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Ways & Means

Is This All We Can Be?

The Pentagon’s about-face on environmental progress

by Carl Pope

One of the standard complaints about environmentalists is that we are Chicken Littles who see the sky continually falling (or the seas incessantly rising). Critics such as Gregg Easterbrook and Bjørn Lomborg garnered moments of fame with books claiming that greens refuse to acknowledge the power of human ingenuity to solve environmental problems and even restore natural systems.

There is some truth to the charge. We, as a movement, tend to overload people with threats and alarms, and some of us neglect Ed Abbey’s advice to "be as I am–a reluctant enthusiast . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure."

But dour as environmentalists may sometimes be, the real doom-and-gloomers, the pessimists who can’t take "yes" for an answer, are sitting in the White House.

Consider how, over the past 30 years, America’s armed services have become better environmental stewards. In Hawaii, some of the finest work to protect endangered species on federal lands is being done by the military. At Fort Stewart, Georgia, a thriving population of red-cockaded woodpeckers–5 percent of the world’s total–coexists happily with the 3rd Infantry Division. "The same landscape that supports our training needs also supports the ecosystem," says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Case. "These seemingly opposing activities are inherently compatible."

Complying with environmental laws, the military pioneered cleaning aircraft by blasting them with plastic pellets instead of toxic solvents. And the Defense Department (with a little prodding from the Sierra Club) learned how to destroy chemical weapons without burning them in dangerous incinerators.

How do the White House and Pentagon celebrate this progress? By seeking, this March, blanket waivers for the military from the nation’s landmark environmental regulations, claiming that they compromise readiness. The EPA administrator at the time, Christie Whitman, told Congress that she didn’t know of any cases where they had, and the armed forces have never even asked for the temporary waivers they’re already allowed under existing regulations. Even so, Donald Rumsfeld demanded that Congress create a permanent legislative exemption from all major environmental laws for his Defense Department. A Pentagon "factsheet" argued that having to train in landscapes like Fort Stewart, dotted with environmentally and historically sensitive sites, reduced "training realism." Only a few weeks later, the Army was in a real war in which it had to fight around enough mosques, oil wells, and other sensitive sites to make Fort Stewart look like a free-fire zone.

The Defense Department is also making an about-face on the issue of chemical-weapons disposal. In recent years the department has safely destroyed its own chemical-weapons stock using water and microbes–and continues to do so in Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, and Kentucky. The Pentagon, however, refuses to apply these methods to facilities in Alabama, Arkansas, and Oregon, and actually proposes to restart its weapons incinerator in Utah, even though it was shut down for repeated releases of chemical-warfare agents.

Why this abrupt retreat? It could be that Rumsfeld simply sees an opportunity, with U.S. forces in the field, to make life simpler for the military. But it also fits in with this administration’s broad assault on environmental regulations. If the work of the military can be judged important enough to elevate it above environmental standards, why not other federal agencies, or even private corporations? The idea is already being bandied about in right-wing venues. Referring to the Endangered Species Act, David Horowitz’s neoconservative FrontPage magazine editorialized, "Why should this siege against science and good sense be lifted only when and where it impacts the military? The armed forces could burnish their credentials as freedom’s defenders if they fought this battle on a broader front."

Many other parts of the Bush administration are adapting the Pentagon’s "Can’t do!" spirit. Even as Japanese and German automakers introduce safer SUVs that burn much less gasoline, the Department of Transportation thinks the U.S. auto industry can only manage a pathetic 1.5-mile-per-gallon improvement in fuel economy. New technology enables coal-fired power plants to virtually eliminate mercury emissions, yet the EPA proposes to allow mercury releases 88 percent higher than the current level. And although last September the EPA’s Whitman praised the "scientists, government, and industry [who] have cooperated to create commercially viable alternatives to ozone-depleting chemicals," come January her agency was granting exemptions from the phaseout of the highly toxic ozone-depleter methyl bromide for uses as trivial as maintaining golf courses.

What’s going on here? The administration desperately wants to convince the American people that clear, uniform, and enforceable environmental standards are expensive, bureaucratic, and ineffective. But experience shows this isn’t true. The Army can protect endangered species and prevent toxic releases; power plants can stop poisoning us with mercury; golf courses can be reasonably green without destroying the ozone layer. We can do all these things–if only the "Can’t do" crowd in Washington will let us.

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

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