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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.