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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2004
Table of Contents
  ELECTION 2004:
Who's Got the Power?
Collateral Damage
Dubya's Dictionary
"Wise Use" in the White House
Bush's Seven Deadly Sins
USA Tomorrow
Our Next President
Forty Wild Years
Interview: Michael Pollan
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Let's Talk
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Ways & Means: Judgment Day
Is the environment better off than it was four years ago?
by Carl Pope

At the turn of the millennium, Americans could be proud. Since the launch of Superfund in 1980, we had been steadily cleaning up our inventory of toxic waste sites.

Every other year since the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, the EPA had reported that America's rivers, lakes, streams, and beaches were cleaner than they had been the year before. President Bill Clinton had protected more of our landscape than anyone except Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter. The largest remaining uncontrolled sources of air pollution--old power plants, factories and refineries, and diesel engines--faced stricter regulations and tougher enforcement.

Firm deadlines had been established for limiting emissions of mercury, the country's biggest unaddressed public-health menace. Brown pelicans, wolves, peregrine falcons, and grizzly bears were all making comebacks. International action was healing the hole in the ozone layer and tackling persistent organic pollutants. Tough challenges remained, yet America had demonstrated that, once awakened, it could respond with ingenuity, responsibility, and success.

There's not much to be proud of anymore.

Superfund is bankrupt. On September 30, 2003, it ran out of money. Only a quarter as many toxic-waste cleanups are beginning as there were four years ago. The EPA reported that America's waterways were dirtier in 2002 than 2000. The amount of toxic chemicals released into the air was up 5 percent in 2002.

Mercury cleanup has been delayed a decade, enforcement against dirty power plants undercut, international environmental treaties abandoned, the Endangered Species Act virtually nullified. Of the major progress under way in 2000, only the cleanup of diesel engines has continued.

The loss of so much momentum so fast was no accident. It might not make you proud, but it does some of Bush's ideological backers. For them, the Bush administration is striking a brave blow against what they derisively call "the Nanny State."

Witness conservative columnist George Will's recent review of Michael Barone's book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. Will endorses Barone's thesis, common in the right wing of the Republican Party, that America suffers from a desire for excess safety.

By way of contrast, Will offers a nostalgic paean to the America of 1900--the McKinley era, before Theodore Roosevelt started America down the path to wussiness and "the Great Softening," as Barone refers to the last third of the 20th century, the period of the environmental revolution.

Bush, on the other hand, is making us tough again. His national security strategy is go-it-alone bellicosity, and his environmental policy is based on the belief that only wimps worry about mercury in fish, kids getting asthma from smog, or fires burning rural communities. John Graham, Bush's regulatory czar, claims that America suffers from "flustered hypochondria," a condition he's not about to coddle.

Yet, when it comes down to getting reelected, many Republican politicians prefer denial to such strong medicine. A "message" memo from the party's leadership in Congress advises that "Republicans can't stress enough that extremists are screaming ‘Doomsday!' when the environment is actually seeing a new and better day."

The memo urges GOP candidates to assert that "global warming has not been proved, that there are no clear links between air pollution and childhood asthma, and that America's rivers and lakes aren't nearly as polluted as the Environmental Protection Agency says they are."

Giving GOP candidates opposite advice is Republican pollster Frank Luntz. In a memo about clean water, Luntz warns: "Young and old, Democrat and Republican, the demand for clean water is universal...I'll be blunt...this issue is NOT going to go away. The environment is an area in which Americans expect progress to be made, and when they do not see progress being made, they get frustrated."

Hence the misleading names: "Clear Skies" for the program that weakens mercury standards; "Healthy Forests," when "Horizontal Forests" would better describe the hard reality. Hence Bush's cynical Earth Day claim to have increased the acreage of wetlands--true only if you accept his definition of wetlands, which includes areas that have been substantially drained. Hence too the habit of announcing decisions to weaken environmental protection when nobody's paying attention, ideally late on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend.

Like Luntz says, most Americans expect to see progress being made. We love our country, and we want it to be healthy and strong. Yet in the last presidential election, barely half of the voting-age public turned out, and only a marginally higher percentage of Sierra Club members. If we're serious about restoring our environmental pride, we've got to show up to vote, and bring our friends and neighbors with us. Together we can put an end to this shameful interlude in our nation's environmental progress.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. He is the author, with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber, of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. E-mail

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