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.
By rewriting the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act, the Bush Administration has permitted industrial polluters to pump additional ozone and particulates into the air that aggravate millions of cases of asthma and cause thousands of deaths each year. Creative environmental regulators have become an endangered species under this President. Federal watchdogs have turned into lapdogs, so Superfund sites–lands contaminated by enough hazardous waste to pose a risk to human health–no longer get cleaned up; old coal-fired power plants are not fixed; SUVs belch smog; and polluters cheat. New environmental problems are not identified, researched or targeted.
The best example of this is global climate disruption. In the West, erratic, quick-melting snowpack results in record spring floods that are becoming as common as the massive wildfires we now expect during our increasingly parched summers.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Bush Administration will be its undermining of environmental and conservation science itself. Cases of silenced government scientists and experts, censored reports, disbanded scientific advisory panels and withheld evidence abound. (The National Resources Defense Council has listed dozens of examples on its website.) No Administration has ever shown such levels of contempt for science as a means for informing and guiding policy and law.
Elected on the premise that government is ineffective, incompetent and wasteful, the Bush Administration has devoted its time in office to proving its own point–something Hurricane Katrina brought home to Americans with a resounding bang. But the Bush record on the environment is in a category all its own. Only when we begin to grasp that those who are driving Bush environmental policies do not share the most basic values and beliefs that have guided such policy-making for over half a century does their behavior start to make sense. This much is clear: The Bush Administration does not respect a broad American consensus that the quality of our lives is directly linked to the integrity and health of the environment.
Differences in philosophy about property rights, the role of government and the best means to change self-destructive behaviors will translate into different approaches to environmental policy–for example, whether to curb pollution by creating market incentives or by passing tough laws. But until now Republicans did not reject the need for environmental policy altogether. What happened? The answer is a familiar one: Bush’s righteous base, the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, are having their way. The zealots who think the Book of Revelations is the only guide to foreign policy and that nature is a mere stage for their personal salvation drama–men like House majority leader Tom DeLay–who have publicly proclaimed that they do not believe in evolution, or other Republican Congressional leaders who got 100 percent ratings from the powerful Christian Coalition, including House speaker Dennis Hastert, presidential hopeful Bill Frist, policy chair Christopher Cox, national leadership chair Rob Portman, powerful senators like Mitch McConnell, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Rick Santorum, George Allen and many more who are, environmentally speaking, the American Taliban.
Bush himself recently declared that “the jury is still out” on evolution. The Administration’s push to satisfy its base by devaluing and discrediting evolutionary theory has profound implications for environmental policy and law. If you don’t believe in the evolutionary sciences, chances are you also don’t heed or trust the ecological sciences that underlie environmental law and policy. When conservation biologists talk about keystone (or endangered) species, fundamentalists are far more likely than most Americans to listen skeptically. The value of biodiversity as a measure of ecosystem health is going to be of little concern to those who do not understand or accept the critical role that species interaction plays in keeping ecosystems resilient in the face of disturbance and stress. In fact, some fundamentalist Christians have only contempt for ecological science, which they view as nothing more than the cover pagans use to push a godless, nature-worshiping agenda.
If you believe that God made the world for you and instructed you to dominate it and be fruitful, then you are likely to see yourself as above and beyond the natural world. If you are God’s chosen, then how can you fear that He will not provide for you no matter how large your numbers grow or what you do to your surroundings? God, after all, can change nature’s laws, which are part of His “intelligent design” in the first place. So you are unlikely to fret about practicing environmental restraint or worry about environmental toxins–righteousness being the best prophylactic against disease in a world where God’s will is done.
If you believe that the world’s end is imminent, then why not use it before you lose it? If you believe that when the world-ending moment arrives, you will be “raptured” away and Christ will return to rule at last, then, hey, bring it on! Those who are “left behind,” as fundamentalist Tim LaHaye describes it in his bestselling novels, deserve to suffer because they failed to accept Christ as their personal savior. So the President’s fundamentalist base favors the present over a future they disown.
According to Bush’s political base, the future is theirs; nature was put here for us to use as we please; God will provide; and foolish unbelievers will be abandoned, like those desperate refugees at the New Orleans Superdome, in a trashed and shredded world. We had our chance but decided to listen to scientists, believe in dinosaurs, hug trees and wring our hands over pupfish, spotted owls and the odd centipede or two. While our jaws drop at their arrogant and reckless behaviors, they just shake their heads and chuckle condescendingly at all of our “liberal whining.”
It’s a holy war, after all, and they are most righteous. Bush’s assault on the environment makes perfect sense once you see the bargains that drive it. Fundamentalists give Bush political power, his corporate cronies get free rein to plunder the land for their profit and the fundamentalists get the heads of nature-worshiping enviros on an arsenic platter. The rest of us, of course, get left behind.