We're All Environmentalists Now. Right?

With mounting evidence of global warming, and with a majority of voting Americans in favor of environmental protection, the state of the earth's biosphere ought to be a major issue -- perhaps the major issue -- of the 2000 presidential campaign. Yet, thus far, it is not. Atlantic Unbound has invited four experts on the environment and environmental politics -- Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly; Mary A. Gade, an adviser to George W. Bush; and Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature -- to tell us what they think our environmental priorities should be at this time in history, and, equally important, what can and should be done politically to make real progress toward those ends. We invite our readers to join them in an interactive roundtable discussion, hosted by The Atlantic's Jack Beatty.

New! Go to Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000

Jack Beatty
Introduction -- September 13, 2000

If industrial growth proceeds according to its accepted pattern, everyone is imperiled. Yet, if industrialization is not allowed to proceed, a majority of the world's citizens are consigned to a permanent second-class status, deprived of industrial artifacts that enhance life's comforts, the tools that multiply human choices. --William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (1997)
The environment has not emerged as a major issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. But it should. Both candidates have addressed the Social Security funding crisis looming over the next thirty years. Surely, however, Americans in 2100 will judge us more by our stewardship of the earth's environment than by our management of our retirement accounts. In the new century, global warming may be the equivalent of the Cold War -- the enveloping context and challenge of history.

Our panelists in this roundtable will no doubt improve on these impressions, but I get the sense, as a civilian observer, that you have to employ both hands to gauge the environmental prospect in 2000.

On the one hand, Boston Harbor is basically swimmable, to use a parochial symbol of what I take to be general improvement in America's air, land, and water since the 1970s. Automakers are producing cars with hybrid engines; Gregg Easterbrook -- one of our panelists and the author of "Green Surprise?" in the September Atlantic Monthly -- tested one in Los Angeles recently, and, as he writes in a forthcoming Atlantic article, found it impressively peppy. In conferences in Montreal, Rio, and Kyoto the rich and poor nations of the world have embraced the principle of taking common action against inescapably common environmental dangers. The post-industrial economy to which First World countries are rapidly transitioning is easier by far on the environment than the industrial economy of the past two centuries has been. The list could be extended, but perhaps it is well to end on the most encouraging fact of all: we are all environmentalists now. By substantial majorities, Americans even say that they would accept the loss of jobs and the failure of businesses, if that were the price of a cleaner environment.

On the other hand, the "dark satanic mills" have not disappeared -- they have merely migrated to the poorer countries. People there want a better life; working in the meanest mill, under the worst environmental and health conditions, is a step up for many. Carbon dioxide-producing industries promise them jobs. Western-style consumption promises them happiness. China now has 680 people per automobile compared to 1.7 people per car in his country. The environmental consequences of China's catching up are frightening to contemplate (see Mark Hertsgaard's Atlantic article, "Our Real China Problem," from November, 1997). Isn't there a politician (and presidential candidate) who once called the internal-combustion engine a threat to civilization?

In the discussion to follow, we will certainly get into current politics, but first, let's consider for a moment the big picture very roughly sketched in above. Suspend politics, with its tight borders around the possible, and look beyond the 2000 election. What should our environmental priorities be, given your informed sense of the dangers and possibilities, and why? Give us your maximal visions, as if you had to answer to Americans of 2100. Some of you may want to comment on the above quotation from William Greider, which in two sentences encapsulates the dilemma of development in the context of global climate change.

Then, with your ideal visions as our benchmarks, let's return to the presidential race and ask these questions. Do the environmental positions of Bush and Gore address the problems you've discussed? And what are their environmental priorities likely to be once in office?

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

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

Jack BeattyJack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). His new book, Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, will be published in March.

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