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Tag: "environment"

DuPont and Teflon, Revisited

[ 17 ] August 31, 2015 |


A few weeks ago, I linked to a good in-depth discussion of how DuPont had poisoned the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia through the production of C8, the chemical making up the key component of Teflon. The Huffington Post now has a very long and in-depth piece on the same subject, which you should also read. I won’t go over the details again except to say that DuPont, like basically all chemical corporations, treat the environment, workers, and the surrounding communities with a complete lack of basic respect in its quest to maximize profit. But two points to pull out. First:

By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.

This is a really key issue. Like fracking and so many other technological developments of industrial life, we have given corporations carte blanche to create profitable markets in chemicals without meaningful testing, and especially without meaningful public testing that would give people a right to know what chemicals are in their air, water, food, and workplaces. Only if disasters strike of the thalidomide level does real accountability to corporations ever take place. Meanwhile, more chemicals can be created, dumped, and forgotten about, all at continuing profit. Even here, with overwhelming evidence of how DuPont created birth defects, massive wildlife and livestock dieoffs, cancers in workers and local residents, etc., the company still have not faced real accountability. Instead it is using every known tactic of corporations to delay compensation and try to offload legal liability. This gets us to the second point.

Meanwhile, this past July, DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages or, at the very least, stall any resulting payouts. “I’m sure part of their theory is the longer they delay, the more people will die,” said Deitzler, the Parkersburg-based lawyer. “It’s already worked. Before we could even file cases, many of the people who’ve been affected passed on.”

Creating new companies that are underfunded in order to deal with liabilities is an old corporate trick. Dollars to donuts Chemours declares bankruptcy in the next decade that allows DuPont to escape from any meaningful compensation at all.

Meanwhile, DuPoint has moved on from C8. But to what?

Under the current regulatory system, DuPont is not required to ensure that these chemicals are free of the qualities that made C8 so toxic. While relatively little is known about these substances, most of them have very similar structures and properties to C8, and the limited information that is available reveals troubling effects. Also, while some of the replacement chemicals break down faster than C8 does, they need to be used in larger quantities to achieve the same results, a fact that has caused alarm in the scientific community. This May, 200 scientists—chemists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists among them—signed a statement urging governments to restrict the use of these chemicals because of the “risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”

Until that happens, these substances will continue to spread, unchecked. Not long ago, the Little Hocking water district commissioned a study to see whether any of the C8 replacements were contaminating the town’s aquifer. Researchers tested worms unearthed from Little Hocking’s well field, a scraggly meadow overlooking the vast expanse of storage tanks and smokestacks at the Washington Works plant. They found a number of C8’s chemical cousins, including C5, C6, C7, C9 and C10. Once again, local residents may have been unwittingly exposed to toxins whose ultimate effect on human health is unknown.

The weak regulatory system combines with the nation’s profit-first ideology and corporate malfeasance to ensure that nothing will change here. Maybe one of these chemicals will, 20 years from now, be found to also kill people. If the system is similar to today, another decade will pass before any kind of compensation is required and then DuPont will continue to find more ways out and local people will suffer.


Suing the EPA over the Gulf Dead Zone

[ 6 ] August 21, 2015 |


Good on the Gulf Restoration Network for suing the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing its job to regulate the fertilizers and other chemicals that have created the huge biological dead zone where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone knows this is a major problem but the power of agribusiness provides a lot of incentive for the government to not crack down. This is much like how greens had to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not protecting northern spotted owl habitat under the Endangered Species Act because the agency was operating as a tool of the timber industry. If the government isn’t actually going to protect the environment, lawsuits have proven a good way for environmentalists to make change. It’s not quite as clear of a case here as it was with the spotted owl, but it’s probably the only way to actually get the government to take the problem seriously.

It’s not an easy problem for sure. But while I really respect Obama’s executive orders on coal and climate change as a good start, it would be nice if he took these agricultural issues a bit more seriously than he has through his entire administration.

The Animas Mine Waste Spill

[ 27 ] August 10, 2015 |


Colorado’s Animas River suffered a pollution episode late last week, when an EPA effort to deal with mine waste backed up behind an underground dam actually breached it instead, leading to an acid spill into a tributary of this beautiful river. The EPA screwed up here, but they are not the real problem, as Jonathan Thompson points out. Rather, the Colorado mountains have thousands of underground mines that leach heavy metals and acids and it’s very difficult for the government to create a comprehensive response to that. Sometimes some old wood timbers will fall down and create an underground dam. Eventually, the water pressure will blow away those timbers and spills will result. However, today’s mining companies and owners of some of these properties are fighting against having them declared a Superfund site, thus bringing the government to bear as strongly as possible. While that would hurt property values–and there’s little people in the Colorado mountains care about more than property values–doing so is the best move in the long run.

Let me recommend the excellent 2004 book by Gillian Klucas on Leadville
to get at these issues in a more in depth perspective.

This Day in Labor History: August 7, 1978

[ 14 ] August 7, 2015 |

On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, New York, in response to the discovery of massive amounts of toxins underneath a school and near a housing development for the working class who lived in the city of Niagara Falls, near Buffalo. This event was a key moment in the American working class standing up to the environmental depredations of American industry and eventually led to the creation of Superfund, the last major environmental legislation passed to address the popularly-based environmentalism of protecting people from pollution that played a major role in American politics during the 1970s.

William T. Love wanted to build a small canal intended to connect the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers around 1900 to generate power for the community he hoped would grow there. It failed and by 1910, the partially built canal was abandoned. Industry began turning it into a waste dump. Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land in 1942 and continued using it for toxic waste. In 1953, Hooker capped the land and looked to sell it. By this time, there was 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals in the canal, including at least 12 carcinogens. The company buried the waste in barrels 20-25 feet deep and capped it with dirt, allowing grass to quickly cover it up. Hooker sold it to the school board of Niagara Falls to build the public school for a growing suburban neighborhood near the canal site. It included a caveat in the contract about what was buried there and felt itself absolved from legal liability.

This was the period of the postwar housing boom in the United States. And while the New Deal state had already led to enormous positive changes for the now upwardly mobile white working class, guaranteeing them good union contacts if they wanted them, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and then a variety of new benefits after World War II like federally insured home loans through the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill (so long as you were white and building in the suburbs), little progress had been made to protect the working class from the environmental impact of industrialization. At Love Canal, housing developments for working class people–both some public housing and single-family housing–began filling some of that housing need.



Most of the early conservation movement was predicated on efficient resource use. The New Deal did take working people into account in its planning, but primarily on the farms with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other responses to the Dust Bowl. The giant dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority also sought to improve working people’s lives through large-scale regional planning, but pollution issues were an afterthought here as well. During the 1950s, the proto-environmental movement worked on pressing for more conservation of natural resources and more public planning, while building support for new national parks and trying to bring some limits onto the dam building mania that would eventually lead to the damming of Glen Canyon and the near damming of Dinosaur National Monument. Organized labor was involved in all of this, much more so than is usually acknowledged, a project I am presently researching for a future book. The CIO had a full time staffer working specifically on conservation issues through the 1955 merger with the AFL and the UAW had a full-time atomic energy staffer. But pollution, that just wasn’t really on the radar in the 1950s. In fact, as the nation geared up for the Cold War, pollution was often seen as a problem, at least in the post-Donora Fog period, but an acceptable sacrifice for preparedness and economic growth.

What this all meant is that new housing developments and public schools could be built upon toxic waste dumps and no one would bat an eye. But by the 1970s, the American working class, building on a foundation laid by the growing environmental movement, began demanding accountability from corporations over the sacrifices they suffered. Some of that was in famous cases like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 or the Santa Barbara oil spill of the same year. In the latter case, oil workers’ unions were deeply involved in demanding the companies be held accountable for pollution. The growing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between pollution and personal health by the late 1960s helped fuel this as well. The Black Lung Associations within the United Mine Workers of America was a rejection of horrific union leadership as well as the impact of coal on their bodies. Everyday people, union members or not, began trying to understand the science behind the chemicals transforming the world and how they impacted their own bodies, such as in the anti-pesticide movement. This popular epidemiology would play a major role in Love Canal, especially as residents began to notice the horrible cancers, birth defects and other diseases that affected them, especially their children. No one really knew what was happening until heavy rains led to erosion that began uncovering the barrels of toxic waste in 1976.

Lois Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal residents. Her son suffered from a variety of healthy problems. After reporters began reporting on what was in the barrels in 1976 and the New York State Health Department declared the site an emergency on August 2, 1978, leading to Carter’s decision a few days later. But what would happen to the residents? Gibbs took the lead here against a state not wanting to do much of anything. She continued investigating, discovering the canal itself was the site of the contamination. The growing investigations discovered dioxin among many other hazardous chemicals in the soil and drinking water of the housing. The government finally relocated 800 of the 900 families nearby and compensated them for their homes. Some still remain on the site today, or at least were there during my visit to what is a very spooky place two years ago.


Lois Gibbs

Carter then responded by pushing for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Popularly known as Superfund, this law mandated the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, creating a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government becoming ever more common in that decade. Organized labor strongly supported the creation of Superfund, both for the jobs it could create and for the protection of working people from industrial hazards. Ultimately, Superfund and the outrage Love Canal caused did help protect Americans from these hazards. Yet disparities in toxic exposure between rich and poor still exist today, and as these things go in America, they tend to fall on racial lines, with African-American and Latino communities exposed to toxicity at much higher rates than wealthier or whiter communities.

This is the 153rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Future Is Now in the Northwest

[ 38 ] August 2, 2015 |


Having started my annual summer trip to see family in the Pacific Northwest, it’s incredibly depressing to see what’s happening to the climate and thus the ecology of the place I grew up. Basically, this year has seen the California drought spread all the way up the Pacific coast into Alaska. Some of this is a lack of precipitation, but a lot of it is only slightly below average participation amounts backed with sky-high temperatures that meant no snow pack. Record heat throughout the region throughout the entirety of 2015 has stressed what little water supplies exist To add to this, with the arrival of El Niño, the winter rains should go a long way to solving the drought in southern California, but will devastate Washington and points north, with Oregon probably dryish but not terrible. All of this has combined in a single year to create what will likely be an unprecedented fire season except that it will probably be dwarfed by next year. The salmon are dying in huge numbers because water temperatures are 5-7 and even up to 13 degrees above average–a shockingly large number considering the lack of normal variation in water temperatures. This not only is an ecological disaster but an enormous cultural disasters with huge implications for regional identity, foodways, and Native American heritage.

Yes, some of this is a confluence of unique events. Drought happens. Unprecedented heat however does not happen, not when the world set its all-time heat record in 2014 and is on the way to breaking that again in 2015. This hasn’t received the attention it should in the U.S. because one of the only parts of the globe that has been colder than normal in 2015 is the northeast of the United States. But whether the Northwest is specifically fated to see vastly higher temperatures than other parts of the world or not, if this is the climate change future, it’s a grim one indeed. There will be cool years and the rain and snows will come again. But if this is the new norm for the Northwest more years than not, the cherished forests and streams and snows and rains of the region will be radically transformed in awful ways.

Republican Environmental Planning

[ 16 ] July 24, 2015 |

Neighborhood Flooded

The House just passed a bill that would eviscerates EPA coal ash regulations. Why are those regulations necessary? See here and here if you want to review what a coal ash spill can do and what the health effects of being near this stuff can be. You want coal ash heavily regulated.

A Republican president in 2017 would sign this into law. Given that the House is going to remain with the GOP and the Senate probably will, this is what Republican governance would look like. Coal ash pollution for all!

Basin and Range

[ 23 ] July 10, 2015 |


Good on Harry Reid to push so hard against the Cliven Bundys of his state and make his legacy protecting huge swaths of land from development. And good on his political skills for pushing it to the top of Obama’s land agenda, to the point where 700,000 acres will soon be named Basin and Range National Monument. And in these days of intensely partisan land conservation struggles, it is remarkable for its size and for the president’s willingness to go around the complex politics that most recent national monuments have undergone to slowly build some kind of local consensus around designation. That’s all about Harry Reid’s political career and his political acumen.

Obama did officially protect Basin and Range today, along with 300,000 acres at Berryessa Snow Mountain in California and the Waco mammoth site.

Book Review: Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism

[ 15 ] June 28, 2015 |


When teaching about postwar America, I always tell my students that just about anything that happened in this nation during the Cold War has its roots in Cold War politics or fed back into Cold War issues. Jacob Hamblin’s 2013 book Arming Mother Nature demonstrates how this is true for what he calls “catastrophic environmentalism,” or the idea that human activities will transform the world in shocking and horrible ways. Hamblin shows how this thinking comes straight out of the military-industrial complex that was researching how total war of the quite possible World War III would also be an environmental war. By using biological weapons and detonating hydrogen bombs, the death of millions of people could bring a nation to its knees. But in planning for these future wars, the military also needed to understand just how turning the environment into a catastrophe would affect humans. Thus the same scientists that were developing these weapons were also providing early ecological understanding of how humans impacted the planet. The apocalyptic language of people like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson makes a great deal of sense in this context, when much of our early environmentalism used Cold War language as a response to the threat of technological development to the planet. After all, those researching and promulgating Cold War doctrine used the exact same language to describe their own plans.

American scientists expected to arm nature in war against the USSR. World War II scientists had already explored this sort of warfare and the Japanese had gone forward with it. To briefly quote Hamblin “scientists in the decades after World War II worked on radiological contamination, biological weapons, weather control and several other projects that united scientific knowledge of the natural environment with the strategic goal of killing large numbers of people”(4). This could be everything from experiments with bull semen and seed storage to help Americans survive such an attack to destroying regional food supplies to starve nations into submission or launching disease bombs to spread deadly illness. In all of these plans, scientists wanted to deploy nature itself as a weapon.

But wouldn’t such warfare kill millions of Americans as well? Sure, but these scientists held two strong beliefs that made them optimistic about long-term recovery. First, they largely did not believe humans could really control nature in the long term. Thus, they might make short-term alternations that could win a war but in the long term nature held all the cards and the old natural balance would eventually be restored. Second, they believed Americans had a better capacity to rebuild their society than the Soviets because they felt the American free market economy would recover more quickly than socialist state planning. Pure ideology at play here.

The Soviets, North Koreans, and eastern Europeans did accuse the Americans of actually deploying these plans, such as the Czechs blaming the expansion of the Colorado potato bug across their nation on American biological warfare. But mercifully, actual deployment remained largely theoretical, even if Al Gore Sr. suggested dumping all of our nuclear waste on the border between North Korea and South Korea to stop any further communist incursions. But far too much of this program did become active in Vietnam where the U.S. engaged in significant environmental warfare through the use of napalm and other herbicides. Students at Penn discovered in 1966 that one of its chemistry professors was researching a government project to create diseases in rice that could be used in Vietnam. This not only led to campus protests in the country but a rethinking of ethical relationships between scientists and the government, leading to pressure for academic scientists to break ties with its military sponsors working on biological warfare.

Interestingly, the overwhelming public and international reaction to American environmental warfare led Richard Nixon to harness the growing popular movement of environmentalism to his own international agenda. Nixon decided to sacrifice the most far-fetched parts of the American environmental warfare program such as weather control and biological weapons through international treaties in order to save what mattered to him–the nuclear program. He tapped into not only the rhetoric of ecocide coming out of the anti-Vietnam movement but broader environmentalism to make him seem like a strong leader on the issue, but always within a Cold War context. First, he forced NATO to create a committee on environmental issues for collective security around the issue. Then he tried to make the U.S. the international leader on the environment, leading to the Stockholm conference of 1972 and the UN Environment Programme. Nixon had shed the U.S. of programs that now seemed more trouble than they were worth, made himself look like a global environmental leader, and ensured that the core mission of U.S. military research remain untouched. Smart politics if typically cynical.

My one critique of the book is that when discussing the rise of environmentalism, Hamblin does not really engage with how it was a truly a popular movement and how such catastrophic ideas affected the grassroots either before or after people like Barry Commoner, Carson, and Ehrlich wrote their famous books. Particularly frustrating is how he defines Nixon in this environmentalism, noting “many of the key pro-environment national developments came during his presidency, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.” (190) I have said many times on this blog, this says almost nothing about Nixon and much about the overwhelming congressional majorities responding to popular pressure that passed these bills. In the bigger picture of the book, this is pretty minor and I realize that Hamblin is not a bottom-up historian of the environmental movement, but I don’t see how reinforcing myths about Nixon the environmentalist is useful.

Finally, the question of whether catastrophic environmentalism is effective in dealing climate change remains a bit unclear. Hamblin does not come down strongly on this issue, but he’s a bit skeptical. He notes that the major problem with such claims is that they are fairly easily debunked and notes how Bjorn Lomberg has taken up that mantle on climate change. Yet it’s unclear to what extent Lomborg has really made much difference in these debates and I think far more effective is what Hamblin notes earlier–the embrace of free-market economics and use of patriotism to attack environmentalism as well as the belief that humans can’t really truly control the natural world that finds its way into right-wing talking points around the earth naturally warming or extinction or other parts of the “debate.” The end of the Cold War ended the threat of catastrophic warfare but not the language or culture that rose up around it, attitudes that still influence both environmentalism and those who oppose the environmental movement.

In truth, this complex and fascinating book has a lot more going on than I can say here. You should read it.

Climate Change and the Navajo Nation

[ 21 ] June 24, 2015 |


The sprawling Navajo Nation that covers northeast Arizona and parts of southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico is a huge chunk of land that is beautiful, unique, and fragile. This largely high desert area can certainly sustain life but it’s dryness means that climate change makes it highly prone to long-term changes that severely limit that ability to sustain life. There was a major report on the impact of climate change on Navajo lands prepared last year that certainly covers these issues in detail.

Yet we have to be careful about how we lump all environmental change in with climate change. This article talking about how sand dunes have made one-third of the Navajo Nation uninhabitable and blaming climate change is a case in point. There’s no question that climate change is making this problem worse. But at the end of the piece, someone mentions overgrazing. And in this case, that’s the real issue. Ever since the return of the Navajo from the Bosque Redondo to a piece of their native lands in 1868, enormous herds of sheep have roamed this fragile landscape, causing widespread erosion and most of the problems mentioned in this article. Part of this return meant the Navajo had to give up their raiding ways and although their reservation was large and became larger, was not nearly the extent of land where they had previously lived. This all meant more emphasis on the sheep economy. As early as the 1930s, the erosion was clearly visible on the land. This is when John Collier, as part of his Indian New Deal, intervened and forced the Navajo to cull their herds. This was a total disaster. While Collier was a welcome change from the usually corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs for most tribes and the Indian New Deal a step in the right direction, with the Navajo, Collier had no idea what he was doing. As Marsha Weisiger details in her excellent book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, Collier’s methods in dealing with the erosion problem undermined women’s status in Navajo society, increased class divisions by favoring wealthy herders, and probably most significantly, created long-term suspicion of conservation methods as anti-Dine in Navajo society. So sheep herding grew again and continued almost unabated.

That’s what is primarily creating this desertification on the Navajo Nation. I don’t doubt that climate change is a factor. But this is largely a socioeconomic/colonialist creation.

Another Out of Sight Excerpt

[ 1 ] June 17, 2015 |


Truthout has published an excerpt of Out of Sight, on toxicity and environmental justice.

The potential for a strong labor-green coalition to fight for healthy workplaces and ecosystems clean enough for people to enjoy in their free time was a threat to corporations. Companies responded to environmentalism’s rise by taking advantage of a road the American government had already opened to them—moving their operations away from the people with the power to complain about pollution. They did this in two ways. Some industries scoured the nation, seeking the poorest communities to place the most toxic industries. They assumed those communities, usually dominated by people of color, would not or could not complain. The companies would work with corrupt local politicians to push through highly polluting projects before citizens knew what was entering their communities. Other industries went overseas, seeking to repeat their polluting ways in nations that lacked the ability or desire to enforce environmental legislation. Capital mobility moved toxicity from the middle class to the world’s poor.

In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a company that specialized in handling toxic waste, chose the community of Emelle, in Sumter County, Alabama, as the site of its new toxic waste dump. Corporations contracted with Chem Waste to handle their toxic waste. Sumter County was over two-thirds African American and over one-third of the county’s residents lived in poverty, but whites made up the county political elite approving the decision. In Emelle, more than 90 percent of the residents were black. This is why Chem Waste chose Emelle. They worked with a local company led by the son-in-law of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace to acquire the site. No one told local residents what was to be built there. Local rumors suggested a brickmaking facility. The company dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic materials at the site. Despite claiming it was safe, the company racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Such activities were common for Chem Waste. It always chose communities like this to site its dumps—Port Arthur, Texas, in a neighborhood that was 80 percent people of color; Chicago’s South Side in a neighborhood 79 percent people of color; and Saguet, Illinois, a 95 percent African American area.

The racist actions of companies like Chemical Waste Management led to the environmental justice movement. By fighting for the environments where we live, work, and play, environmental justice has redefined environmentalism and connected capital mobility with environmentalism by focusing on how corporations make decisions about where to locate toxic exposure. Through the environmental justice movement, people of color began adapting the language of environmentalism to their struggles with toxicity and pollution. Scholars usually date the movement to an incident in 1982 when the state of North Carolina wanted to dump six thousand truckloads of toxic soil contaminated with PCBs in a predominantly African American section of Warren County. More than five hundred protesters were arrested. Civil rights leaders and community members began tying racism to environmentalism, noting how the Environmental Protection Agency in the Southeast had targeted African American communities for toxic waste dumping. A new social movement was born. Alabamians for a Clean Environment formed to fight the Emelle toxic waste site.

Chemical Waste Management had built a toxic waste dump in Kettleman City, California, a 95 percent Latino town in a white majority county. When the company planned to add a toxic waste incinerator, residents fought back, forcing Chem Waste to withdraw its application in 1993. Residents and the company still battle over environmental justice there today. African Americans in Anniston, Alabama, won a lawsuit against the chemical company Monsanto, which paid $390 million in 2003 for contaminating their neighborhood with PCBs, while residents of Norco, Louisiana, defeated Shell Oil in court, forcing it to pay for them to move away from the neighborhood the oil giant contaminated.

Oil and Outrage

[ 2 ] June 3, 2015 |


I have a new piece up at Counterpunch on the Santa Barbara oil spills, 1969 and 2015:

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.

The Population Bomb

[ 162 ] June 2, 2015 |


The Times has a discussion of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, setting it up as so many do today–as being fundamentally wrong and tainting environmentalism as a whole with that wrongness. That’s pretty unfair. On some level of course, Ehrlich wasn’t correct in that he underestimated the technological ability to grow more crops and how higher consumption rates would lead to declining birth rates. But on the fundamental level–that the world is vastly overproducing in proportion to what the planet can handle–was not incorrect. It may be that consumption is the real threat the world faces as opposed to overpopulation. There is an upper limit of the world’s carrying capacity of humans, but the significantly greater threat in the short term is that overconsumption will lead to catastrophic climate change, as we are already seeing. It’s this latter issue why attacks on Ehrlich are problematic–because it assumes that apocalyptic environmental thinking is inherently wrong. Meanwhile, those who are seen as opposing Ehrlich’s line of thinking are portrayed as not only correct, but generally better people. But Stewart Brand, who made an entire career on optimistic environmental thinking, is horribly wrong about extinction in ways that are at least as damaging to the world as anything Ehrlich has written. Meanwhile, Green Revolution scientist Norman Bourlag was perfectly fine with the mass extinction of all the world’s animals if it meant selling more DDT.

There’s no question that focusing on population as the world’s greatest environmental problem has given cover to racists and rich world consumers blaming poor people instead of examining their own culpability. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need jeremiads about the state of the planet. With the realities of climate change just beginning to hit us, we need all the jeremiads we can get.

And as for the idea that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything, I hear this talked about as received wisdom all the time, but have never seen a single piece of empirical evidence supporting the claim.

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