June 24, 2008

Environmental Movement Must Become More Confrontational?

By Charles Kochakian

NEARING 40 years of age, the environmental movement is spinning its wheels, awash in good proposals it can't get passed. It's focused on litigation and playing within the system instead of moving courageously to build broad, potent alliances that might have the breadth and moxie to save a dangerously imperiled planet. The allegation isn't mine; it comes from James Gustave "Gus" Speth, the epitome of mainstream environmentalism: chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, and dean of environmental studies at Yale University.

Mainstream environmentalism, Speth notes, has had successes.

Building on the landmark statutes of the early 1970s, air quality has improved, water is cleaner and dangerous toxic emissions have been curbed.

But a nation fully protected? Hardly. Check the record, suggests Speth in his new book, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World" (Yale University Press). A third of rivers and half our lakes are too polluted to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's basic standard.

Thirty-seven percent of estuaries are in "poor" condition. Beach closings have reached all-time highs. Two-thirds of Americans live in counties that register pollution levels over EPA's fairly basic standard.

Wilderness areas have been set aside. But since 1982, Americans have also paved or built on 35 million once-rural acres, the size of New York state. Since the 1970s, the miles of paved roads are up 53 percent, vehicle miles traveled up 177 percent.

And check the world scene, affected so hugely by U.S. consumption and policies. Development and agriculture have destroyed half the world's tropical and temperate forests, triggering landslides, flooding and soil depletion. Species are disappearing at about 1,000 times the normal rate, threatening the biodiversity that may be critical to mankind's survival.

Twenty percent of coral reefs are gone, many threatened. Soil erosion, salinization, devegetation and eventual desertification are proceeding at alarming rates. Freshwater supplies are increasingly threatened. Mercury, lead and arsenic are among the hundreds of millions of tons of yearly hazardous waste emissions. At current levels of economic expansion, according to the Global Footprint Network, human demand on nature will be twice the biosphere's capacity, threatening "large-scale ecosystem collapse" by midcentury.

Then there's climate change, the hugest challenge, directly triggered by the burning of fossil fuels. It's affecting polar ice caps, melting glaciers, bringing about both heavy storms and severe droughts, imperiling shorelines. It's also the culprit in the loss of tens of millions of acres of forest in the American West as warming permits bark beetles to move northward, attacking pine, fir and spruce.

Who's to blame? Mostly, argues Speth, wealthy, industrial countries "and especially ... the United States, the principal foot dragger" in the push for global restraints.

Why? It's basic capitalism, says Speck. To survive, corporations must produce profits, which means they need to keep introducing new products or strategies for fear of being outstripped by competitors. So, they keep expanding across the globe: Today, there are 63,000 multinational firms with 91 million employees.

Because of the way they are constituted, corporations are obliged to retain profits for shareholders and executives. Conversely, to hold down costs, they throw off to others their environmental and social affects. So, a mining company naturally tries to send polluting chemicals downstream, a utility to burn coal and let someone else worry about global warming, or a big box merchandiser to get state governments to cover its employee health costs.

Plus, with their money and armies of lobbyists, corporations can fight environmental regulations or help install government officials who will be friendly. Worldwide, Speth reports, businesses get $850 billion of public subsidies yearly for agriculture, energy, transportation and more -- about 2.5 percent of the global economy.

The pillar of modern capitalism? It's consumerism, the selfish urge for "more-more-more." So, since 1972, the average size of homes has increased 50 percent, electricity consumption per person is up 70 percent, municipal wastes per person 33 percent.

McMansions, SUVs, gadgets beyond count -- we love to consume. Result: Corporations profit and the demand on global resources soars.

The environmental movement, Speth suggests, hasn't wanted to offend consumers by suggesting lifestyle choices. It's often held back fire on corporations, hoping they'll voluntarily turn "greener." But it will have to risk more confrontation, openly advocate less consumptive lifestyles, and mobilize youths, unions, alarmed citizens around the world in its causes. Because "right now, we're headed toward a ruined planet."

Neal Peirce writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington 20071. E-mail: [email protected]

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