Biologists have a term for species whose habitats or gene pools are so diminished that extinction is only a matter of time: “the living dead.” The Bush Administration has banished many of our most important environmental protections to this limbo. The Clean Air Act is still on the books but is not being enforced. The national forests that Teddy Roosevelt mapped out still show in green on the map, but on the ground chainsaws are converting them into clearcuts and tree farms. Superfund, bankrupt, is a shadow of itself; polluters no longer fear it. The Clean Water Act still calls for swimmable streams and fishable rivers, but its jurisdiction no longer includes the huge factory feedlots or some 60 percent of the nation’s wetland habitat. What we have not lost is love for the land–the same love that runs in a powerful undercurrent throughout US history.
Here are ten steps to reverse the Bush initiatives and transform the nation.
1. Require auto makers to make cars, SUVs and light trucks that go farther on a gallon of gas.
Improved technology will reduce our dependence on Middle East oil, shrink our 25 percent contribution to global warming and reduce our trade deficit, while enabling us to save money at the gas pump, clean up air pollution and reinvigorate the Big Three automakers. We should also put a tax on fuel inefficiency, which could be used to subsidize the purchase of efficient vehicles and help build new auto plants.
2. Reindustrialize America by creating a twenty-first-century energy industry.
Our highest energy priorities are still cheap gasoline and big domestic coal and oil industries–an indefensible policy for a society that burns 25 percent of the world’s oil but has only 5 percent of its population and 3 percent of its oil reserves. The amount of electricity we could generate from solar power, wind and other renewables is limited largely by our investments. The labor-backed Apollo Project calls for investing $300 billion in innovation and efficiency: high-performance buildings, efficient factories, energy-efficient appliances and better mass transit as well as efficient hybrid vehicles. These programs could create 3.3 million new manufacturing jobs.
3. Install modern air-pollution control equipment in old power plants, refineries and factories.
The owners of these plants have had thirty years to clean them up; it’s time to pull the plug. Proposed legislation would require all plants to be cleaned up by the time they are forty years old, or by 2014 at the latest. Cleaning up pollution from just the fifty-one plants that the Clinton Administration sued would save between 4,300 and 7,000 lives a year and prevent between 80,000 and 120,000 asthma attacks.
4. Restore the Superfund tax.
Getting the program back up and running, with the polluters rather than their victims paying for it, is the first step. There are 1,200 facilities on the list today, and probably another 600 that ought to be added. If Congress restores the tax, we can get back to cleaning up eighty sites a year.
5. Reinstate the environmental protections enjoyed by our national forests, rivers, wetlands, wildlife habitat and public lands as recently as January 21, 2001.
Restoring these safeguards will leave us with a core of wild country that can act as a repository and nursery for endangered and threatened species fighting for survival, and as a sanctuary where future Americans can find renewal and inspiration.