The emergence of the extremes driving the mainstream is a sign of waning trust, and when trust is gone, so goes respect and tolerance, and if we aren't careful, hatred fills the void.

Recently, Christine Todd-Whitman, former EPA Administer under President George W. Bush, was quoted as saying that "In my office at the EPA, I kept two books on global warming side by side. One was Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist, (which portrays global warming as hype) and the other was Laboratory Earth by Stephen Schneider (which takes the opposite view). Both [books] were written by Ph.D.'s with good credentials. Both of them worked with the same amount of data. Yet they came to opposite conclusions [1]."

It is no wonder that people are confused when it comes to environmental policy. It seems when compelling information is provided from one side of an issue, an equally compelling argument is presented from the other. Take, for example, the Clean Air Act Amendments passed in 1990 by the first Bush Administration. Although, there appears to be little scientific dispute that the air has gotten cleaner, many are now arguing that the rules either didn't go far enough or went too far. Those in the "not far enough" camp bring up concerns over increase rates of childhood asthma and the fact that despite over 10 years of reduced sulfur dioxide emissions, the U.S. realized a net increased of nearly 600,000 tons in 2003.

On the other hand, those in the "too far" camp claim that the Clean Air Act has resulted in indirect incentives for companies to outsource. They state that environmental rules cost consumers money and result in decreased productivity, an over-reliance on foreign energy, and are a major contributor to lack-luster economic growth.

Perhaps it is too idealistic to believe that issues of the environment will reach broad consensus, but this shouldn't mean that civil debate, negotiation and compromise for a better future should end. But this is a growing concern that a number of people share. It seems there is diminishing demand from the public to win policy disagreements with intellectual debate. Instead, it has become common practice to show no resolve or signs of compromise when discussing an issue, while spending the majority of time attempting to destroy the opposition personally through crushing character attacks. This approach distorts the purpose of the system and ultimately harms all parties involved by eroding trust.

Can we expect to move forward when this practice is status quo? Whitman debating Robert F. Kennedy, senior attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council stated, "Environmental groups often act as if there's only one right way to get things done. But they've skewed things so much that you can't even use the word balance." Responding, Kennedy says "The reason environmentalists get nervous is because balance to us means date rape. The environmental regulations that exist today are already the product of balance [1]."

The dialogue between government, industry and environmental advocates often concludes with the elephant still in the room - we have traded productive partisanship and lively disagreement for overly simplistic personal attacks and labeling. In some cases, because of diminishing trust and increased confusion, people have begun looking for simple truths to complex issues.

The emergence of the extremes dividing the mainstream is a sign of waning trust, and when trust is gone, so goes respect and tolerance, and if we aren't careful, hatred fills the void. And why is tolerance so necessary for the process? Because, as stated by Glenn Tinder, "it [tolerance] means allowing publicity, and a chance of victory, to thoughts you despise." In doing so, it builds community because it is the necessary concept for communication[2].

Diagnosing the problem has been a challenge, solving it seems almost insurmountable. But there is hope. Opposing views can find common ground by practicing tolerance in the mainstream. This will effectively disarm the extremes. At the same time it will provide opportunity to focus on issues that make sense and are achievable. It will take strong leadership and "little steps" to regain what has been lost. It will also take an initiative of tolerance to give proper voice to prevailing beliefs. After all, the source of truth has always been and will continue to be in the freedom of men and women to say what they please - as much as we may not like it. IH