Roundtable
We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Gregg Easterbrook
Round Three: Concluding Remarks - September 20, 2000

With the presidential season already seeming tedious, at some point people may begin to wonder why the environment hasn't become much of an issue in the campaign. Sure, Vice President Gore has condemned George W. Bush for the high level of toxic air emissions in Texas. (This charge is true but deceptive: since Texas has 60 percent of the nation's petrochemical industry, its toxic

From Post & Riposte:

"Let's send some Green Party representatives to Congress. Al Gore's heart is in the right place, but if elected President, he will be under tremendous pressure from people whose economic interests, at least short term, which seems to be the American way, are opposed to the environmental movement. If Bush is elected, environmentalists will really have to get serious. Instead of running a Presidential candidate, the Green Party should target likely district races for the House of Representatives. A few Green Party House members would have real clout when there is a close vote."
--Edmond Bliven - 05:49pm EST, Sep 15, 2000.

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emissions would be expected to be high; and not mentioned is that total toxic emissions are declining in Texas at the same rate as in the country as a whole.) And sure, Bush held an outdoor press event, walking through a rustic scene in a windbreaker and condemning the Clinton-Gore Administration for allowing problems in the national parks. (This is also true but deceptive: problems within the Park Service are mainly a phenomenon of skyrocketing use numbers brought on by prosperity and waves of SUVs, and the solution lies either in higher entrance fees, which Bush did not endorse, or in extra funds that Congress has declined to appropriate.)

But the environment hasn't become a contested issue in the campaign. It was hardly mentioned at either party's convention. Not even the proposed Kyoto anti-global-warming treaty, which a year ago seemed like it would become a campaign lightning-rod, is generating much comment. There seem to be no fundamental disagreements on ecological policy between Bush and Gore.

Why is this? Partly it's election tactics. Gore already has the environment sewn up as an issue among the faithful. Bush can't gain ground here; his best outcome is to avoid losing voters by sounding like an antediluvian. Arguably the worst single blunder of the brief Gingrich takeover of 1994 was the Republican Party's going anti-environmental. The small slice of western-state voters who form the nation's only constituency for anti-environmentalism were already Republicans anyway, while millions of moderates and swing voters were turned off by the snapping, snarling claims by Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and a few others that they would repeal ecological-protection laws and shut down the EPA. There's no support for this -- which voting blocs, exactly, favor unclean water? -- and Republican pollsters, finding no support for anti-environmentalism, have warned Bush to steer clear of anything that sounds like it.

So from Gore's perspective, in the political calculus there isn't much reason to sound environmental themes: he already has this issue to himself, while even those who agree with him have grown weary of Gore's lecturing tone whenever the environment is mentioned. And from Bush's perspective, why say anything to remind voters of the Gingrich attempt to turn back the clock? Better to say respectable things on those environmental issues where there is unanimous agreement (everyone wants the national parks preserved) and try to make electoral hay elsewhere.

What the above two paragraphs describe is conventional pundit wisdom, and obviously, this conventional wisdom contains grains of truth. But I think the candidates should be arguing about the environment. Here's why.

First, I don't see why issues can't be contentious just because the political calculus advises caution. Both candidates are hurling around Social Security proposals, even though Social Security is supposedly an issue where interest groups will howl no matter what is said. Surely if we can debate a total overhaul of a system that a fifth of the population depends on for its daily bread, we can talk a little about fuel-economy standards and cost-benefit analysis under the Clean Air Act.

More importantly, there are fundamental environmental areas where large policy questions present themselves. What should we do about greenhouse gases? The science is now strong enough to require some response. How can we bring environmental regulations into the twenty-first century? Most EPA rules are effective but way too cumbersome; drafted in the early 1970s, they are based on knowledge and assumptions now three decades out of date, in a field where there have since been all kinds of developments in science, economics, and the market.

And when will we have a thoughtful national debate pitting environmental optimism against doomsday theory? Today conventional wisdom assumes that a person must either choose the doomsday side -- wringing hands about everything, feeling guilty for existing -- or deny that environmental problems are out there. The median analysis says that environmental problems are indeed real and worrisome, but are being solved at an impressive clip in every nation that is applying itself to the task, and can in principle be solved worldwide with sufficient effort.

Modern environmental thinking assumes that people-caused ecological problems happen with unprecedented speed, but natural recoveries can occur only with geological slowness, leaving us doomed. But everything we've learned in the past three decades says otherwise -- that nature has been conditioned by natural selection to recover with blinding speed (think of the Mt. Saint Helen's region, "destroyed forever" in 1980 and now close to being back to normal). This means that when people take steps to reverse environmental harm, the steps not only work but do so promptly. We don't have to dream that our descendants will see the cleanup of Los Angeles smog or the Potomac River or the recovery of the Appalachians or a thousand other improvements. We see such benefits within our lifetimes, right outside our doors.

This creates an argument for environmental optimism -- affordable, successful cleanup is among the greatest things America has accomplished in the past thirty years, and that accomplishment can be spread to the world as a whole. I wish subjects like this were being argued out in the campaign, rather than the two candidates continuing to obsess over hypothetical budget projections for 2015 and statistics on infantry-division mobilization status.

New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round Two -- September 15, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round One -- September 13, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

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What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Gregg EasterbrookGregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic and Beliefnet.com and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His books include A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1995) and Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt (1998).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.