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Robert Orban, the satirist and former presidential speech writer, once said that “there’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all.” The statement becomes an epigraph to a chapter of America’s Environmental Report Card, by Harvey Blatt, which sets out the problem of air quality and other issues in more scientific—but equally negative—prose. But really, what is the state of the environment?

In a table charting human impacts on our planet from 1961 to 2001, the 2004 edition of the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report provides a stark answer.1 In 1961 there were three billion people, and they were using around half of the total resources of food, water, energy, and arable land that our global ecosystem could sustainably provide. By 1986 there were five billion of us, and such was our thirst for resources that we had already reached Earth’s carrying capacity, that is, its ability to maintain its natural resources at levels that will make them available to future generations. Ever since 1986 we have been running the environmental equivalent of a budget deficit, which can only be sustained by plundering the capital made available in the natural world. That plundering takes the form of overexploiting fisheries, overusing and overfertilizing farmland, destroying forests, and polluting our oceans and atmosphere.

By 2001 the environmental deficit had ballooned to 20 percent more than Earth’s sustainable yield, and our population to over six billion. By 2050, when the population is expected to be around nine billion, human beings will be using—if they can still be found—nearly two planets’ worth of resources. The inevitable conclusion is that our species has entered a crisis that will last for much of the twenty-first century.

In his book Crimes Against Nature, Robert Kennedy Jr. argues that the Bush administration’s response to this threat is quite literally mortifying: Americans are at increasing risk from life-threatening pollution because for the first time in thirty years America’s soil, air, and water are becoming fouler rather than cleaner. How has this come to pass, and how is it that the environmental movement, which until recently seemed to be gaining strength, has failed so miserably at averting it?

Two prominent American environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, in a widely circulated essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism,” claim that the environmental movement has failed because it allowed itself to become just another special interest group.2 In a speech presented to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in December 2004, Adam Werbach, who at twenty-three became president of the Sierra Club, sees the movement’s failure as part of a broader social shift:

Our death is a symptom of the exhaustion of the liberal project. Having achieved its goals of basic economic rights, liberalism and its special interests now fail to speak to the modern need for fulfillment of the American people.3

The books under review here reveal much about the environmental movement discussed in Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s landmark essay. In One with Nineveh the veteran environmentalists Paul and Anne Ehrlich liken the Bush administration to an incipient “corporate kleptocracy” that is destroying the ecosystem to fuel an insatiable economic powerhouse, while Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Crimes Against Nature documents how this was done. A complex chapter full of shadowy personalities (making one curse the omission of an index) traces the origins of Bush’s disastrous environmental policies. Two figures stand out: Pat Robertson, the Christian fundamentalist leader, and Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of Congress from Texas. While these men and their views may be well known as part of the political landscape in the US—and DeLay’s alleged violations of ethical standards have been getting much recent attention—to the uninitiated observer their views on the environment are truly shocking. Robertson is the leader of the influential Christian Coalition, and Kennedy writes that he views environmentalists as “the evil priests of a new paganism that will become the official state religion of the New World Order.”

The equation of concern for the natural world with evil by such an influential person may help account for the results of a recent Pew Center poll, which found that 41 percent of Americans considered “environmental activists” to be “extremists.” Robertson’s arguments, according to Kennedy, have made anti-environmentalism acceptable to patriotic, conservative Americans. This is perhaps only possible if those involved believe that they are living in the last days: otherwise, how could patriots work toward destroying their land and their children’s future?4

More obviously powerful is Tom DeLay, characterized by Kennedy as “the former bug exterminator” who claims that DDT is as “safe as aspirin” and that the Endangered Species Act is the greatest threat to Texas after illegal aliens. DeLay’s plans for the subversion of environmental regulations were laid in January 1995, when he “invited a group of 350 lobbyists representing some of the nation’s biggest polluters to collaborate in drafting legislation that would dismantle federal health, safety, and environmental laws.” Initially, their efforts were blocked by the Clinton White House together with Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress. But Kennedy shows that under Bush, much of this plan has been implemented through systematic purges of scientists and neutral bureaucrats from government agencies and the scientific bureaucracy. Senior positions in the administration were then filled by indus-try lobbyists, a disproportionate number of whom seem to have been drawn from the lobby group called Wise Use, which its founder Ron Arnold says intends to “destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement.”

After Bush was elected in 2000, he appointed a member of Wise Use, Gale Norton, to head the Department of the Interior, and the mining industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles as undersecretary. A timber industry lobbyist, Mark Rey, was chosen to head the Forest Service. Norton and Rey were reappointed by Bush in 2005, while Griles has resigned to establish a new Republican energy lobbying firm, together with former congressman George R. Nethercutt and former White House energy policy director Andrew D. Lundquist. Philip A. Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute hired by the administration in 2001, served as chief of staff at the Bush administration’s Council on Environmental Quality until it was revealed in June that he had been doctoring scientific reports to downplay the link between carbon dioxide emissions and rising temperatures. Forced to resign, he was quickly hired by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company.

It’s a group that Kennedy knows well:

I’ve had many brushes with Norton’s crew of hardheaded ideologues. They are convinced that our government and its laws are illegitimate and that the illegitimacy makes it permissible for them to violate all the rules. I have seen them subvert the law, corrupt our democracy, and distort science.

The activities of these officials range from approving violations of the Endangered Species Act to refusing to enforce pollution laws: the number of violation notices issued has fallen by 58 percent under Bush. (Efforts to neutralize the Endangered Species Act may go further with the recent Supreme Court vacancy; conservatives hope to use the appointment to create a majority that would overturn the legislation.) Kennedy’s depressing account is relieved by his reports of a solitary victory for the environment—the Democratic filibuster of the Republican energy bill in November 2003. He recounts how Democrats recruited six Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and the conservatives John Sununu and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, to break with their party and prevent the Republicans from gaining the sixty votes needed to kill the filibuster. But this small triumph is hardly sufficient to dispel grave concerns about the direction of Bush’s energy program.

Already in May 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney, in consultation with numerous representatives of the big oil and gas companies, announced a new “National Energy Policy” aimed at increasing the production and exploitation of fossil fuels. Congress is now trying to agree on an energy bill that would retain at least some of these aims. In April, the House of Representatives passed a new energy bill which included much of the Bush-Cheney program: $8 billion in tax incentives, largely for fossil fuels producers; liability protection for manufacturers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that is a pollutant and suspected carcinogen; no limits on emissions; and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve to oil drilling. The House bill, as Elizabeth Drew recently pointed out in these pages, is worth billions to energy companies such as Exxon, Valero, and Halliburton.5

By contrast, the Senate’s version of the bill, which passed in June with broad bipartisan support, takes a more considered approach. Pete V. Domenici, the powerful New Mexico Republican and Senate Energy Committee chairman, recently conceded that global warming is real, and the Senate bill provides $18 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. It does not provide liability protection for MTBE manufacturers or call for drilling in the Arctic, although it fails to enforce mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as some senators had hoped. The two bills are now in Senate– House negotiations, but the differences were so great that a compromise may not be reached until the fall.

As Kennedy concludes Crimes Against Nature:

If they knew the truth, most Americans would share my fury that this president is allowing his corporate cronies to steal America from our children.

Yet Harvey Blatt disagrees: “Americans,” Blatt tells us in America’s Environmental Report Card,

share three common beliefs about environmental regulation and the economy. One is that environmental rules cause widespread unemployment. Another is that environmental regulation has led to many plant shutdowns and aggravated unemployment at the local level. And a third belief is that environmental regulation has caused lots of companies to build new plants overseas….

None of these things, Blatt writes, is true, but the very fact that they are widely held is reason enough to question Kennedy’s optimism. Blatt’s observation is supported by recent assessments by environmentalists revealing that the number of Americans who agree with the proposition that “to preserve people’s jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future” has risen from 17 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2000.6

The alleged conflict between environmental values and economic progress seems to reflect uniquely American views, and it may help to explain why the Bush administration is out of step with global opinion on the environment. In Britain and Australia, America’s closest allies in the so-called war on terror, the prevailing view is that good business practice goes hand in hand with environmental protection. One expression of this is to be found in Tony Blair’s strong position on global warming, which echoes his chief scientist’s view that global climate change is a greater threat to humanity than terrorism. Blair’s global warming campaign helped to isolate the Bush administration and put the issue at the top of international policy discussions, as, for example, at the G-8 meeting in Scotland in July. Even the deeply conservative Australian government of Prime Minister John Howard, which almost invariably takes its cues from the White House, has initiated strong environmental reforms, including a revolutionary and expensive approach to managing the nation’s river systems (which will benefit river health immensely but may alienate farmers by limiting water for irrigation) and setting aside one third of the Great Barrier Reef as a marine park, an environmental victory that has already put many fishermen out of business.

  1. 1

    Living Planet Report 2004 (WWF, released October 9, 2004).

  2. 2

    The essay was originally presented at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in October 2004. See www.thebreakthrough.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf.

  3. 3

    See “Is Environmentalism Dead?,” www.3nov.com/images/awerbach_ied_final.pdf.

  4. 4

    On Christian fundamentalism and the environment see Bill Moyers’s article in these pages, “Welcome to Doomsday,” The New York Review, March 24, 2005.

  5. 5

    Selling Washington,” The New York Review, June 23, 2005.

  6. 6

    The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, available on-line at www.grist.org /news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint.

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