Hurricane Katrina showed us how difficult it has become to distinguish between natural disasters and man-made ones. First, the Army Corp of Engineers decides it can build a better river than Mother Nature and in the process deprives the 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? At first glance, it's easy enough to understand. Philosophically, Republicans believe in the power of the marketplace to shape behavior. Their animosity toward government regulation is long-standing. 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. Obviously, a Texas oilman like George W. Bush and a former Halliburton CEO like Dick Cheney aren't about to object to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Caribou, they certainly believe, are expendable if they get in the way of our urge for faster-bigger-more.
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 Republican 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. We are no more likely to hear someone question the importance of a healthy and functioning environment than we are to hear someone question the wisdom of child labor laws or the ending of racial segregation. The environmental policies of the Bush administration are hard to fathom exactly because they fly in the face of these shared values and beliefs.
To Hell with Public Health
Just consider the Bush record. Take toxins, for instance. 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 19 states are now unsafe to eat because of mercury contamination and at least some fish in 48 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; 20 times the levels of perchlorates that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends using the best science available; and 12 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. Likewise, the EPA has used a 3-fold safety standard rather than the typical 10-fold test to determine that organophosphorous pesticides pose no danger for children. 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.
The Wilderness Goes to Hell
Human health isn't the only vital asset to suffer under the onslaught. In my home state of Utah, whole landscapes and ecosystems have been attacked and degraded by oil and gas speculators, road builders, lumber and mining companies, hordes of off-road vehicle drivers, and nuclear utilities that want to dump their wastes in America's deserts. All of this is being done under a regime of Orwellian labels: Policies that invite havoc into our lungs are shamelessly labeled the Clear Skies Initiative; policies that degrade the land, protecting trees from the ravages of nature by sending them to lumber yards and paper mills, go under the rubric of "healthy forests."
Under Bush, the Bureau of Land Management, charged with the management of millions of acres of public land, has been told that issuing new leases for oil and gas exploration is its highest -- often its only -- priority. A boom of damaging speculation is underway from which even rare wilderness study areas and national parks are not exempt. In western Colorado, ranchers have had their gates bulldozed away by oil drillers for corporations that own surface mining rights and now feel free to take their heavy equipment into privately operated ranches without permission or notification. Many of our last untouched landscapes will soon be covered with a patchwork of crude roads leading to dry holes and temporary wells -- none of which will significantly affect our increasing dependency on foreign oil.
Bush's "leave no road-builder behind" policy is especially evident in the Forest Service's 2005 rescission of its "roadless rule," a Clinton-era regulation that protected federally owned forests not -- like most of our public forests -- already crisscrossed by more miles of roads than are included in the Interstate highway system. When enacted by Clinton, the roadless rule got more public support -- over a million supportive messages came in to the Forest Service -- than any regulation in history. Now it's gone and, in Utah at least, 4 million acres of roadless forest are open to road-building, clearing the way for lumber, energy, and mining corporations to get in and take what they want. The impact is even greater in the wilds of the Northwest where new roads are sure to aggravate the silting up of streams and rivers in which depleted stocks of salmon are struggling to hang on.
Everywhere you look, the Bush administration's war on the environment defies public opinion. Utah is home to such beloved national treasures as the Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef national parks and the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Its southern half, arid and isolated country with little potential for energy resources, mining, timber, or grazing, is nonetheless a redrock wonderland. Nine million acres of publicly owned land there have been identified as meeting the legal criteria for formal wilderness designation and protection; and it already draws millions of awed visitors each year. The recreational dollars generated are more of an economic engine than its extractive industries ever were, yet its status is now in play and hotly contested.
The Road to Hell is Paved with Interventions
Under cover of the weekend in March, 2003 when we invaded Iraq, Bush's Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Utah's then-Governor Mike Leavitt (who went on to head the EPA and is now Secretary of Health). It allowed the state to claim that thousands of dirt tracks and paths through public lands were actually "highways" under an obscure law -- RS2477 -- designed in the nineteenth century to allow prospectors access to mining claims. The agreement validates delusional maps drawn up by Utah's rural county commissioners that show roads running up cliff faces and down the middle of rivers. Any faint rut where a jeep so much as backfired or a horse farted is now imagined as a future paved road by rural politicians who fantasize a world where mines, oil wells, and pastures of lowing cattle replace "useless" redrock wildlands.
The out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit, signed that same weekend by Norton and Leavitt, stripped millions of acres of public lands throughout the West of safeguards that helped maintain their pristine character pending congressional action to designate them wilderness areas. In Utah alone, 6 million acres of land that meet all the criteria for wilderness designation and protection can no longer be managed that way. Established by the Wilderness Act of 1964, the very concept of "wilderness," the most popular and important conservation tool ever created, has now been stripped of its meaning and power.
The acts of Norton and Leavitt proved typical of Bush-era strategies meant to skirt otherwise unpopular decisions that could not stand up to public scrutiny or involvement -- or survive legal challenges, even in courts packed with Bush-friendly judges. Industry has learned that if you bring a suit, however legally laughable, you can count on Bush's bureaucratic facilitators to settle quickly out of court for whatever you want; or you can just get your lobbyists to write a memorandum that will be signed on a Friday night when the public isn't watching the television news. The latest move: The administration is working hard to eliminate provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act that facilitate public participation in environmental decisions.
It was no surprise, then, that the Bush administration opened public lands to a frenzy of oil and gas drilling that respects no limits. Its willingness to turn public lands into Off Road Vehicle theme parks has been a bit harder to understand. Although the emerging ORV threat is far below the radar screen of most Americans, many conservationists now consider the detrimental impacts of ORVs to be equal to the more traditional threats of resource-extracting industries.
ORV ownership in Utah alone, for instance, has grown from under 10,000 vehicles in 1979 to more than 150,000 today -- and the ORVs are bigger, ever more supercharged, and often driven by aggressive, barely regulated drivers unmindful of the destruction they wreak in the remote corners of our public lands they can now reach. Their vehicles cause erosion, destroy delicate nitrogen-fixing soils, and spread invasive species like cheat grass that crowd out native plants and fuel wildfires. The scarring they have caused to pristine landscapes has rightly been called the public-land equivalent of covering the Statue of Liberty with gang graffiti.
The ORV lobby, made up of manufacturers, retailers, and riders, is nowhere near as powerful as the hired guns of oil and gas. Bush is not beholden to them. The conservation of public lands as parks and wilderness is very popular. (Even in Utah, notorious for its conservatism, polls show overwhelming support.) Yet the critical Resource Management Plans that the federal Bureau of Land Management use to govern our wild landscapes are being revised in ways that allow the ORV hordes to inflict their wounds at will.
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.
And You Can Go to Hell, Too
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 rightwing fundamentalist Christians, are having their way -- the zealots who think Revelations is the only guide to foreign policy and that Nature is a mere stage for their personal salvation drama -- men like Majority Leader Tom DeLay who have publicly proclaimed that they do not believe in evolution, or other Republican congressional leaders who got 100% 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 Hutchinson, Rick Santorum, George Allen, and many more who are, environmentally speaking, the American Taliban.
Our President himself recently declared "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, fundamentalist Christians often have only contempt for ecological science, which they view as nothing more than the cover Pagans use to push a godless, nature-worshiping agenda. To many fundamentalists, enviros are the new commies. Utah's righteous patriarchal politicians cannot even utter the term "environmentalist" (usually pronounced environ-MENTAL-ist, as if it were a psychological disorder) without attaching the adjective "extreme" to the term.
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 Lehaye 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.
Perhaps the greatest gap between the belief systems of fundamentalists and environmentalists is the difference between hubris and humility. Fundamentalists have a death grip on truth and do not entertain doubt; while one of the key insights of the ecological sciences is that nature may not only be more complex than we thought, but more complex than we can think. Conservation biologists respect the intricate and reciprocal nature of living systems and realize that even the most seemingly insignificant species may turn out to play an unexpected and important role in them. Such insights underlie precautionary approaches.
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 Super Dome, 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. The fundamentalists give Bush political power; his corporate cronies get free reign to plunder the land for their profit; and the fundamentalists get the heads of nature-worshipping enviros on an arsenic platter. The rest of us, of course, get left behind.
Copyright 2005 Chip Ward
Chip Ward, assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, is a political activist and leader in the struggle to keep the Great Basin Desert from becoming a nuclear waste dumping ground. He is the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Island Press).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]