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Sierra Magazine
Ways and Means: False Friends

Environmental progress is more than skin deep

by Carl Pope

In an era of virtual reality, we should be wary of virtual environmental progress. Consider what happened last year when the Sierra Club published its third annual sprawl report, citing state-by-state examples of smart growth and destructive sprawl. Subsequently, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) put out a press release declaring itself "a leader in promoting smart growth," and claiming that it "supports the use of innovative land-use techniques and preservation of meaningful open space and sensitive environmental areas." In addition, the association praised the Sierra Club's recognition of "the important role that builders and developers play in the creation of well-designed homes and communities to house the American people."

The food industry, too, seemed to undergo a conversion experience after lab tests revealed that Kraft Foods' Taco Bell-brand taco shells contained Starlink, a genetically engineered variety of corn that is approved only for animal feed because it contains a protein similar in structure to known human allergens. Kraft recalled its taco shells; Mission Foods, the largest U.S. maker of tortilla products, recalled all lines containing yellow corn to avoid the risk of contamination; and Starlink's licensing company, Aventis CropScience, agreed to buy its entire crop back at a premium price, pay for testing, and sell it to feedlots. Estimated cost of these steps: $100 million.

On the surface, these two episodes seem to signal dramatic environmental progress. The National Association of Home Builders, after all, has been one of the major instigators of sprawl; to have it embrace the Sierra Club's vision of smart growth is remarkable. So too was the quick industry response to the Starlink incident. Even with a lack of public outcry, and even though no adverse human impact was identified, companies responded almost overnight, and at substantial cost, to get the suspect corn out of the human food chain.

Should we rejoice at this newfound acceptance of our environmental values? Not, perhaps, before we look at the rest of the story. Shortly after the NAHB issued its press release embracing smart growth, it quietly sent a letter to its members with a very different message:

"We are facing a monumental challenge and we need your help immediately!" it exclaimed. "The Sierra Club is about to succeed in passing two radical no-growth initiatives in Colorado and Arizona. These measures would devastate housing in those states and set a dangerous national precedent . . . by creating strict urban growth boundaries, giving environmental extremists unprecedented access to the courts, and creating the first true 'ballot-box zoning' system in the country. . . . This election will set a precedent for the future of housing in America. If the Sierra Club wins, builders across the country will be threatened by similar no-growth initiatives for years to come."

The letter went on to solicit contributions to defeat the smart-growth proposals in those two states. (It also quoted, as evidence of radical environmentalism, the same Sierra Club study that the NAHB had publicly hailed only weeks earlier.) Despite their smart-growth rhetoric, the Home Builders successfully squashed both smart-growth ballot measures, making Colorado and Arizona safe for continued sprawl.

As for Starlink, industry's rapid action was hardly evidence of a new ethic of caution and responsibility on the part of agribusiness or government. After all, Starlink was detected only after the nonprofit group Genetically Engineered Food Alert commissioned its own testing and happened upon the contamination.

And while the government's role in ruling Starlink unfit for humans was critical, other varieties of genetically modified corn that have never been properly tested are licensed for human consumption. Ironically, the episode also served as a vindication of one of agribusiness's excuses for not labeling genetically engineered foods-that it is impossible to keep track of which foods have been modified. In practice, the system failed to trace a product that was only supposed to appear in animal feed.

The same haphazard pattern is repeated time and time again. Someone stumbles upon a problem-often too late to avoid serious consequences-and the system scurries to patch things up. We are still dependent on private vigilance and good luck to protect against new threats, like experimental corn in our tortillas. Novel chemicals are still routinely introduced into our communities and the environment without adequate scrutiny.

Old industrial facilities and processes are allowed to continue to pollute even when cleaner, safer substitutes are available. Developers are given permission to destroy functioning wetlands in exchange for leaving the hose on elsewhere. And industry resolutely refuses to recognize that environmental problems that are modest at one scale-say, the manure from 50 hogs-can be toxic hazards when magnified a thousandfold in a hog factory-feeding operation.

The Sierra Club has stopped hundreds of badly conceived highways, shopping centers, airports, and subdivisions, usually because of their individual impacts, not because we have broken the public subsidies that make "dumb growth" financially attractive to land speculators. Similarly, we've elected hundreds of fine candidates to political office, but we have failed to stop the blatant culture of bribery that is our campaign contribution system.

It is a victory of sorts that the NAHB feels it necessary to take green cover and the biotech industry costly action to forestall fundamental reform. Our challenge is to refuse to be satisfied with the quick fix, and to demand real-not virtual-progress.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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