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  November/December 2008
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Create | the politics of tomorrow
Years of the Locust
After eight years of George W. Bush, the worst may be to come
By Carl Pope
November/December 2008

Carl Pope

"What was left by the caterpillar, the locust has eaten; and what was left by the locust, the creeping, unwinged locust has eaten; and what the creeping, unwinged locust has left, the cockroach has eaten." —Joel 1:4

The two-term administration of President George W. Bush has been the modern equivalent of the ravages foreseen by the Prophet Joel. From the reckless war in Iraq to the bungled reconstruction of Afghanistan, the collapse of the U.S. housing market, a $700 billion national bill for imported oil, the impending breakdown of the nation's water-pollution-control infrastructure, the dismantling of the scientific capacities of the EPA and other regulatory agencies, the growing global food crisis, and a climate moving toward chaos, Bush's policies have, in Joel's words, laid waste the land. Now his administration is coming to an end--not so, perhaps, the years of the locust.

As a candidate, Bush was widely believed to be something of a moderate--not unlike Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). Once in office, however, he threw his lot in with the reactionary ideologues who control Republican policy making. As I wrote in my book, Strategic Ignorance (Sierra Club Books, 2004), that ideology is dominated by a romance with risk. Should things go bad, you could always proclaim--as Donald Rumsfeld famously did--that "stuff happens." You don't have to take responsibility for the results of your deeds; you just have to be bold about whatever risk you feel like taking, generally with the lives and money of others.

In keeping with this philosophy, this summer the EPA reduced the official value of the average U.S. life from $7.8 million to $6.9 million. In Bush's first term, this had been a goal of White House regulatory czar John Graham, who tried to discount the lives of senior Americans in particular. Critics dubbed it "the senior death discount," and the backlash enabled then EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman to reject Graham's initiative. But Whitman is long gone, replaced by White House toady Stephen Johnson, and today your life is worth nearly $1 million less.

Why devalue human lives? Because the less your life is worth, the less the Bush administration has to do to keep you safe. The less your life is worth, the easier it is to come up with a cost-benefit analysis showing that banning a dangerous pesticide or preventing global warming is "uneconomic," particularly as the value of future lives is discounted by 2 to 3 percent a year. Lives are valued even less by the reactionary right, whose algorithm of risk discounts them by up to 10 percent a year, so that in seven years a life is "worth" only half as much as one today. (And by the time you're a hundred years out, it's down to $183.) Using the lower discount rate, it's clearly economical and prudent to expend a lot of money to prevent the enormous future cost of global warming. But using the right's 10 percent figure--not so much.

You might think that saving future lives sounds worthwhile, but the people running the country right now do not--and neither do those advising McCain. Take, for example, his dismissal of Nevadans' concerns about storing spent nuclear fuel in the mismanaged and unsafe Yucca Mountain Repository: "It's a NIMBY problem," McCain said. "We've gotta have the guts and the courage to go ahead and do what other countries are doing." Short version: Precaution is for sissies. (Asked whether he'd be comfortable with nuclear waste being shipped through Arizona, however, McCain answered, "No, I would not.")

That's the scary part: The years of the locust may not come to an end next January. McCain, it is true, is more "reality based" than Bush. He freely concedes, for example, that global warming is a big threat. But on issue after issue during the presidential campaign, McCain has associated himself with the most extreme voices in the Republican Party--those calling for unwarranted oil subsidies and offshore oil drilling that he admits will do nothing to lower the price of gasoline. Speaking at a biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, he proclaimed, "Drill here, drill now," eventually distilling the sentiment further to "Drill, baby, drill." A McCain administration along these lines could leave us nostalgic for the ravages of the locusts.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail

Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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