For what is this rough beast
Its hour come at last
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born
• From W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919
’The American government is excellent, yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. Today, Thoreau is a rallying cry for sprawl boosters and Gov. Jeb Bush who—at his last inaugural address—aimed an apocalyptic arrow from the same quiver, saying he hoped state buildings would soon lay empty as “silent monuments to a time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.”
When Thoreau spoke, the entire population of the United States was 23 million. That’s the same number of people, more or less, expected to live in Florida in 2020. And every clock in Tallahassee is set to that date because accommodating population growth is big business for legislators who profess antagonism to big government.
Under Bush, impediments to building and growth have been chipped at relentlessly—for instance, recent legislation that bartered money for the Everglades by decimating citizen standing. Today it is nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to protest development decisions by local and state government, as if it hadn’t been hard enough before. New legislation, under consideration by the Florida Legislature, would further accelerate the explosion of suburban sprawl into farmland, turning farmers into developers with only the addition of a little more water.
How this will all work out for Florida can be viewed neatly through the test tube of the Florida Keys, where a pronounced lack of political will in the face of commerce and development has yielded predictable results.
A recent national magazine survey ranked Key West among the world’s least attractive of popular tourist destinations, below destinations like Bethlehem.
The mayor of Key West instantly convened a blue-ribbon commission, though it is unlikely any of its members grasp how publicly trumpeting the importance of the environment while privately exploiting the dickens out of the place would rate more profound disgust by an impartial jury than the impact of civil strife in Palestine.
For Florida, if there is a revelation to come, count on it being “streamlined” and according to the pre-determined outcomes like the recent, controversial recommendations of the Council of 100, to share water resources across the state.
What most people don’t realize is the seeds of this effort were planted early in the Bush term, and the fruit of its labor has already yielded the first regional water authorities set to “share” water between the water rich and the water starved, relying on the exploitation of Florida’s aquifers. Only the question—whose friends get to pull the switch when the regional water authorities are linked together—remains to be decided. Guess?
Bush put his top campaign fund raiser, the developer Al Hoffman, in charge of the Council of 100. The former chief of the Republican Party in Florida, Al Cardenas, is a name partner on the law firm that was recently awarded the work of general counsel for the South Florida Water Management District, when those responsibilities were “outsourced,” presumably in the name of “efficiency.”
The message couldn’t be clearer to lobbyists, big engineering companies, big developers and the small fry who follow like remora fish on feeding sharks. You pay to play.
Which brings us back to Key West, where the cluck-clucking of city fathers is straight out of the old Westerns where the married elders rail against immorality while paying visits to the brothel above the town’s only bar, until the hero rides into town.
Who that hero would be, in the case of Florida, is very much the question for President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry as they criss-cross the state. The upcoming presidential election should be about more than whose port in a storm voters would rather be in.
Let both candidates for president tell us their vision of how to protect drinking water, communities, public health and the environment from moving down the same chopping block as they have in Key West, paved over, increasingly polluted, wildlife gone, with a few victors sharing the spoils of a decades-long battle euphemistically called the balance between the environment and the economy.