suffering from multiple personality disorder? Am I some kind of lunatic? Or am I merely representative of the fact that each of us lives in the middle ground between any number of extremes?
I’ve been involved in politics and activism since I was fourteen. I can count the number of true extremists and zealots I have met on one hand. As imperfect and subjective creatures that live in societies, not anarchy, we human beings are naturally creatures of compromise and balance. So why shouldn’t we act that way in debate and discussion? Why do we work so hard to pretend otherwise?
It seems to me that our culture is becoming ever more polarized. Right-wrong, up-down, true-false, win-lose… we seem to almost revel in simplistic thinking and side-taking. Those who seek a little more nuance than that are denigrated as being wishy-washy; or worse, they are dismissed for expressing mere opinions, uniformed and unqualified, as though any real knowledge or expertise must necessarily put you all the way to one side or the other. This devaluation of points of view is particularly saddening.
I have my opinions as to why this is. I think that we are getting intellectually lazy. It is so easy to get an answer to a question these days that whether or not it has merit has almost become beside the point. We can push a button on one device or another and get all the answers that could ever be dreamt of. It is as though we are losing our capacity to think things through, to be patient, to deliberate or ruminate on something even when it is not clear that an answer can be had. At the same time advances in social technology, especially the web, lure us towards being vain posers and celebrities. With Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere we can pretend to have a spotlight; hell, we can pretend to be whatever we want. In particular we can be experts. We can be right.
I am not naïve enough to think that this cultural evolution is somehow going to reverse, but the stark divides that open up at least provide a clarity that perhaps we can leverage. Suppose we could actually demand a new standard in our discourse by adopting a simple rule. Suppose that every time there was an issue where people lined up on two opposing sides, all parties mutually agreed by protocol to commit to finding a third way? Each polar position would be clearly defined in detail, then put off limits. A third way, not permitted to embrace either pole as a whole, would therefore be the only option.
It is not a revelation to anyone reading this that this “one or the other” kind of posturing has been a problem in the Adirondacks for decades. I have written before that I think the Adirondack Almanack comes out pretty well compared to other outlets for opinion but even here I sometimes think the pages should be displayed in black and white instead of color.
Yet over the last two weeks I hear a lot of local voices in comments on various posts looking for a third way. I find that encouraging.
I’m thinking of Bill Ingersoll, who wrote about five articles worth of comments in the last two weeks, all of them emblematic of what I would call third-way thinking. I don’t know Bill except by reputation, but he certainly knows what he is talking about. For example, with the coming proposals for the Essex Chain of Lakes the debate over Wild Forest versus Wilderness classification is hot. It’s going to be one or the other in a given area, with a host of implications and lots of players to line up on either side. So here is Bill suggesting we not take positions based upon the equipment we use, the toys with which we play. Bill challenges us to consider that if we believe it is important that we not continue to dilute the traditional meaning of Wilderness and if Wild Forest is too lenient a classification for a sensitive tract like the Essex Chain, then why not have a third major land classification (he suggests calling it Backcountry) that would accommodate non-motorized activities like mountain biking and canoe access and climbing fire towers and bicycling on existing road networks? He says he’s the only one talking about this. Let’s not leave it that way.
I’m thinking also of Tony Goodwin, who I do have the pleasure to know. Every once in a while he weighs in with a comment which is always reasoned, knowledgeable and occupies a pragmatic and realistic place between others’ extremes. I can’t name anyone who knows more about the park than Tony; perhaps it is because he knows it so well that he functions as a a classic third-way thinker.
There are plenty of examples of interesting discussions of late on the Almanack: tourism or solitude? State Land or Easements? Rails or Trails? How about increased tourism and a telecommuting strategy that employs a land-use policy that actually promotes and enhances solitude? Is that really an impossible combination or do we just want to yell back and forth that it is? How about making intelligent decisions to support rail where it makes sense (removing a few millions of tons of accumulated mining byproduct, for example) and a recreational trail where the economic argument is lopsidedly in its favor? You don’t have to agree with me; just don’t tell me I’m on one side.
How about embracing the Adirondack Futures Project, an exemplar of third-way thinking as wrought by the people of this region themselves, about which I will soon write in more detail?
Of course there will never be a rule that says that given a choice between two extremes we must adopt a third way. But on the other hand we don’t need a rule. After all, it is who we are; it is part and parcel of the democracy in which we live. All we really need are voices like Bill’s and Tony’s and Dave Mason’s and Jim Herman’s. And yours, if you’re willing.
If we do that then perhaps the Adirondacks can be a model not for only how we find a balance between sustainable living and wilderness but for how we get there, how we talk about it. We can be a model for how public dialogue can lead to great things if we remember the art of dialogue itself, of persuasion and politics, of reasoned discourse and compromise.