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Trashing the Environment | The Nation

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Trashing the Environment

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George W. Bush's assault on the environment over the past two years has been so blatant and relentless that even American television now reports it as a simple fact, like gravity. Is there another issue where Bush has gotten such critical news coverage? Not Iraq, where reports have made plain the Administration's determination to go to war but declined to challenge it. Not economics, though that could change if unemployment and federal deficits keep climbing. Some stories have mentioned Bush's bias toward the rich and corporate, but the tone of most economics coverage has been relatively respectful, except during the Enron scandal, and the White House slipped that noose by changing the subject to Saddam.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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The environment, however, has been one bad story after another. Every week seems to bring news of a fresh abomination, from making environmental impact assessments in the national forests optional, to excusing the country's dirtiest power plants from upgrading their pollution controls, to stripping protection from 20 million acres of wetlands, to recycling nuclear waste within consumer goods. (The latter lunacy so far remains only a proposal, but it illustrates a mindset.)

The temptation in writing a midterm evaluation like this one is to list every anti-environmental action the Bush Administration has taken over the past two years. But that would make for long and tedious reading, and besides, environmental group websites already offer the information (see sidebar). Suffice it to say that no Administration since the dawn of the modern environmental era forty years ago has done more to facilitate degradation of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible.

The irony is that Bush has compiled this odious record without having an environmental policy as such. Instead, his environmental achievements--an ever-lengthening list of regulations relaxed, actions delayed and foxes put in charge of henhouses--have come mainly as a consequence of policies pursued in other fields: economic, military and, above all, energy. The environment is not even an afterthought for the Bush crowd. The Administration's energy plan, for example, never once mentions the words "climate change," even though its lopsided emphasis on fossil-fuel development promises to boost US greenhouse-gas emissions between 14 and 38 percent by 2007.

It's easy enough to say that Bush's approach reflects his and his top aides' pasts in the oil, mining, timber, chemical and electric utility industries. It's likewise easy to understand Bush's actions as thanks for the $44 million in contributions those industries showered on him and the Republican National Committee in 2000. Here, the indispensable resource is Paybacks, a report prepared by the NGOs Public Campaign and Earthjustice (www.publicampaign.org/publications/reports/paybacks/Paybacks.pdf). Paybacks offers the most complete listing available of which former corporate executives now oversee their erstwhile colleagues from which federal agencies. In a crowded field, perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest belongs to Steven Griles, the Deputy Interior Secretary. During two years of government service, Griles has continued to be paid $284,000 a year by his former lobby firm, National Environmental Strategies, where he represented mining companies. Apparently not a man to take something for nothing, Griles has returned the favor by meeting with and lobbying on behalf of former clients, most notably in the Administration's attempted recasting of the Clean Water Act to allow the dumping of mining debris into streams and rivers in Appalachia.

The ecological consequences of all this are as predictable as they are lamentable, but the questions that most urgently need answering are political. Why does the Bush Administration think it can get away with such a slash-and-burn approach to a mom-and-apple-pie issue? Surely Karl Rove, the powerful White House political director, is aware that poll after poll shows that large majorities of Americans care about clean air and water and support the goals of the environmental movement. And why have environmentalists, and specifically Democrats, had so little success in countering the Bush agenda? They turned back the last concerted effort to gut the nation's environmental laws, led by Newt Gingrich in 1995. Did that victory depend so heavily on Bill Clinton's veto threats that it can't be replicated now? Or do environmentalists need a new strategy?

George W. Bush is not the quickest calf in the pasture, but even he recognizes that it's risky for a US President to look bad on the environment. Back when Bush was running, his advisers organized dozens of tutorials to remedy his ignorance of global and presidential issues. Only one such session was devoted to the environment, and it was held in the living room of the Texas governor's mansion on an afternoon in May 1999, according to Steven Hayward, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and Terry Anderson, the executive director of the Political Economy Research Center. Hayward and Anderson were two of fifteen experts who heard Bush open this meeting with the following request: "I am going to be the next President of the United States. And when I leave office, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner and the environment will be better. Tell me how I'm going to make that happen."

By the end of the three-hour session, the assembled experts had assured Bush that he could accomplish this politically happy outcome without discomforting the corporate interests or right-wing groups central to his candidacy. The secret was to embrace what Gale Norton, soon to be Bush's Interior Secretary, called "a philosophy of environmental federalism." The idea, as Anderson later explained it, was that Washington should "devolve some responsibility for meeting environmental standards to local levels, where [officials] have better information about how to reduce pollution cost-effectively." A second element of the philosophy presented to Bush that afternoon was replacement of government regulation with market mechanisms such as corporate self-audits, a device Bush had implemented as governor. A third element was elevation of private-property rights over public prerogative.

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