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.
Yet in the all-important matter of energy policy (and thus climate change) Australia is following the Bush White House. Robert Kennedy Jr. gives us a telling account of the people who influence these policies. Quin Shea, an influential lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute, seems to have had unusually easy access to Vice President Cheney. “We desperately want to burn more coal…. Coal is our friend,” Shea says, at the same time warning America to be on its guard against “coal killers.” By this he presumably means the large numbers of scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens who believe that continuing to burn coal in order to make electricity is a nineteenth-century relic, and that its contribution to climate change is a threat to existence itself. In a timely (though one imagines unintentional) warning against complacency about the future, Shea says that the coal industry cannot always assume that it will have a president like “Bush or Attila the Hun.” He adds that Bush is “taking steps right now to reverse every piece of paper that EPA has put together where they could call CO2 a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.”
America’s Environmental Report Card assesses the state of America’s water, soil, energy supply, garbage disposal systems, and air quality, and I thank its author, Harvey Blatt, for injecting some humor into my reading. In discussing the water capacity of American toilets, for example, he informs us that at halftime during the 1999 televised Thanksgiving Day football game, toilets flushed about 16.4 million times, using 48.5 million gallons of water. Toilets with smaller water tanks could have saved 70 percent of that, with no adverse consequences.
One of Blatt’s strongest chapters provides a clearsighted assessment of the dangers of nuclear power. Using the example of the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, he shows how the consequences of fallout from the explosion are continuing. Thyroid cancer is usually a rare illness, with just one in a million children developing it spontaneously. Among children under four years old who were exposed to fallout from the Chernobyl blast, however, it is estimated that more than one third will go on to develop the disease during their lifetime. With an average period of seventeen years between exposure to radiation and the onset of the disease, the cancer rate will not peak until 2006. In neighboring Belarus, which received 70 percent of the fallout, the situation is even worse: only 1 percent of the country is free from contamination, 25 percent of its farmland has been permanently put out of production, and nearly one thousand children die each year from thyroid cancer. Twenty-five percent of Belarus’s budget is currently spent on alleviating the effects of the disaster.
In the US and Europe, where safer reactor types predominate, debate about nuclear power tends to be about the management of waste. The US nuclear industry has long looked to the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a solution, but the amount of waste has now reached such proportions that even if Yucca Mountain were opened tomorrow it would be filled immediately and another dump would be required. In fact the opening of the Yucca Mountain dump will probably be delayed for years as challenges drag out through the courts.
The airing of these undeniable facts will not be welcomed by all environmentalists, for increasing numbers see the threat of climate change as so horrific that they are willing to accept the risk of expanding the generation of nuclear power. They point out that in France, for example, fifty-nine nuclear power plants generate 80 percent of the country’s electricity, without any damaging incidents having occurred so far. But the French authorities still face the same problem of long-term waste disposal that other countries do. Moreover, a recent report of the National Academy of Science on the security problems of nuclear installations emphasized the dangers posed by the thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel now stored in pools at all sixty-four power plants in the US. Cutting off the water supply to these pools, the academy scientists point out, could set off immensely destructive radioactive fires.7 Expecting environmentalists to speak with one voice on these matters is unrealistic—despite the fact that internal dissent is a weakness of the movement.
In a section on groundwater pollution, Blatt briefly discusses America’s “cancer corridor,” a 150-mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans containing “city-sized chemical plants, which dump more than 50 million pounds of toxins annually.” Many are petrochemical plants, and Steve Lerner’s book Diamond gives us an insight into one such plant and its relations with a small adjacent community. In 1911 Royal Dutch Shell purchased 366 acres of land adjacent to a community of freed slaves whose inhabitants trace their ancestry to survivors of the great Louisiana slave revolt of 1811. In 1953 the company acquired their land for a chemical plant. “From all accounts it seems clear that black land owners were not given the option of holding on to their land,” Lerner says. The daughter of one resident recalled her father being told “when he would have to move out, how much he would be paid, and where he could move.” Many, lacking the means to do otherwise, settled near the fence surrounding the plant, thereby creating the town of Diamond.
By the 1960s pollution had become so severe that Diamond’s air had developed a “biting metallic taste.” Although the air was little better indoors, Diamond’s schoolchildren were kept inside during breaks, and pervasive illness, particularly lung complaints and cancers, had begun to wrack the community. Added to this was a sort of terror that came with living beside a monstrous, noisy plant afflicted with frequent, sometimes fatal accidents. “Every now and then we had to evacuate” because of accidents at the plant, one resident recalls, while others told of waking suddenly in the night when the plant flared off gases, or when the railway cars clanked.
In any other developed country, and perhaps in any other part of America, anyone subjected to such conditions would be suing the offending corporation. According to Lerner, however, Diamond’s residents were so despondent that they simply wanted some assistance so that they could move—anywhere—away from the industrial nightmare that had grown up beside them. By 1990 the 350 residents of Diamond had finally begun to organize and ask environmental groups for help. Margie Richard, a local resident and high school teacher, led a group of churchwomen who had decided to sue Shell for funds to help them move. Astonishingly, their lawsuit failed. Meanwhile Shell enlisted local officials to pressure Richards to give up her activism, for which she eventually lost her teaching job. With Shell and the police monitoring meetings of the women church elders, and other members of the community buckling under the pressure, it looked as if justice would be indefinitely denied.
Then, in March 2002, Shell, the world’s tenth-largest corporation, apparently concerned about bad publicity, decided to meet directly with the residents of Diamond, and soon negotiated a settlement package allowing those who wanted to receive housing subsidies to relocate to nearby Norco, a better-off town that was not affected by the factory’s pollution. Finally, in April 2004 Margie Richard was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts against the company. “What a difference it is to get up in the morning and to hear the birds sing instead of the roaring of the Shell plant next door,” she said from her new home.
In David Victor’s book Climate Change: Debating America’s Policy Options, we gain valuable insights into how a US administration might approach the politically complex issue of global warming. One of the troubling ironies about American politics is the hardening political resistance to taking action on global warming in the face of ever more certain scientific evidence. In her recent three-part article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes: “Americans have been alerted to the dangers of global warming so many times that volumes have been written just on the history of efforts to draw attention to the problem.” Yet the US government has steadfastly resisted any attempts to place even modest restrictions on fossil fuel emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which has been endorsed by virtually all of the industrialized world, including Russia. “Astonishingly,” Kolbert writes, “standing in the way of progress seems to be Bush’s goal.”8
Victor calls his book a “Memorandum to the President,” wherein he gives the facts of climate change, and three alternate speeches, spanning a range of views about the immediacy and scale of the threat: the first speech outlines the most moderate approach, calling for voluntary emissions reductions and investment in alternative energy research, but rejecting any international agreement. The second and third speeches outline stronger responses, including joining a revised Kyoto Protocol and creating markets for low-emission technologies. All of this, of course, depends on the extent of current scientific knowledge about climate change.
Barely a week passes without some significant contribution to the subject appearing in the world’s leading science journals, which makes it difficult to publish an up-to-date book on the subject. Victor’s research seems to terminate in early to mid-2003, and to deal primarily with secondary sources, which is a pity, for subsequent research findings, some of them summarized by Elizabeth Kolbert, have confirmed that climate change is not only well underway but is also occurring at a far more rapid pace than previously thought. Had Victor written twelve months later, he might have included a speech similar to the one given by Tony Blair in September 2004 to a meeting of British business leaders, in which he recognized climate change as “a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.”
Surprisingly, in their recent book One with Nineveh, the environmental campaigners Paul and Anne Ehrlich do not give climate change the primary importance that recent science indicates it deserves. Rather, they concentrate on a series of threats (of which climate change is one) in which consumption, technology, and population dominate. These have been the Ehrlichs’ constant themes since they established their equation, I=PAT, for calculating the human impact on ecosystems. In this equation impact (I) equals human populations (P) multiplied by their affluence (A), and multiplied again by their technology (T).
There are some new ideas in this book, such as a proposal for a United Nations–sponsored “Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB).” The Ehrlichs envisage hundreds of experts from diverse disciplines and drawn from nearly every country convening at an international conference to initiate the process that would “be a way of washing Homo sapiens’ dirty linen in public and trying to reach agreements on how to live within increasingly tight environmental constraints.” But the authors admit they have become depressed. “Goals such as we’ve described would be considered much too idealistic by many,” they concede. Their pessimism surely also relates to the Bush administration’s almost complete rejection of environmental values. “Each day that we do nothing forecloses options for… avoiding…ecological suicide in our time,” they write. One with Nineveh —its very title suggests that the first global civilization will follow the failed civilizations of Mesopotamia—is almost unrelievedly gloomy.
In fact, the Ehrlichs have some reasons to be pleased. After all it was Paul Ehrlich (in The Population Bomb, published in 1968) who drew wide attention to the world’s population crisis. If the crisis had not been recognized and measures had not been taken to decrease fertility, not only in China but in many other parts of the world, we might have been facing a future population of more than 12 billion rather than the 8.9 billion now projected. Clearly, human beings as a species have not done enough to avoid vast damage to our planetary life support systems, but what is needed now is not more gloom. Environmentalists need to learn how to confront politicians with strong economic and pragmatic arguments, backed by solid scientific research and convincing political support. Only then will leaders—and the general public—be persuaded to make the difficult changes that are required to keep human civilization sustainable.
Jack Hollander is critical of the Ehrlichs. For him, the size of the human population is not a serious issue, nor is the threat of climate change. His book, The Real Environmental Crisis, is decidedly at odds with the others under review. Hollander’s thesis is that “population growth per se should no longer be looked upon as a serious long-term global problem” and that, instead, it is poverty that is “the world’s most formidable and pervasive environmental problem.” He is certainly right that the conditions of poverty are bound to have destructive effects on the environment. But Hollander resists any notion of environmental limits and considers the work of the Ehrlichs as “environmental pessimism,…doomsday pronouncements [which] contain grains of truth embedded in a sea of exaggeration.” His book unfortunately reveals a poor grasp of science and environmental issues, a failing exemplified by his assessment of climate change. He concludes:
…Current predictions of future climate are based almost entirely on computer simulations. Although simulations are a widely used tool in science research… they do not provide an adequate basis for the catastrophic generalizations about future climate…. In any case, for most of us it is difficult to distinguish between solid empirical evidence and speculation based on highly uncertain computer models.
This misleading assessment ignores enormous quantities of hard data indicating that climate change has already begun. During the twentieth century global temperature has risen by 0.63 of a degree, which has led to the early onset of spring migrations, the early budding of trees, a northward shift in some species’ distributions and the migration up mountainsides of others, the melting of glaciers and the Arctic ice cap, the melting of permafrost, increasing sea temperature, rises in sea level, and the extinction of climate-sensitive species.
I suspect that Hollander seeks to dismiss concern about climate change for political reasons. He alleges, without justification, that anti-Western politics has crept into the findings of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He states that projections about rises in sea level should be viewed skeptically, and repeatedly refers to the discrepancy between satellite data—which until recently showed no warming of the troposphere, the part of the atmosphere closest to the earth’s surface—and actual surface measurements of the temperature of the planet as a reason to doubt that the planet’s climate is changing. Hollander apparently wrote before the discrepancy was explained in 2004. It was then shown conclusively that interpretation of the satellite data was in error, and that the troposphere is indeed warming in tandem with the planet’s surface.9
Despite doubting its reality, Hollander goes on to welcome climate change, proclaiming that the climate scientists have “got it backwards.” Warming will be good for the world, he says, because people and crops prefer warm weather. Here he simply ignores the evidence that has been assembled by scientists, much of it to be found in the works under review. It is hard to believe that such biased and simplistic analyses can masquerade as environmental science.
In view of the huge power of the US today, the books under review describe a deeply troubling situation. The environmental movement in the United States has become more and more dispirited, and remains divided, while the science behind environmental causes is now stronger and more conclusive than at any moment since the movement began. As leading activists like Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach concur, environmentalism has been largely pushed to the margins of American political life. Environmental issues were barely discussed by either candidate in the months before last November’s election and, as I have mentioned earlier, the House version of the energy bill now making its way through Congress aims to take Bush’s environmentally destructive support for the oil and automobile industries even further. The lack of broad-based support for alternative energy sources, while oil prices reach record highs, suggests how successful conservative Republicans and energy industry executives have been at discrediting environmentalism with misrepresentations and pseudoscience.
As it becomes increasingly plain that human-induced global warming is already well underway—an accelerating process that, if left unchecked, will lead to devastating long-term changes in sea levels, weather patterns, and the fate of many species—the time available for effective international action is running out. But any successful action will require the strong support and leadership of the United States, which now consumes 25 percent of the world’s available nonrenewable energy and produces 21 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, Bush’s continued intransigence has insured that little progress can be made. By forcing the G-8 nations to issue a watered-down communiqué about the “long-term” threat of climate change, the president has, as The New York Times noted, “succeeded in turning what might have been a powerful commitment by the industrialized nations to confront global warming into diplomatic mush.” The question remains whether scientists, environmentalists, and the rest of the international community can muster the political power to compel the American political establishment to address this problem, before it is too late.
August 11, 2005
Living Planet Report 2004 (WWF, released October 9, 2004). ↩
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. ↩
See “Is Environmentalism Dead?,” www.3nov.com/images/awerbach_ied_final.pdf. ↩
On Christian fundamentalism and the environment see Bill Moyers’s article in these pages, “Welcome to Doomsday,” The New York Review, March 24, 2005. ↩
“Selling Washington,” The New York Review, June 23, 2005. ↩
“The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, available on-line at www.grist.org /news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint. ↩
See Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report (National Academies Press, 2005). ↩
See The New Yorker, April 25, May 2, and May 9, 2005. ↩
See Vinnikov and Grody, “Global Warming Trend of Mean Tropospheric Temperature Observed by Satellites.” ↩