Hurricane Katrina showed us how difficult it has become to distinguish between natural disasters and man-made ones. First, the Army Corps of Engineers decides it can build a better river than Mother Nature and in the process deprives the Mississippi Delta of storm-absorbing wetlands and barrier islands, while allowing the ground under New Orleans to subside into a suicidal bowl. Then a storm hits and… well, you know the rest of the story.
The lesson is simple: We are embedded in natural systems, and whether we acknowledge that or not can be a matter of life and death. What follows next you’ve heard a hundred times: The Bush Administration’s environmental record is lousy. More than lousy, it is potentially disastrous. But why?
Philosophically, Republicans believe in the power of the marketplace to shape behavior. Their animosity toward government regulation is longstanding. They emphasize the rights of private-property owners over any notion of the commons, and so are comfortable letting corporations pursue profit at the expense of air or water quality.
The Bush Administration’s assault on environmental quality has, however, been so deliberate, destructive and hostile that the usual explanations–while not wrong–are hardly adequate. During their time in power, Bush’s officials have worked systematically and energetically to undo half a century of environmental law and policy based on hard-learned lessons about how to sustain healthy environments. Strikingly, they have failed to protect the environment even when they could have done so without repercussions from special-interest campaign contributors. Something more is going on.
The notion that the environment matters is ingrained in Americans, even those of us who do not think of ourselves as environmentally inclined or sympathetic. Democrats and Republicans alike have learned the hard way that the decisions we make about what we allow into our air, water and soil get translated into our blood and bones. As polls regularly indicate, most Americans agree that it is wise and prudent to collectively practice restraint and precaution when making environmental decisions. This is one of the great accomplishments of the environmental movement.
The environmental policies of the Bush Administration are hard to fathom because they fly in the face of these shared values and beliefs. Take toxins: Most of us already carry “body burdens” of mercury, dioxins and lead that are close to or above what sound science considers safe. Today, one in six American women has so much mercury in her womb that a child she carries is at risk for a grim inventory of afflictions, including blindness, mental retardation, kidney disease and possibly even autism. These are expensive problems to treat and we all share the costs. All fish in nineteen states are now unsafe to eat because of mercury contamination and at least some fish in forty-eight states are unsafe. We know where most of the mercury comes from–coal-fired power plants–and we know how to clean it up. The technology is available and affordable. But the first thing Bush did when he entered office was to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury-emissions rules.
As with mercury, so it goes with a long list of other environmental toxins. Bush-appointed bureaucrats now allow into our drinking water higher levels of arsenic, twenty times the levels of perchlorates that the EPA recommends using the best science available and twelve times the levels of contamination allowed by law for the herbicide Atrazine. The chemical Captan, which is typically found in household pesticides and fungicides, has been downgraded from a “probable” human carcinogen to “not likely”–without any new evidence being produced. Standards have been relaxed for the release of selenium, which we know causes massive deformities and deaths in waterfowl. Fertilizers that grow our food can now contain much higher levels of toxic residues.