Dear Umbra,

I have a friend who is a fellow environmental studies major, and he says he’s not going to vote because he “doesn’t agree with the system.” I’ve had numerous discussions with him about how important it is to vote, especially when it comes to environmental issues, but he doesn’t seem to want to listen. My question to you is this: Why, as an environmentalist, should I vote?

Wyoming, Minn.

Dear Nick,

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I grant you, our particular system of democracy is flawed. But pouting on the sidelines is not effective. Politics contains no über-moms who will take your hand, listen to your complaints, and report your troubles to the president so he/she can take action on your behalf.

Adulthood brings with it the responsibility to be a good citizen, and citizenship requires voting. So does environmentalism. Environmentalists should vote in every election, and particularly in local and state contests for town and county officers, council members, state insurance commissioners, and state congresspersons. These are the people who decide on funding for schools, highways, and public transit, or who make laws forbidding people from marrying, or who allow developers to destroy wetlands.

Photos: Hilary McHone

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Local politicians and their constituents strongly influence area land use and planning. I took a look at the website for Chisago County, where you live, and found quite a few examples within five minutes of rapid clicking. This summer alone, your county planning commission discussed a demolition landfill, a composting operation, and a green corridor for land preservation. The summer of 2007 was the 14th year of a water quality improvement program for the Chisago Chain of Lakes, northeast of Wyoming. The county Environmental Services staff has found septic systems that were imminent threats to public health and has interceded. Just a few examples of environmentally significant local politics.

Day-to-day work in towns and counties is carried out by hired staffers, but the agenda for their work is heavily (and sometimes completely) influenced by elected officials and political appointees. You can see this dynamic at work on the federal level as well — in the Environmental Protection Agency, for example. With President Clinton at the helm, the EPA had one agenda; with George W. in the White House it’s had quite another. Imagine a vote for or against a candidate who supports unfettered land development, or one who believes industry should police itself!

In Seattle, for another example, we are often called upon to vote for or against major transportation projects. The last time this happened, many of us voted against a proposition that would have authorized a giant highway expansion and some (but not enough) mass transit. The measure failed, thus sending legislators a message that citizens placed a high value on mass transit options. The non-voters (like your friend) might have had a message too, but no one could possibly get it. What are non-voters saying? “Whatever,” basically.

State-level voting also makes an impact. As I’m sure you’ve seen, candidates often have major differences on environmental issues related to agriculture, watersheds, energy, transportation, and business vs. the environment. A state government not only makes policy within its boundaries, but can also choose (or refuse) to join with other states in environmental actions. You’ve read in Grist about states adopting California’s auto standards, or about multi-state carbon cap-and-trade projects, or about Midwestern governors signing a greenhouse-gas reduction accord. City leaders can join hands, too, as we’re seeing with the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, signed by 884 mayors to date. This happens because environmentally conscious elected officials have the say-so. The local and state actions push the federal government to respond (no matter how much it wishes to ignore things). The trickle-up-and-push effect of our vote has been our main influence on national environmental policy for many years.

All of which is to say: Vote. It matters. Register today.