Another election and nothing to wear
All Tomorrow’s Parties
by Rikki Hall
It’s an even-year October, so my principles must be drying up and fluttering to the ground. Like a leaf, I might get a little red in the face before I lose my grip, but I have to let go of the idea that either major political party is looking out for me. I’m worm food.
Neither party wants to address climate change, pollution or biodiversity. Neither wants to steer our economy away from exploitation of natural resources and toward sustainability. I’ve heard candidates pledge concern for clean air and water, but their promises are empty. They never follow up with any substance.
They won’t discuss taxing pollution because taxes are bad, mmmkay? You won’t hear any witnessing from faithful politicians about chronic underfunding of agencies charged with managing natural resources. Candidates don’t talk about widespread, low-level pollution exacerbating our health-care crisis by incrementing respiratory and developmental diseases and adding a burden to everyone’s immune system. They say they want to protect the environment, but they never talk about how to really do that.
I’m not sure whose empty promises mean less. The most significant environmental laws on our books were passed in the early 1970s under Richard Nixon, but subsequent Republican administrations have done little but erode those laws and starve the agencies created to enforce them.
Even when Al Gore was vice president, environmental protection was an inconvenience for Democrats. Clinton was heavily lobbied to create a national park in the Great Plains, a refuge for native prairie grasses and the ecosystems founded upon them, but he created national monuments in a few desert areas instead, protecting archaeological treasures more than ecological resources. He also got the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed, creating an extra-national court in which Mexican or Canadian corporations can challenge our environmental laws.
Finding a true champion for a healthy environment among empty campaign promises is a challenge. Both parties pledge concern. Both offer tokens. Bush has tightened air pollution standards, but his interpretation of water laws threatens to destroy the modest gains in stewardship we have achieved in recent decades. We face a world where well water must be treated, catfish thrown back, and dinner purchased in tangles of bag, napkin and wrapper rather than seared on a rock beside a fire. It’s not a good trade.
One party offers empty reverence, the other reverent emptiness. What can be done and what is being done drift ever farther apart on open seas of indifference while the actual seas are sickened, acidified and over-fished. We are chumps played by the Democrats and Republicans alike. They can barely tell themselves apart anymore, such fun they have tormenting us.
The occasional burps of sanity from the putrid stew of environmental politics happen by accident. Bush is willing to restrict sulfur emissions because the technology is mature and affordable, the problem widespread. By an accident of geology, restricting arsenic from water is more problematic. Arsenic restrictions hit New Mexico particularly hard because it is more abundant there, as are copper mines, a leading industrial source of arsenic. Bush just barely won New Mexico in 2000. Could you really expect the guy to throw New Mexico’s electoral votes down the drain in 2004 just to make random American kids who won’t be voting for years less likely to get sick or herons that don’t vote at all less likely to die?
Lamar Alexander has turned into one of the better clean air advocates in the Senate. Robert Kennedy, Jr., a veritable environmental crusader, opposes a wind farm off the shore of Cape Cod. Both arrive at their positions by accident. Kennedy’s family accidentally owns land from which the distant wind turbines would be sometimes visible, so he opposes the Cape Wind project. Alexander accidentally owns land adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is especially vulnerable to acid rain and haze.
In both cases, principles fluttered adrift in service of private wealth, like a maple leaf might spin and float 30 yards from its tree or get stormblown a quarter-mile off. You can’t predict who might manifest environmental sanity or insanity based on their proclaimed principles or party affiliation. Environmental promises are empty all around and subject to change without notice.
Perhaps wanting a major-party political challenger to champion environmental and public health over short-term profit is asking for too much. Campaign cupboards get bare when environmental rhetoric starts to sound sincere. But where are the officeholders willing to take a principled stand once they are elected? A politician might risk losing corporate campaign contributions if he or she fights for sound environmental policy. We ask far more of our soldiers. Why do we expect so little of our representatives?
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.