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The Evolution of John McCain





Despite the media feeding frenzy, we still may be asking ourselves, "Just who exactly is Sarah Palin?" Mixed in with the Davy-Crockett-meets-SuperMom vignettes — all those moose hunting, ice fishing, snowmobiling, baby-juggling, and hockey-momming moments — we’ve also learned that she doesn’t care much for her former brother-in-law and wasn’t afraid to use her office to go after his job as a state trooper; that she was for the "bridge to nowhere" before she was against it; that she’s against earmarks unless they benefit her constituents; that she can deliver a snappy wisecracking speech, thinks banning books in libraries is okay, considers herself a pit bull with lipstick, and above all else, wants to drill the ever-lovin’ daylights out of every corner of her home state (which John McCain’s handlers have somehow translated into being against Big Oil, since she insisted on a marginally bigger cut of the profits for Alaskans).

Oh, and — not that this is very important to Americans or the planet — she now thinks that global warming might possibly be human-made… sorta… though she didn’t before, despite the fact that the state she governs is on the frontline of climate change. And, of course, she’s a classic right-wing, fundamentalist Christian: against abortion — check; against same-sex marriage — check; against stem-cell research — check; favors teaching Creationism in public schools — check.

It’s that last item, her willingness to put Creationism up against the teaching of evolutionary science in the classroom on a he-says-she-says basis, that’s far more revealing of just who our new Republican vice presidential candidate is than we generally assume. It deserves the long, hard look that it hasn’t yet gotten. Most Democrats and progressives tend to think of the teaching of Creationism as a mere sidebar item on their agenda of political don’t-likes, but it’s not. Sarah Palin’s bias towards Creationism is a window into her political soul and a measure of John McCain’s hypocrisy.

It’s possible that the public has been fooled into thinking of McCain as a "maverick" when it comes to his party’s abysmal record on the environment, but his selection of Palin as his running mate sends quite a different message. In fact, he’s potentially put future generations on a "bridge to nowhere" (or perhaps to the fourteenth century). Whether we know it or not, we should now be duly warned: The Palin nomination is the equivalent of launching a "surge strategy" in the Republican war on the environment.

The Republican Holy War on Nature (Continued)

For the past eight years, the Bush administration’s assault on environmental quality has been so deliberate, destructive, and hostile that the usual explanations — while not wrong — are hardly adequate. Yes, Republican animosity to government regulation is long-standing. Yes, they believe in the power of an unrestricted marketplace to shape our collective behaviors. And yes, they emphasize property rights over notions of the commons and have often been comfortable sacrificing wildlife, air, and water quality in the pursuit of profits. In addition, despite recent claims, they are indeed the party of Big Oil. But none of this quite explains the Bush administration’s shameful record on the environment. In the final analysis, the only explanation that fits the nightmare of the last eight years is this: It has been on a holy war against nature — and the nomination of Sarah Palin is essentially an insurance policy taken out on its continuation.

The idea that the environment matters is ingrained in Americans, even those who don’t think of themselves as environmentally inclined. Democrats and Republicans alike have learned the hard way that the decisions we make about what we allow into our air, water, and soil gets translated into our skin, blood, and bones. We now sense that we all live downwind and downstream from one another, and that it is prudent to practice restraint and take precautions when making environmental decisions.

This unspoken consensus is one of the great accomplishments of the modern environmental movement. The policies of the Bush regime have been shocking and shameful exactly because they fly in the face of these shared values and beliefs. Only when we grasp that the narrow Republican base both Bush and McCain pander to no longer shares these basic values and beliefs, does their war on the natural world make sense.

If you believe that a look-alike God made the world for you to dominate and use, that you are among God’s chosen few, and that He will provide for you no matter what you do to your surroundings, then you are likely to see yourself as above the natural order. If you believe that the world will be ending soon anyway, that you will be "raptured" while non-believers are "left behind" (as fundamentalist Tim LeHay so vividly describes the process in his bestselling novels), then precaution and restraint are moot. Remember, more than 60% of the nation’s 60 million evangelicals believe that the Bible is literally true, every last word of it, and more than a third believe the end of the world will occur in their lifetime.

That’s why a pro-Creationist stand is no sideline issue, but the litmus test that reveals whether a politician shares the religious right’s ideology — a literal interpretation of the Bible, a disparaging attitude towards science, belief in mankind’s unfettered dominion over the natural world, and a willingness to impose its religious doctrines on others.

Both of Sarah Palin’s churches — the Wasilla Assembly of God where her faith was shaped as a child and the Wasilla Bible Church that she attends today — believe in just such a literal interpretation of the Bible. From Biblical study, Creationists have calculated that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. That this is contradicted by the fossil record matters little to those who also think Revelations is a reasonable guide to foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Asked during her run for governor if Creationism should be taught in the public schools, Palin responded that the theory of evolution and Creationism should be taught side by side, and then "the students could debate" which is true.

Why Evolution Matters

When many Americans think "evolution," they probably recall that illustration of an ape, then a Neanderthal, then a hairy caveman, and finally, a modern homo sapiens walking in a line and growing ever more upright as they proceed. That illustration crudely highlights the aspect of evolutionary theory that pinches the nerves of Christian zealots who prefer a creation scenario like the one painted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel — God tagging Man with life, finger to finger. But the human common ancestry with primates is just a fraction of what evolutionary theory is all about.

Evolution is largely about connection and interaction — the linear connection of one species evolving into another (speciation), but also how species fill niches created by one another, how they interact, exchanging energy and information, how they compete as well as cooperate, and how all of them — from microbial soils to migrating birds — form dynamic communities that, in turn, are also woven together, web within web within web. Pull one thread of that living tapestry and you tug at so many others, which is why precaution is so wise.

Evolutionary theory does not preclude God. It uncovers the how of life, but leaves the why of it quite open. Many devout Jews and Christians, even evangelicals, believe in evolution, just not Biblical literalists.

Evolutionary theory shapes and informs the ecological sciences that are the very basis for our environmental laws and policies. The emerging, European-led global movement — so far lacking U.S. participation — that aims to deal with global climate chaos and restore the earth’s vital operating systems is premised on understandings gained through the evolutionary sciences. Cast doubt on those sciences and you undermine the basis for changes that are urgently needed.

The Creationist campaign means to dumb-down and confuse our kids by pushing the evolutionary sciences off the educational stage. America’s Taliban want to make room for Creationism’s dull sister, Intelligent Design, in order to undermine the emerging environmental consensus that is our best hope for a sustainable future. According to that consensus, we humans are embedded in natural systems that are in crisis; our well-being, even our survival, depends on the vitality of those systems.

Kiss the Polar Bear Goodbye

So how does all this translate into actual behavior? As governor, Sarah Palin recently sued the Interior Department to keep the polar bear — the iconic symbol of her state — from being listed as a threatened species under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Additional protections, she argued, might inhibit oil and gas drilling and pipeline construction in the region.

The Endangered Species Act is a favorite target of the religious right since they are convinced it elevates lowly creatures to, or above, the status of human beings. They see "charismatic carnivores" and other protected species as the means used by conservationists to pursue broader protections for whole ecosystems. And that’s true enough, in that "keystone species" like the polar bear regulate a wide network of relationships within a whole ecosystem. Those bears, for example, keep a lid on seal populations that could otherwise devastate fish populations and skew the arctic food web. Numerous animal and bird species depend on scavenging bear kills for food. But without reference to ecological science, the role of a keystone species and the value of biodiversity itself are hard to appreciate.

Palin, of course, also wants to drill for oil in the ecologically fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has expressed her hope that she can convince McCain to abandon his opposition to it. She is an active promoter of Alaska’s aerial hunting program where wolves and bears (again, keystone species) are shot from the air or chased until exhausted, after which the pilot lands the plane and a gunner can shoot them point blank. She tried to raise the bounty on wolves to encourage more killing and strongly opposed a ballot initiative to end the aerial hunting program. In the Lower 48, we learned the hard way that eliminating top predators upsets a chain of relationships in their ecosystems. No wolves in Yellowstone meant big, lazy herds of elk trashing streams, driving away beavers, and thus eliminating the wetlands that beavers create — a cascade of unintended, harmful consequences. That’s why naturalists are reintroducing wolves in parts of the West, and health is returning to the land with them. Under Palin, Alaska is going to relive our old mistakes at a time when Alaskans — and humanity — can ill afford it.

The Carbon Queen

Even in Alaska, known oil reserves are dropping. Nonetheless, Palin is determined above all else to keep the current flow of energy moving, explore and develop new oil fields, and ramp up natural gas and coal production. She gave special permission to Chevron to triple the toxic waste it can pour into the waters of the Cook Inlet, despite scientific research concluding that the Beluga whale population there is endangered. She has refused to pressure Exxon to pay-up for damages caused by the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill. She has supported virtually every mining proposal that has landed on her desk, including one for a vast gold mine in the Bristol Bay watershed that would risk the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon. She favors open-cast mining for coal in the pristine Brooks Range. She has refused to enhance safety measures for trans-Pacific shipping along the Alaskan coast. All that and she’s been governor for barely two years!

Her deplorable environmental record was such common knowledge that John McCain couldn’t have missed it, even if he napped through his vetting committee’s report.

So if the McCain/Palin ticket is elected, you should know what to expect. Although John McCain may once have openly refused to subscribe to the beliefs of the Republican Party’s religious right, famously describing them as "agents of intolerance," his selection of Sarah Palin is a message (and not just to the Party’s fundamentalist right): If you thought that he understands the need to kick our fossil-fuel addiction and address global warming, if you believed his promises to build a green economy, forget about it. A McCain/Palin administration, just like the one before it, will continue — and this is the best-case scenario — to fiddle while the planet burns.

Driving Into the Future Without a Map

Ed Kalnins is Sarah Palin’s former pastor at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church which she attended for 26 years. He sees powerful signs that the end of the world is drawing nigh and assured a London Times reporter that Biblical scripture specifically mentions shortages of oil and wars for its control. When the end comes, he expects to be "raptured" with other righteous Christians and spared the suffering of those of us who will be left behind. He believes the apocalyptic destruction of our planet will happen in his own lifetime; in fact, that is exactly the future he hopes for. He has urged his congregation to make ready a "refuge" for good Christians fleeing northward in "the Last Days." Although Kalnin’s orientation may seem — to be polite — extreme, it is typical enough of those who push a Creationist agenda. And it’s a perspective Sarah Palin knows well, having spent a lifetime in Kalnin’s Pentecostal church, and even now, she is in no hurry to disown it.

We need environmental science in our schools more than ever. An ecologically illiterate generation of students will be ill-prepared to meet our real, less than rapturous future. They won’t have a clue about what’s happening around them or how to deal with the damage we’ve done. They won’t be able to create new technologies that mimic nature’s models for recycling waste and energy. They will drive blindly into the future, burning fossil fuels, without a map they can read. They may even let the Ed Kalnins of our world take the wheel.

The Evolution vs. Creationism debate appears to be an argument over the distant past. But it’s actually about the future. It’s about, in fact, who will define the cultural mindset that will generate that future. Let us pray it is not defined by a pit bull with lipstick who thinks she is "tasked by God" to drill for oil.

Chip Ward is a former public library administrator in Utah, where the separation of church and state is always unclear. As a grassroots activist, he led several successful campaigns to make polluters accountable. He wrote about his various political adventures in Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon.

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]

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