In 1864, in his remarkable book Man and Nature, George Perkins Marsh contended that man’s small disturbances of the equilibrium of the natural world could transform and harm the land and its creatures, leading to disaster. Marsh was not a scientist but, by turns, a congressman, businessman, diplomat, and polymathic scholar. His idea ran contrary to the scientific thinking of the day, which held that man was puny and nature formidable; but in both his native Vermont and regions abroad, he had seen with his own eyes evidence of the human impact on nature, including the alterations of landscape, the flooding, and the disruption of natural cycles that came with the destruction of forests and damming of streams. He noted that once-fertile lands in the Middle East had been turned into deserts. He warned that man in the era of rapid urbanization and industrialization was fast making the earth “an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant.”1
Now, a century later, Marsh’s eastern forests have largely restored themselves, not mainly by human design but because coal, oil, and gas have been substituted for wood fuel and there has been low demand in this century for arable northeastern farmland.2 But it requires no special insight to recognize the continuing impact of human beings on nature. Satellite photos reveal the huge parts of the Amazon rain forest that have been slashed and burned to make way for agriculture; and we know the logging practices that continue in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are causing the irreversible destruction of ancient trees. Most of us intuitively deplore such assaults on nature, valuing it as we do for the aesthetic and spiritual pleasure it provides. But scientists inform us that we have a great deal more to regret about its disappearance.
For one thing, trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air and give back oxygen in return. With fewer trees, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises, contributing to global warming. For another, forest cover retains ground water. Once it is gone, the earth hardens and rainwater runs off, carrying away soil and raising the levels of streams and rivers. Farming compounds the loss. Each year in the continental United States, some 3 billion tons of topsoil are washed into lakes, oceans, and rivers. Throughout the world, since 1972, some 500 million acres have been turned into deserts; and farmers have lost 480 million tons of topsoil, more than all of the topsoil on all US farmland. In recent years, growth in grain yields has not been making up for losses in grain-growing land.3
The more forests we destroy to make way for farms or shopping centers, the more we reduce the chances of numerous species of plants and animals to survive. Not that the destruction of species is unique to modern man. The migration of people from Asia to the North American continent some ten thousand years ago gradually led to the extinction of numerous mammals, including saber-toothed tigers, sloths, and giant wolves. Yet modern peoples have been particularly effective in destroying species. An estimated five to ten percent of the world’s species will vanish if the rain forest is destroyed at current rates for another twenty-five years. In the United States, at least a million animals are killed by cars each day.4 No one really knows how many different species of plants and animals exist, and estimates of the rate at which they are being lost vary wildly among biologists. But even if we discount the more radical estimates, it is indisputable, Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer report in their engaging and levelheaded Noah’s Choice, that a growing number of species are endangered and that the rate of loss is accelerating. Indeed, knowledgeable biologists tend to agree that the rate of loss currently exceeds the historically natural one and the historically natural rate of species replacement.
We tend to be selective in deploring the loss of species. We value birds and animals such as spotted owls, whooping cranes, California condors, Karner Blue butterflies, gray wolves and grizzly bears, dolphins and whales. Few of us have any emotional concern for other species—beetles, for example—that lack majesty, beauty, or familiarity. However, plant and insect species make up a vast proportion of the planet’s living organisms, and the argument for preserving them does not depend on deep feelings of respect for nature, admirable as such feelings are. Many biologists have pointed out in recent years that wild organisms have provided new sources of fiber and medicines, including, for example, taxol, a treatment for cancer, which is derived from the Pacific yew tree. Other important drugs have been extracted from plants such as deadly nightshade and the velvet bean. Even though the chances of finding a plant with therapeutic properties may be small, the federal government maintains a therapeutic screening program that currently searches for treatments of AIDS as well as cancer. Mann and Plummer say that “preventing extinction…is a matter of simple self-interest.”
Preserving species is also urgent for “assuring that people have something to eat,” Paul Raeburn writes in The Last Harvest. Popular environmental writing tends to see agriculture as a culprit, the reason forests are cleared; but it pays little attention on the whole to the environmental features of the land that is worked, deforested or otherwise. It is perhaps surprising that the relation of agriculture to environmentalism is so sparsely discussed, since a huge fraction of arable land is given over to plant and animal husbandry. Raeburn, the science editor of the Associated Press, has produced one of the rare informative surveys of the ecodynamics of farming.
Much of American agriculture was built not only on native and foreign cultivated plants but also on indigenous and imported wild plants. Even now, one writer has put it, American crops “are powered by foreign genes just as surely as our industry is powered by foreign oil.” Scientists iden-tify as “stocks” the basic types of plants and animals from which others derive. Natural evolution has infused wild plant stocks with characteristics—fruit’s texture and flavor, for example—that consumers desire. It has also endowed them with myriad defenses against pests, hard soils, and sharp climatic changes, defenses that can be bred into commercial stocks. For example, wild rootstocks of California grapes with superior resistance to aphids and nematodes have been advantageously grafted onto commer-cial stocks; and such rootstocks, sent to France after its native vines were devastated by the aphid Phylloxera vitifoliae, now flourish in the soils of Bordeaux, strengthening vineyards against infestations.
Plant breeders draw steadily on wild stocks in their continuing efforts to develop pest-resistant plant varieties. According to Raeburn, about half the increase in the superabundant productivity of American agriculture is owing to improvements in crop varieties made possible by using wild germ plasm. The rest of the improvement has been achieved by heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and poisons against the pests that annually destroy roughly a third of all food and fiber crops in the world. Raeburn writes that wild-stock contributions to American crops are currently valued at some $6 billion yearly.
Yet “the agricultural gene pool is shrinking,” Raeburn writes, partly because of the same destructive features of industrial and commercial development that are eliminating biodiversity in general. In 1989, Donald Falk, the director of the Center for Plant Conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, testified before a congressional committee:
Among the endangered species of North America, there are close endangered relatives of major grains, vegetables, fruits, oil seed crops…endangered plums, raspberries, blueberries, squash, corn, tobacco, sunflowers, wild rice, as well as familial relatives of a wide range of other crops.
The trend by which plant species are being lost has been exacerbated by the spread of industrialized farming. Over the centuries, farm families and communities developed numerous “landraces”—crop varieties suited to local ecological and economic opportunities. Many farm communities abroad have abandoned their landraces in favor of growing the kind of high-yield varieties that were devised as a result of the Green Revolution, the seeds for which are now supplied by multinational corporations. The result is that the landraces are disappearing from the Third World, and with them yet another resource for the renewal of the world’s crops. The botanist and plant explorer H. Garrison Wilkes laments the foolhardiness of the practice, comparing it to “taking stones from the foundation to repair the roof.”
Relying on high-yield varieties has encouraged increasing uniformity in the world’s crops. In the United States, a leader in the trend toward uniformity, the potato crop, worth some $2.5 billion a year, largely consists of only six varieties, the principal one being the Russet Burbank commonly identified with Idaho. Similarly with corn, six varieties of which accounted for roughly 70 percent of the annual crop in 1972 (it fell to 43 percent by 1980), and peas, almost the entire annual production of which is generated by just two varieties. Such uniformity is hazardous to the food supply. In a crop of diverse varieties, pests that destroy one type of plant may not succeed with another. Uniform crops, in contrast, are uniformly vulnerable. In 1970, a fungus responsible for southern corn-leaf blight destroyed 15 percent of the U.S. corn crop, with losses in some states reaching 50 percent.
Raeburn reports that genetic engineering of plants may ease the problem by rapidly providing designer varieties resistant to a spectrum of pests. However, many contemporary efforts in genetic engineering of plants are addressed to making them resistant to herbicides rather than to pests—that is, to producing plants more suited to survive in the pesticide-ridden agricultural economy. Moreover, the genetically engineered plants pose their own ecological risks. Some may turn into weeds. Others may transfer their genes via pollination to natural varieties, with unpredictable consequences.5
The National Seed Storage Laboratory, on the campus of Colorado State University, seeks to forestall the loss of plant species. Established in 1945 by federal law and aimed at encouraging the introduction of different plant stocks, the laboratory houses almost 300,000 seed samples of modern, traditional, and wild varieties of the major crops in the United States. It is the principal link in a nationwide network of seed banks, called the National Plant Germplasm System, that contains more than a half million samples of plant stocks, many of which no longer exist in the wild.
Raeburn writes that the seed laboratory in Colorado has been dubbed the “plant breeders’ Library of Congress” or “Fort Knox” because it contains a vast selection of genetic traits that are used for crop protection and improvement. For example, in 1991, when an aphid blight was destroying crops on the Great Plains, a search in the National Small Grains Collection, in Aberdeen, Idaho, produced several strains of wheat and barley resistant to the pest, and information about them was made available to breeders. However, even though the national germ plasm system is a priceless asset, it is in jeopardy, the victim of budgetary parsimony and administrative neglect. The state of affairs has prompted one analyst to call the germ plasm installations “seed morgues.”
Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, eloquently carried on the tradition of George Perkins Marsh, showing how chemical poisoning of the natural environment was not only killing songbirds but endangering human health. The principal toxin she attacked—a symbol for all chemical pollutants—was DDT. Called the “atomic bomb of insecticides” because of its dramatic effectiveness against the carriers of typhus and malaria, it became a triumphal weapon against pests around the globe after World War II. Carson’s case against DDT helped lead, in 1972, to a ban on most uses of it in the United States; but plenty of other chemical pesticides—many of them, like DDT, chlorinated hydrocarbons—have been devised to replace it. Without pesticides, world crop losses, it is estimated, would sharply increase. The estimates of how much vary widely, between 10 and 100 percent.
Pesticides are being used not only outdoors but indoors—not only on crops, forests, railroad corridors, and lawns but in offices, hospitals, schools, day-care centers, rail cars, and aircraft cabins, among other places. They are also ingredients in numerous prod-ucts and materials, including paints, shower curtains, rugs, and mattresses. During the twentieth century, several hundred billion pounds of pesticides have been released into the global environment. Another five to six billion pounds is currently being added to that total each year, with the United States responsible for a quarter of the supplement.
The result is that we are continuing to conduct a dangerous “global-scale experiment on ourselves,” John Wargo warns in Our Children’s Toxic Legacy, pointing out that “a patchwork quilt of evidence” accumulated in the last half century suggests that pesticides and their effects are “far more difficult to control than had been anticipated.” Sustained use of a pesticide encourages the emergence of resistant strains of insects, which in turn raises demands for new pesticides. The residues of the pesticides used often linger in the environment for a longer period and travel farther than was formerly expected. Pesticides migrate by attaching themselves to water droplets in the air or ground, accumulating in sea foods, and on fruits eaten by wildlife—and ultimately making their way to the top of the food chain, which is us. Contemporary human beings are exposed to pesticides simply by eating, drinking, and breathing.
Between 1985 and 1993, John Wargo, a Yale professor of political science and environmental studies, participated in two major projects that the National Academy of Sciences conducted on issues in pesticides and public health.6 In a book intended to bring their findings to wide public attention, he argues that regulatory control of pesticides is weak and that they continue to “threaten human health, biological diversity, and basic ecological processes.” He emphasizes the conclusion of the Academy studies that the adverse effects of pesticides vary with age and are considerably greater among children than among adults. Although Wargo writes densely and somewhat repetitively, he is unfailingly thoughtful and informative. Our Children’s Toxic Legacy is an exceptionally important book, with forceful arguments based on carefully compiled evidence.
Historically, the control of pesticides has rested primarily on three pieces of national legislation: the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1947; the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as modified in 1954 and, in 1958, by the so-called Delaney Clause, after Con gressman James Delaney of New York; and the Environmental Protection Act of 1970. FIFRA required that a pesticide be cleared by—or “registered” with—the Department of Agriculture before it could be introduced for general use. In determining eligibility for registration, the department was not specifically required to assess the material’s safety for public health but to weigh its risks against its benefits. If the risks outweighed benefits, it could not be registered. The Environmental Protection Act transferred authority to register pesticides to the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which maintained the criterion of assessing benefits against costs.
Under the 1954 changes in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must, in order to protect public health, set limits for the use of pesticides on crops; but the agency is allowed at the same time to consider the need for an adequate food supply. In 1972, the Federal Environmental Pesticides Control Act added the protection of public health and the environment to the concerns that the EPA is supposed to take into account in its calculations of cost and risk. Congress did not spell out the meaning of such terms as “risk,” “benefit,” “cost,” or “unreasonableness.” Thus the EPA and FDA have had wide discretion in assessing the risks and benefits of pesticides, and they have given considerable weight to estimates of economic benefits in taking account of the advantages of many pesticides against their tendency to induce afflictions such as neurological disease, immune dysfunction, birth defects, and reproductive failure. They have been willing to say that such medical risks are tolerable if they are infrequent and if the crops will bring financial gains to farmers, workers, and distributors.
Only the Delaney Clause, at least in principle, is uncompromisingly concerned with public health. It virtually prohibits using, on any food, pesticides that may, as a result, induce cancer in human beings or in animals used for test purposes; and it also prohibits pesticides that will become dangerously concentrated during food processing.
Wargo points out, however, that the Delaney Clause has rarely been invoked against a pesticide. The FDA says it will prohibit a pesticide from being used in a food product if enough of it is detected to pose a significant risk of human cancer. Just how much pesticide poses such risk is much disputed, not least because many carcinogens are identified from studies with animals, largely mice. Thirty-nine of the known human carcinogens are also animal carcinogens, but hundreds of animal carcinogens have no demonstrated human carcinogenic effects. At least in the amounts tested so far, these animal carcinogens do not produce human cancers. The FDA has thus tended to permit pesticides containing animal carcinogens if the risks do not exceed limits that are calculated by guesswork and by using statistical models. The EPA has tended to follow the FDA’s permissive approach.
Wargo argues persuasively that this system is inadequate. He finds that pesticide control has been disastrously weakened by a structure of environmental law and regulation that is “highly fractured.”7 Toxic compounds may infiltrate air, food, water, and solid waste, but the EPA tries to control each of these separately. Although many different pesticide residues can wind up in a single food product, EPA tends to concentrate on single pesticides and their individual consequences, paying little or no attention to compound effects. Moreover, many pesticides banned in the United States—DDT is a notable example—are exported for sale abroad, especially in developing countries, and they return home in imported foods, completing what consumer and environmental groups call the “circle of poison.” The FDA is supposed to monitor pesticide residues in the imported as well as the domestic food supply, but its annual rates of sampling are trivially low compared with the volume of foods imported and produced.
The EPA is asked to scrutinize literally thousands of pesticides. It was severely hampered during the 1980s, when the Reagan administration undermined environmental regulation by drastically reducing the agency’s budget, and the EPA’s efforts to deal with the effects of contamination remain inadequate. “Quite simply,” Wargo writes, “law has not directed attention or resources to examine the bigger questions, such as how are we accumulating risks [deriving from] chemicals and environmental media—risks we face in daily life?”
Since 1947, the US government has licensed or registered more than 600 active pesticide ingredients, and it has permitted 325 of them, along with thousands of “inert” ingredients, to remain as residues in the food supply. The result is that the law allows apples and milk to contain residues of nearly one hundred different pesticides. Long before food gets to the table, pesticides annually poison thousands of farm workers in the United States and hundreds of thousands abroad, Wargo says, adding that millions of residents of the midwestern United States drink pesticide-ridden water. “Pesticide residues in food touch nearly every human on earth every day, often as a complex mixture of contaminants,” he declares.
Children are far more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. One reason for this, as Wargo points out, is that they are developing rapidly, especially in their brains and nervous systems, and some pesticide residues may well have particularly adverse effects on them. But the main reason is that their diets differ dramatically from those of grown-ups. Infants drink large quantities of apple juice and milk; children consume a great many fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables. EPA bases its standards for permitting pesticide residues on the average levels of food in the diet; but if infants and children are eating much greater quantities of foods with pesticides still in them, then their intake of the poisons is correspondingly higher. Wargo analyzes children’s consumption of Benomyl, a systemic fungicide manufactured by DuPont that is widely suspected of being carcinogenic. He concludes that they consume “ten to one hundred times” more Benomyl than what was “predicted using detected FDA residue data.”
Wargo puts forward a variety of proposals for a new pesticide policy, including a more cautious approach toward the release of chemical compounds whose dangers are uncertain. Much research needs to be done, he writes, on the hazards they pose to the environment, whether in food, water, or the air. He urges that the Delaney Clause should be discarded and the agencies should do away with the tricky formulas now used to define the risks posed by pesticides. Instead the federal agencies should work out a new definition of risk that applies uniformly to all pesticides and their effects on health, not just to their cancer-producing effects. The dominant criterion for establishing risk should be the protection of health, not an overall balance of risks and benefits. As he points out, a regulation can now be approved if it poses trivial risks for 95 percent of the population, while the remaining 5 percent are children who face serious danger. In Wargo’s view, our current “obsession with technical forms of analysis” distracts us from seeing “the relatively simple moral dimensions of the pesticide problem.”
Borrowing from the theories of John Rawls, Wargo finds that much of US pesticide policy violates individual rights. Many of the health costs of using pesticides are borne by those who, unlike, say, pesticide manufacturers and farmers, do not directly reap their benefits. A disproportionate share of the costs is imposed on children, who cannot speak for themselves, and on farm workers, who cannot easily fend for themselves against their employers. Parents can, of course, speak for children, but people often suffer damage to their health without knowing it; and even when they are aware of it, the costs in health are imposed on them without consent. When stateauthorities spray large parts of Los Angeles to suppress the medfly, they are forcing the entire population, much of it against their expressed will, to bear the risk of pesticide exposure for the sake of the fruit and vegetable growers who stand to profit from the procedure. Wargo neglects to consider whether permitting the medfly to flourish will have an impact on the price of agricultural goods, particularly for lower-income groups; but he rightly argues that pesticides pose fundamental moral issues of distributive justice.
Some familiar environmental policies satisfy commonsense notions of a just balance between costs and benefits. To have clean air and clean water increases the cost of cars and of waste disposal and these costs are paid by most citizens; at the same time, virtually everyone in the community benefits from reducing air and water pollution. However, in recent years it has become increasingly evident that certain environmental policies that benefit a majority may have an adverse effect on minority groups. For example, when toxic waste dumps are placed in neighborhoods that are mainly populated by people of color, the white majority benefits by being relatively insulated from toxins, while the minority runs a high risk. In Noah’s Choice, Charles Mann and Mark Plummer, respectively a science writer and an environmental economist, contend that many similar cases of unjust distribution of benefits arise when federal law is applied to protect endangered species.
Federal efforts to protect species date back to the Lacey Act, which was passed in 1900, at the opening of this country’s first environmental movement. They were revived in the 1960s, when a second such movement was gathering force. In 1966 new laws encouraged federal agencies to protect endangered species from all the effects of government activities—such as building dams—but only insofar as this might be “practicable.” However, in 1970 a dispute among federal agencies over whether to list several species of whales as endangered impelled Undersecretary of the Interior E.U. Curtis Bohlen, a devoted environmentalist, to advocate a completely revised species law. Mann and Plummer show how that campaign led to the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The proposal to protect endangered species was endorsed by President Nixon and won enthusiastic bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Bohlen, joined by several other determined environmental allies, managed to incorporate into the act language that would give all endangered species a much stronger chance of survival. As passed—with only four dissenting votes, every one in the House—the law omitted any mention of practicability and covered all species at risk. It thus established an absolute mandate to preserve all species, no matter what the cost. The preamble of the act declared that its purpose included the protection of the ecosystems on which endangered wildlife depend. That statement gave the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was officially charged with determining which species were endangered, enormous de facto power over the 30 percent of the country that the federal government owns and over whatever part of the remainder contains a project government might finance or regulate. Bohlen said that as the bill had moved toward becoming law “probably not more than four of us…understood its ramifications.”
Lynn Greenwalt, then the new director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, explained why Congress had voted to protect all the species, including all the country’s insects and fungi. “They weren’t thinking about dung beetles,” he told Mann and Plummer. “They were thinking of huge grizzly bears and bald eagles and stately monarchs of the air.” If Congress had realized the implications of the act, it might well have distinguished between bears and beetles. Since it did not, the act could be invoked by opponents of any federal project—from highways to housing developments to dams—that threatened any species.
It was so invoked in a case brought against the federal government by local enemies of the Tellico Dam, which the Tennessee Valley Authority was constructing on the Little Tennessee River during the 1970s at a cost of $110 million. There were many good reasons for opposing the dam, which would have inundated numerous Native American archaeological sites; but the principal legal argument against the project was that it promised to wipe out the snail darter, a fish two-and-a-half inches long that feeds on snails in the river bottom. When the case reached the Supreme Court, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, Attorney General Griffin Bell, holding up a test tube containing the tiny darter before the justices, suggested that it was not worth saving. In response to a challenge from the bench, however, he conceded that, at least according to the Endangered Species Act, no one species was entitled to less protection than any other. In June 1978, the Court ruled six to three against the dam and in favor of the snail darter, noting that the “plain intent” of the law was “to halt and reverse the trend towards species extinction, whatever the cost.”
The Endangered Species Act, with its indifference to balancing the interests of wild species and the human one, grants far greater protection to plants and animals than federal pesticide policy does to children or even adults. The act’s absolute standard has irritated or angered a broad variety of groups. It has been used not only to halt nature-be-damned projects that local residents oppose; it has also been used to block local plans for development, even modest ones that most local residents support. The Endangered Species Act has led landowners to rip out the trees on their property lest a bird at risk be found on it; for such a discovery could severely reduce its value. The act provides for compensating property owners denied the right to build on their land for the sake of saving species, but congressional appropriations for the purpose have fallen far short of potential demand.
Mann and Plummer declare that the act has “ended up turning landowners into the enemies of species on their land and wildlife biologists into ecological mandarins, deciding the fate of resentful communities.” They tell the story of attempts to extend Highway 82 in Oklahoma, where many members of the Choctaw Nation were eager for a job on the project and for easier access to the Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital, which many could reach only by dirt roads or a fifty-mile detour. Construction was halted because biologists determined that the road jeopardized the existence of the American burying beetle. That the federal government would, on such environmental grounds, cancel a project beneficial to Native Americans was, the state secretary of transportation told Mann and Plummer, “unbelievable.”
Mann and Plummer describe the problem of justice raised by the Endangered Species Act:
[It] forces the burden of saving biodiversity on whoever happens to live near endangered species, automatically imposing costs on a few to generate benefits for many…. Protecting the American burying beetle will benefit all of eastern Oklahoma, and perhaps all of the United States, but it is the members of the Choctaw Nation living north of Highway 82 who must wait additional years for the highway. The examples are legion.
Mann and Plummer argue that the time has come to question whether every species ought to be saved, no matter what the cost and to whom. They hold biodiversity to be a worthy public good, but they insist that our duty to each species cannot be absolute, if it competes, which it often does, with other ethical commitments—for example, our obligations to ensure adequate jobs and housing. They persuasively claim that whatever the degree to which we maintain biodiversity, the principal costs of the effort should be borne by the public treasury, not by hapless individuals or communities. They emphasize that a sound policy for species preservation would require investing considerably more than we now do in research on species and their habitats. We should, if we are serious, quit trying to honor our duty to nature unfairly and on the cheap.
Mann and Plummer call for a middle position between the absolutism of the Endangered Species Act and the unfettered open seasons on wildlife that in the nineteenth century killed off the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. They would preserve species because we have a duty—an imperfect one but a duty nonetheless—to protect them and because we treasure them as part of the natural world we have inherited. They also would save them for utilitarian reasons, economic and otherwise. Their position supports the view of agricultural advocates like Paul Raeburn, who points out that small farmers have no incentive to preserve landraces if they can earn a better living planting modern seeds. Raeburn also notes that far more attention has been given to saving the spotted owl than to safeguarding the numerous plant and animal species of US forests that have potential agricultural advantages. If we took utility into account, this would encourage a far more vigorous and effective program of preserving agriculturally significant species and landraces than we now support.
Mark Dowie, a former editor and publisher of Mother Jones, deplores the approach exemplified by Mann and Plummer. He finds it characteristic of the most recent wave of the environmental movement, which in Losing Ground he criticizes in polemical prose. The third wave, he writes, gathered in the Seventies, broke during the Reagan years, and is still washing over us. It has been marked, in his view, by a tendency on the part of the most popular environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, to compromise their principles. Instead of concentrating on issues of toxic waste and human health, they have, he charges, been far more concerned with keeping themselves in business, cultivating good relations with corporate America, and passing marginally useful laws. The third wave’s intention, Dowie writes,
is to protect the environment while preserving economic prosperity and price stability. But the hidden costs of cheap lumber, cheap energy, and cheap gasoline are acid rain, vanishing and extinct species, loss of arable farmland, and future generations of deformed children.
It is true that some organizations that claim to be interested in the environment frankly dislike environmentalism and crudely invoke free-market doctrines against it. Dowie rightly and relentlessly criticizes them, notably the so-called Wise Use movement, a coalition of small landowners, disaffected loggers, and shrewd corporations. One Wise Use leader has publicly declared “holy war against the new pagans who worship trees and sacrifice people.” Wise Users and their allies have increasingly opposed environmental laws that diminish the value of private property, arguing that they are “takings” as defined by the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits the government from taking such property without “just compensation.”
Wise Use doctrine may seem to echo principles of distributive justice, but in fact it makes use of those principles to paralyze environmental action, declaring in effect that our duty to nature is not appropriately a matter of compromise, and that in many cases it does not exist at all. The arguments of Wise Use are a perversion of the principles of distributive justice; but the political challenge they pose will not be met unless their opponents understand the legitimate grievances that the Wise Users are exploiting.
In a sense, the Endangered Species Act, as it was interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1978, placed the preservation of species outside American politics, for it allowed no assertion of competing interests. Mann and Plummer argue strongly for allowing such interests to be reasserted in politics. Biodiversity and economic growth may be incommensurable values and goals; but the task of democratic politics is to reconcile incommensurable values and interests, or at least to find ways to live with them. Politics may also offer ways of distinguishing between environmentally perverse claims of minority rights and healthy ones.
Dowie detects a fourth wave of environmental action currently forming in the United States, and he may well be right. For several years now, the environmental movement has been enlarged by a variety of new activists. Among them are angry women from both white suburbia and minority urban neighborhoods determined to keep their children from being poisoned by toxic wastes; and enthusiasts of preservation who have established private projects to protect land and plant species. They also include rebels against the culture of materialism who are interested in restoring shared community values, and who are trying, as the sensitive essayist Bill McKibben recently observed, to take a more humble attitude toward the woods, the fields, the air, and the water.8 Many of the new activists are organized in local groups concerned with particular causes, like opposition to nuclear power plants. Some have infiltrated the established national organizations, persuading them to give more attention to concerns such as public health and helping them to recognize that the environmental movement, if it is to prevail, needs to demonstrate to small property owners, labor, and lower-income Americans, especially those of color, that it serves their interests, too.
The question is whether the elements of the fourth wave, many of them with quite different concerns, will be able to engage in political collaboration and coalesce around a new ecological politics. The fact of the matter is that they do have a number of environmental interests in common—for example, the preservation of habitats and species, not only in order to preserve a romantic wilderness but to maintain diverse resources for food and pharmaceuticals, and to reduce toxic wastes and pesticides in the air, ground, and water for the sake not only of birds and bears but of children. Even industrial corporations are showing signs of recognizing that slowing or forestalling global warming might well be in their long-term economic interest. For example, insurers and manufacturers of chemical fertilizers are wary of the disruptive effects that warming poses to, respectively, coastal properties and farms.9 A fourth-wave environmentalism founded with a clear-eyed recognition of such mutual interests and in-evitable conflicts would be a more sophisticated movement than any so far, one that both takes account of competing claims to justice and fully appreciates nature—including, as George Perkins Marsh would remind us—the human stake in its well-being.
February 20, 1997
George P. Marsh, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, John Harvard Library edition edited by David Lowenthal (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 43-52. ↩
The Eastern forests remain under clearcutting pressure even today. See Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth (Little, Brown, 1995), pp. 173-227. ↩
Gary Gardner, Shrinking Fields: Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion (Worldwatch Paper No. 131; Washington, D.C.: The Worldwatch Institute, July 1996). ↩
Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, p. 44. ↩
See Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, The Ecological Risk of Engineered Crops (MIT Press, 1996). At the same time, some scientists have been calling attention to a “pollination crisis” brought about by the decline, owing in part to pesticides, of honey-bees and of the many other natural pollinators on which plants depend. See “The Pollination Crisis” by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, Sciences, July-August, 1996. ↩
Regulating Pesticides in Food: The Delaney Paradox (1987); Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children (1993). ↩
Important environmental laws also include the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Recovery Act (“Superfund”). Wargo provides a convenient discussion of their overlapping purposes and jurisdictions, pp. 252-257. ↩
Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild, pp. 173-227. ↩
Martha M. Hamilton, “Linking Business’s Climate and Earth’s,” The Washington Post, January 12, 1997, pp. H1, H8. ↩