Saving the Environment

Saving the Environment

This article is adapted from Carl Pope and Paul Rauber’s forthcoming Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress (Sierra Club Books) .


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.

6. Restore rural America.

Right now we’re spending $18 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, 70 percent of which go to the largest agribusinesses, drive family farmers out of business and destroy rural communities. The subsidies even affect other nations: Subsidized US corn, for example, drives Mexican farmers into urban slums. That $18 billion could help small farmers, restore wildlife habitat, clean up rural waterways and reduce erosion and pesticide use. Rural America would have more jobs, rural families would have better health and more economic security, the quality of our food supply would be enhanced and the country’s air and water would be cleaner and healthier.

7. Retire Smokey Bear.

If we invest $2 billion a year to thin trees in Community Protection Zones–the quarter-mile perimeters around homes or towns that firefighters need to stop wildfires from destroying structures–we should be able to safeguard most communities from fire danger within five years. We need to give priority to community protection over timber preservation.

8. Restore our national patrimony of public lands.

Phase out the Forest Service’s commercial timber program and manage our national forest system for public benefits like wildlife, recreation and watershed protection. We also need to keep the promise Congress made to use royalties from oil and gas drilling to fund the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

9. Solve the sewage problem.

Restore watershed quality and, where necessary, separate stormwater and sewage systems. Deal with the problem of runoff from farms, feedlots and logging and development sites. Thousands of beaches are still closed every year because of inadequately treated sewage, and 40 percent of our waterways are not safe to swim in.

10. Rejoin the world.

The rest of the planet is waiting for us to join the coalition of the environmentally willing. Our agreement alone could put the Kyoto Protocol into effect. We also need to rejoin such international initiatives as the proposed conventions to reduce emissions of mercury, protect rain forests, stop overfishing and preserve biodiversity. On trade policy, we need to start by fixing the North American Free Trade Agreement, not by signing new agreements that embody all of its flaws.

We need to make our political leaders accountable. They are supposed to be the stewards of our dreams and aspirations as a society; they work for us, however different it may sometimes seem. The Bush Administration has been intent on taking us backward. But this crabbed, Hobbesian spirit of social Darwinism has been bested before, and we can overcome it again. After that, the future will be ours to make.

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