Our recent national conversation -- or shouting match, to be more accurate -- about global warming, conservation and the environment has been so fraught with partisan rancor that it's easy to miss the populist stream bubbling quietly beneath.
Today's inadequate political positions are well established. Al Gore, or "The Goracle" as devotees call him, sounds the climate alarm like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, accepts the adoration of the newly converted and waits in the wings for a possible Democratic presidential run.
James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gives CBS's "60 Minutes" a big story criticizing the Bush administration for editing scientists' reports to downplay the urgency of global warming.
He and CBS, however, neglect to mention that he was a consultant for Mr. Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," received a $250,000 Heinz Award in 2001, then publicly endorsed John Kerry for president in 2004. Far more damning, Dr. Hansen sanctioned, in a 2003 Natural Science article, the attempt to influence public policy through "emphasis on extreme scenarios," which he then distinguished from "accurate" and "objective" scenarios.
On the other side of the aisle are plenty of conservatives who don't just criticize these excesses of global-warming alarmists but deny the reality of climate change altogether.
You could take a lantern, a la Diogenes, and go searching for an honest man in this matter, but one side would slap you down for unnecessary carbon emissions and the other side would blow out your light. Those are the two extremes, anyway, that are posed for us spectators, with science and politics undifferentiated.
Lantern or not, one important truth is that where Americans of every stripe stand on environmental issues defies these crude political stereotypes.
There's no better local example of this than Monroeville's billboard debacle. In that town, a majority of council members have spent the past 18 months trying to overthrow local zoning ordinances so a New Jersey company can erect huge billboards along the municipality's currently blight-free portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike/Interstate 376 corridor.
The founder and current chief executive officer of Interstate Outdoor Advertising, a father-son combo, are Democrats and very important fund-raisers for Gov. Ed Rendell. The five pro-billboard council members are also Democrats. But the two anti-billboard council members are Democrats, too, as is Mayor James Lomeo, who vetoed council's passage of the new ordinances written by the billboard company's lawyers.
Earlier this year the billboard company forged an agreement with the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce, typically a right-leaning organization, to endorse its campaign in exchange for a cut.
But billboard opponents, the residents of Monroeville, represent both major political parties. The only thing they have in common, besides their outrage at a government ramrodding through policies that defy their will, is that they are "the little people."
Look again at the political alliances: A big business headed by Democrats seeks to despoil Monroeville's beautiful woodlands by colluding with Democratic officials and cooperating with a more Republican-oriented private group.
So who are the environmentalists here? And who are the cynics defying good government practices to increase their profits?
The good guy-bad guy line is quite clear, but it isn't the Democratic-Republican party line that modern parlance would lead you to expect. It's the big guy-little guy line.
You'd think that some enterprising political leader in the mold of Ronald Reagan or either Roosevelt would take up the populist banner. For Reagan, the threat was big government. For Franklin Roosevelt, it was big business. And for Teddy Roosevelt -- "progressive Republican" and our first environmentalist-in-chief -- it was both. (Teddy, by the way, decried billboards for "vulgarizing charming landscapes.")
Again in our time, the unchecked powers of both government and business threaten individual and community interests, especially when they conspire together as they seem to be doing in Monroeville.
On the national scene, anyone questioning the reliability of some scientists' conjectures on global warming is tarred as a mouthpiece for big oil. But in the Gulf of Mexico, as in Monroeville, big business does not care which side its bread is buttered on, as long as the spread is thick and rich. Either party can provide it and does.
And the search for truth can emanate from either party, or from neither.
In all such debates, the warning sign that we mere citizens are being swindled is any entity's effort to squelch examination of its doings or claims, whether it's a local municipal council, an administration or a NASA scientist.
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1733.