The trail had me looking back this past week to some lengthy conversations I had in the summer of 1999 with Lynton K. “Keith” Caldwell, one of the world’s great environmental thinkers.

The catalyst for this directional about-face was Ball State University’s “Hoosier Poll 2008” that found a majority of Indiana citizens said they would pay more taxes to protect the environment. That reminded me of the column I wrote in the long-defunct Bloomington Independent that caught Keith’s attention back in '99.

In the piece, I argued that corruption was the reason Indiana politicians defied the latest polls of the time that showed a majority of Americans, including Hoosiers, recognized the multiple environmental crises humankind faces and wanted their leaders to act.


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During my 11 years as the environmental reporter at The Herald-Times, I had never interviewed Caldwell, a retired professor emeritus at IU before his death in 2006. I considered missing that opportunity a serious professional oversight.

"Facing threats to its long-term survival, humanity is challenged to learn how to build a sustainable future."
- Lynton K. Caldwell

Caldwell was, indeed, an original American environmentalist. His 1963 scholarly article “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?” in the journal Public Administration Review was the first to call for a U.S. environmental policy. And as a consultant to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), he was the principle architect of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the world’s premier piece of environmental legislation.

Hell, Caldwell wrote NEPA’s Environmental Impact Statement language, arguably the most powerful tool ever devised to empower citizens to protect their environment. Wikipedia calls him its “inventor.”

So, Keith Caldwell initiating contact with me was akin to the mountain coming to Mohammad. But that’s what he did, via e-mail from one of his staffers. He wanted to talk to me, she said.

***

During our first telephone call, Caldwell told me that he never read the Independent but was sitting in a campus “canteen” and found it splayed all over his table. He picked it up and read my column. While I did not have my recorder running, I’m as confident in my memory of that conversation as any I’ve ever had.

“I said to myself, ‘This is someone who understands,’” he told me. “’I have to find out where he’s coming from.’”

"Caldwell was, indeed, an original American environmentalist."

The spark behind the creation of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs wanted to know where I was coming from? Really?!

The important thing, of course, is that his contact allowed me the opportunity to find out where he was coming from. And it was a confirming experience for a “radical environmentalist" such as myself.

In July and August 1999, on at least two occasions, I ventured out to Keith’s home on the eastern edge of Bloomington -- a wooded estate willed to and now home of the Sycamore Land Trust -- and we spent several hours talking about why he agreed with my premise.

The conversations, which I have recorded but have not listened to in almost a decade, would best be described by a friend who once drove to Northern Indiana with Keith: “He started talking when we pulled out of his driveway. He finished his first sentence in Indianapolis.”

A brilliant man, Caldwell had a lot to say. And much of it in 1999 was informed by a paper he had published four months earlier titled “Is Humanity Destined to Self Destruct?”

“Facing threats to its long-term survival, humanity is challenged to learn how to build a sustainable future,” he wrote. “… Those who formulate policy should recognize that if humans pit themselves against the fundamental dynamics of cosmic nature, they are certain to lose.”

***

The Hoosier Poll was conducted by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State, and it shows just how far Indiana politicians have drifted from their constituents, in favor of the polluters who defy those fundamental, natural dynamics.

"Nearly six in 10 (Hoosiers) -- 58 percent -- said they would pay more taxes for environmental protection."

“The Hoosier Poll asked a random sample of Hoosiers to rank the policy priorities they wanted lawmakers to address in the upcoming session,” the executive summary says, referring to the Indiana General Assembly.

While the predictable “bringing more jobs to the state and making government more efficient” topped the list of priorities, respondents cited five areas that a majority would be willing to pay more taxes for.

“Nearly seven in 10 Hoosiers reported that they would be very likely (36.4%) or somewhat likely (33.1%) to support an increase in state taxes to make healthcare more affordable to more people,” the study’s executive summary says. “A majority of respondents also expressed willingness to pay higher taxes to improve public schools, make higher education more affordable, enhance environmental protection, and improve the condition of state highways and roads.”

Nearly six in 10 -- 58 percent -- said they would pay more taxes for environmental protection. Only 37 percent said they would pay more taxes to support public transit.

The telephone poll of 600 adults was conducted on Nov. 12-16, just after the Fall Election.

Of course, not even in the best of economic times has a single opinion of any citizen persuaded Indiana lawmakers to do anything to enhance the environment. This poll will be ignored, just like the ones in the 1990s, for the same reasons Keith Caldwell and I discussed almost 10 years ago.

Polluters rule in Indiana.

***

Meanwhile, two separate sources provided additional evidence that humans pitting themselves against the fundamental dynamics of cosmic nature may indeed be a losing proposition.

"Polluters rule in Indiana."

A new study by researchers at the University of California-Davis found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted.

“Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, results from the study also suggest that research should shift from genetics to the host of chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment that are likely at the root of changes in the neurodevelopment of California's children,” according to an Associated Press report.

A Jan. 8 story in Medical News Today quotes the study’s lead author, UC-Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto.

"It's time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California," she said. "… We're looking at the possible effects of metals, pesticides and infectious agents on neurodevelopment."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.