Trashing the Environment
The military, however, may not even have to pretend to do the right thing. Perhaps the single most disturbing and overlooked environmental proposal of the past two years is the Pentagon's post-September 11 suggestion that it be exempted from environmental laws. Congress rejected this request last fall, but the Pentagon is back this session with a better-prepared proposal and is confident of victory. Robert Alvarez, a senior policy adviser to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton Administration, warns that such a policy could enable the military, the nation's biggest polluter, "to write off large areas of land, bodies of water, and the people that are dependent on them, just as the Soviet Union did." Nuclear weapons sites in particular, says Alvarez, might become "national sacrifice zones."
So, will Bush end up paying a price in 2004 for his betrayal of environmental values? His supporters in corporate America and the far right are apparently so blinded by their ideological biases that they perceive little political risk. Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation, told the Washington Post in March 2001 that things would be fine as long as the body count didn't get too high: "There's a risk with some of the swing voters, but unless something happens where lots of people turn up dead before the election, these issues are not going to resonate with lots of voters." An unnamed senior Republican agreed, asserting that "unless there's a catastrophe, these decisions aren't going to affect a mom in Fairfax."
Karl Rove, however, has a more sophisticated analysis. He knows Americans, especially the suburban swing voters so coveted by presidential campaigns, care about the environment. But he thinks they care more about other issues: the economy, security (both economic and military) and healthcare. The environment, Rove reportedly calculates, ranks eighth or ninth among the average voter's priorities. He may be right--recent polls indicate that Americans oppose Bush's environmental actions by a 2-to-1 margin, yet 60 percent of them approve of the job he is doing as President. So it may make sense for Bush to pursue an environmental agenda that rewards corporate backers and throws red meat to his right-wing base; the White House just has to make sure that it doesn't unleash its own Chernobyl in the process.
Remember the arsenic flap early in Bush's presidency? Many environmental issues are too technical or abstract to resonate with average voters, but the idea of allowing more arsenic in drinking water connects with nearly everyone, which is why the Administration quickly retreated. If opponents can make Bush's other policies equally visible in the media, and their dangers equally concrete to voters, they may force additional retreats and persuade significant numbers of voters to oppose his re-election.
Environmentalists in Washington fret that Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the White House, but this situation may be forcing the movement to recall that its true strength lies out in the country among the general public, which supports it by approximately 2 to 1. There is no reason the environmental movement has to be a marginal player in American politics. It commands significant financial resources, public credibility and intellectual capital. But too much fighting over turf and too little coordinated action has frequently left the movement in disarray. That may now be changing. According to a report in gristmagazine.com (another indispensable source of environmental news) by former New York Times reporter Keith Schneider, mainstream environmental groups have begun collaborating like never before in the face of the Bush threat. Their "collaborative defense campaign" mirrors part of Bush's strategy by focusing more effort on state and local resistance to environmental rollbacks, both among activist groups and such politicians as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The national groups also hope to mobilize public unease by highlighting one or two egregious, easily communicated environmental outrages (à la arsenic) and convincing politicians, both Democratic and moderate Republican, that they can win votes by opposing Bush's agenda.
In the longer run, environmentalists also need to get serious about economics if they want to make political progress. Perhaps because so much of the mainstream environmental movement is made up of affluent white people, they forget how close to the economic edge the majority of Americans live. Most Americans want to see the environment protected, but many fear the economic consequences. History shows that no issue except war has more effect on voters' views of a President than the economy. A policy to restore our damaged ecosystems and transform our technologies toward renewable energy and environmental sustainability would create more jobs and business opportunities than today's dead-end approach, but most Americans don't know that. A movement or a candidate who opened their eyes could become Bush's biggest nightmare.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of The Eagle's Shadow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and four previous books, including Earth Odyssey (Broadway). Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Research Fund of the Public Concern Foundation.