THE GOOD FIGHT
During a stretch of years in the late 1960s and 1970s, the young environmental movement, rippling with exuberant grassroots power and loaded with powerful arguments, pushed through bedrock federal laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Act amendments, the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Automobile Fuel Efficiency and 'Conservation Act. The sensitivities and perceptions of millions of Americans toward their environment shifted to demanding action. Reflecting on these accomplishments inspires pride but also disappointment. Our society is still coasting on those advances and, with some exceptions, now has a twenty-five-year record of failure.
Considering what we knew then about energy production, air and water contamination, and dwindling forests, how is it that so many solutions remain unused? In so many cases, we are failing to advance -- turning the Texas-Mexico border into a toxic sewer in the name of trade, wantonly allowing our national forests to be cut, allowing fuel efficiency improvements to stall, destroying precious habitat, letting people drink contaminated water and breathe polluted air. Today, even more than in the 1970s, we know what our environment needs and we know how to meet those needs. We know how to provide cleaner, more efficient energy, how to clean the air and water, how to protect crucial habitat that allows us to survive.
But we can't seem to get from A to B. There are more environmental groups producing first-rate research and plans than one could ever have imagined thirty years ago. Some of these groups are spectacularly well funded. They have reams of data supporting their positions. Yet careful' consideration of the environmental state of our nation would indicate only diminishing returns to environmental advocacy. Take a look around.
Razing the Landscape
For many residents of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, "Home on the Range" is now a nightmare. Life there through harsh winters and sometimes drought- plagued summers was never for the faint of heart, but it was a quintessentially American frontier life with a pervasive sense of freedom. Now, in more andĚ more areas, the landscape reverberates around the clock with the screaming of gas compressors and the rumbling of water pumps. Dust rises behind heavy truck traffic barreling down the new dirt roads that crisscross the land. Salt contamination, left by evaporating water pumped from deep underground, spreads across the soil. Coal-bed methane companies seeking a fast buck are smothering the freedom right out of the range.
Only in the past two decades has a scattershot technique been adopted for relieving coal seams of the methane gas they hold. Shallow, clustered wells can be cheaply drilled into coal deposits where groundwater traps methane in the porous coal. Pumping the water to the surface releases the gas for surface capture. Most of the land in the Powder River Basin is privately owned only on its surface; subsurface mineral rights belong to the federal government, which leases them to gas companies. According to the New York Times, "most of the basin's 4,000 ranch families will have no choice but to put up with strangers on their land for the next ten to fifteen years. Except for nominal access fees, most ranchers will get little financial benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars in gas revenue generated beneath their land." More than 50,000 gas wells are planned for this one area alone, not to mention the coal-bed methane fields in Colorado, New Mexico, and Alabama.
Despite a federal court ruling that water pumped from coal-bed methane wells is "industrial waste" under the Clean Water Act, and therefore subject to regulation, the New York Times reports that "coal-bed methane extraction is continuing to hurtle forward across much of the West, thanks to policies put in place by the Clinton administration and accelerated under President Bush."
This isn't surprising; The Bush Department of the Interior sets a new standard for conflict of interest: Steven Griles, before he joined the Bush team as Deputy Secretary of Interior, worked as a lobbyist for several corporations now drilling through the backyards, pastures, and rangelands of Powder River Basin. A recent investigation by the department's own inspector general into Griles' continued association with his former corporate clients found "evidence of and the perception that the department's leadership did not take ethics seriously." This anemic finding is no consolation for rural people whose water wells are being contaminated and depleted, who watch the wrecking of an ecosystem that is an extension of themselves, and whose lives are increasingly shaped by the big corporate hand that grips Washington, D.C.
According to the federal government, proven coal-bed methane reserves account for around 9 percent of the country's total natural gas reserves. The Gulf of Mexico holds around 14 percent, to be tapped by many fewer, though more expensive, wells. But the mercantile mind, ever externalizing the costs -- long-term damage to ecosystems and rural community health -- sees only short-term profits achieved by politically sanctioned corporate violence. The claim is that we cannot have the energy we need without this violence. But any number of analyses of alternative energy solutions shows that even a modest implementation of proven conservation and renewable energy technologies would eliminate the need for coal-bed methane drilling.
Consider the 150 million refrigerators and freezers in the United States, as Dr. Arthur Rosenfeld, the renowned energy efficiency innovator, often does to illustrate the kind of spectacular potential there is for saving energy. In the first half of the 1970s, refrigerator size was steadily increasing, while the energy used by each unit increased at an even greater rate. Along came a series of California state standards mandating increased efficiency followed by several federal standards. As a result, despite a continuing increase in size and a steady decrease in price, increased refrigerator and freezer efficiency now save 200 billion kilowatt hours over 1974 efficiency levels every year. This energy savings from refrigerator efficiency alone roughly equals 36,000 coal-bed methane wells. Further examples abound.
Dr. Rosenfeld has another success story to relate: With the latest federal air conditioner efficiency standard in place in 2006, the annual energy use for cooling a new California home will be less than 33 percent of what it was in 1970. In their important book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins describe the inefficiencies of electric pumping systems, which use 12 percent of the world's electric power. A simple series of innovations involving smaller motors and the lowered resistance of larger diameter pipes made one such system 92 percent more efficient and less costly. Passive solar design is even less sophisticated. Simply orienting a building to absorb heat from the sun can save 10 percent to 20 percent of heating energy.
Executives in the energy extraction business may swagger about the latest gas play, but it's chicken feed compared to saving energy, which carries nearly three times the dollar benefits of extracted fossil fuels. Energy conservation -- better for the environment -- is also cheaper than destructive extraction.
Across the country to the East, violent extractive practices literally reshape the landscape. In West Virginia, they don't mince words: mountain-top removal is as plain a description as might be found, though it carries with it an air of undeserved surgical precision. Enormous earth-moving machines give mountain-top removal coal-mining astonishing destructive power. First, the forests are ripped out, then soil and rock are carved away and sent tumbling into streams in adjacent valleys, and then the coal is dug out. Industry officials occasionally claim that an important collateral benefit of their activity is a leveling of the landscape from which future strip malls and other development might sprout.
Adding to the violence and horror, slurry dams above valley communities hold back water that is toxic with heavy metals left behind as coal is processed onsite. These dams have failed in the past. The Buffalo Creek Dam, owned by Pittson Coal, gave way in 1972, killing 125 people, injuring 1,121, and leaving 4,000 homeless, in what a Pittson vice- president later called an "act of God." In 2000, the Massey Energy Company slurry spill released 250 million gallons of coal sludge in Kentucky, creating a toxic wasteland.
Hundreds of miles of streams have been buried by coal companies in what a federal judge in 1999 ruled a clear violation of the Clean Water Act. Section 404 of the Act has allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to authorize the filling of streams and wetlands, but until recently, the "fill material" allowed under these permits did not include any type of waste. This left an avenue open for citizens to challenge mountain-top removal mining in court because mining "spoils" were considered waste.
In May 2002, the EPA and the Corps finalized a rule change which redefined "fill" to encompass mining spoils resulting from mountain-top removal. The rule change had originated with the Clinton administration in April 2000 as an attempt to appease West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, faithful servant of King Coal. Remarkably, a dozen GOP lawmakers wrote President Bush, as they had Clinton two years earlier, in opposition to the rule change: "Allowing coal mining spoil and other types of waste material to be dumped into lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands is contrary to the central goal of the Clean Water Act: preserving the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. This rulemaking, if carried forward, would represent a major weakening of current law."
The original rule was seldom enforced in any case. Despite sharp growth in mountain-top removal in the 1990s, the number of federal inspectors whose job it was to identify the impacts of the practice on waterways was cut in half Inspections in West Virginia fell from 470 in 1993 to only 92 in 1998, with violations decreasing by eightfold, according to the Citizens Coal Council.
So the coal companies have their way with some of the most extensive intact hardwood forest ecosystems in the United States, and continue to flatten the land and the spirits of local people trying to maintain a centuries-old rural existence in their hollows (small valleys) of West Virginia and neighboring states. Ubiquitous dust, massive explosions, debris, rain, Hooding and fouled water supplies mark the lives of the few who reject skimpy buyout offers from coal companies -- or have no such option. One holdout, Jim Weekley, told the New York Times in 1999 that, as a former miner, he was not against mining, but that at least he knew that digging coal in the old deep shaft mines was not fouling his nest in the hollow above.
Mountain-top removal is much more mechanized than mining was in the past; while coal production rose 32 percent from 1987 to 1997, jobs decreased by 29 percent. The Citizens Coal Council points out that the top 15 coal-producing counties in West Virginia have the worst poverty levels in the nation, even though they produce 15 percent of the nation's coal. The economic rationale for laying waste to the landscape, then, is largely one of shareholder value, executive salaries, perks, and bonuses. Judy Bonds, a sixth generation West Virginia hollow resident, and winner of the 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to stop mountain-top removal, calls it "rape and take:" As is the case with coal- bed methane drilling, mountain-top removal coal mining is a crime against nature, especially considering the proven potential of energy conservation and renewable energy sources.
The ravaging of the range and the stunning destruction of whole forested mountains are deep violations of freedom, perhaps the central value of a conservative American tradition in the broadest sense. While the word "freedom" has been cheapened by its extended overuse in political platitudes, especially by politicians indentured to big business, it should be used more often and have greater impact when it retains a meaning grounded in truth. Trashing the environment for short-term profit amounts to a radical assault on freedom perpetrated by corporations who have bought our state and federal politicians. Coal-bed methane drilling and mountain-top removal mining are just two examples of largely unseen, cumulative environmental violence that affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the complex web of life to which we are permanently tied.
Freedom ... to Breathe Dirty Air and Drink Toxic Water
In La Oroya, a town 30,000 high in the Peruvian Andes, residents breathe environmental violence. In 1998, the Peruvian Health Ministry determined that 99 percent of the children in the area suffered from lead poisoning, which can have a devastating impact on their developing brains and organ systems. When it purchased a lead smelter in La Oroya from the Peruvian government in 1997, the Doe Run Company committed to "fixing the blood lead issue" by 2006 with a projected expenditure of $174 million. Now, citing a lack of resources, the company wants to take an additional five years -- and spend 20 million less total dollars -- to make a "a serious contribution to reduce blood lead levels," the head of the company in Peru recently told the Associated Press.
Lead poisoning might be something we associate with the ancient Romans, crowded cities in the Third World where leaded gas is still widely used, or far away smelters in the Andes. But, it turns out, the United States still has serious problems with lead -- in peeling paint on the walls of old tenements, mining spoils in places like Picher, Oklahoma, industrial dust, and discarded cell phones and computers in cities. Recently, high levels of lead were revealed in the drinking water in many Washington, D.C. homes and apartments. Doe Run, the same company damaging children's health in the mountains of Peru, admits releasing 226,513 pounds of lead into the air from its smelter in the small town of Herculaneum, Missouri, in 2001 alone. Of children under age six in the town, 28 percent showed unsafe lead levels in their blood, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and that figure rises to over 50 percent of children within half a mile of the smelter.
According to documents released by the EPA Region 7 office, Doe Run was to have met the EPA's air standard for lead back in 1995 for a projected cost of $8 million. As in Peru, the company now claims that it doesn't have the resources needed to stop itself from spewing lead into the bodies of children. The St. Louis Post Dispatch recently reported an unfortunate underlying truth to these claims, thanks to the financial shenanigans of minor junk bond king Ira Rennert. Mr. Rennert has used hundreds of millions of dollars in junk bonds written against the industrial assets he owns, including the Doe Run Company, to pay dividends to Renco Group, Inc., his holding company. Thus, Mr. Rennert has left Doe Run staggering under debt. And Renco continues to poison children with lead in order to subsidize its greed. If only George W. Bush would do his West Texas Sheriff routine on Mr. Rennert.
Instead, the Bush administration announces broad regulatory rollbacks in the Clean Air Act's new-source review program that will allow 17,000 power plants, chemical plants, steel mills, and other .major sources of pollution to expand or modify their facilities and increase emissions without modernizing air pollution controls as they had been required to do.
The New York Times reports that toward the end of the Clinton administration, EPA officials realized that utility companies across the country were breaking the law en masse. Here was an opportunity to force these companies to modernize and make tremendous strides toward cleaner air nationwide. While the EPA was able to settle with some utilities, reports the Times, such as the deal with Tampa Electric that took 123,000 annual tons of pollution out of the sky, most companies held out hope for (and gave money toward) Bush's election, for which they have been richly rewarded. They are allowed to continue killing Americans -- disproportionately the poor and non-White.
The EPA estimates that 30 percent of Americans breathe unhealthy air. In a 1996 analysis of epidemiological data collected by Harvard University and the American Cancer Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that 64,000 Americans die prematurely from cardiopulmonary causes linked to fine particulate air pollution. NRDC recommended a new standard for particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size of 10 micrograms per cubic meter, but in 1997 President Clinton's EPA settled on a weaker standard of 15. Now even that standard may be moot as President Bush offers the nation more dirty air to breathe.
In the town of Riviera Beach, Palm Beach County, Florida, environmental violence threatens residents' through their water pipes. Organic solvents, the low-tech horror behind the past forty years of high-tech revolutions in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, contaminate the groundwater in this predominantly African American working class community in a classic case of environmental racism -- toxics dumped in poor communities of color. For years, Solitron Devices, Inc, a subsidiary of Honeywell Corporation, dumped highly acidic wastewaters down drains, corroding plumbing, holding tanks, and portions of the city sewer, releasing chlorinated solvents and metals to the soil and groundwater, according to the Florida Department of Health. Contaminants then moved in groundwater to off-site municipal wells.
In 1974, the local water utility received numerous complaints from irate consumers about a "pesticide" odor within an hour of pumping water from one of the wells. Subsequent testing of groundwater identified high levels of chromium, chlorobenzene, tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, and vinyl chloride, chemical compounds known to cause kidney, liver, and neurological damage and cancer. Contamination from another electronics manufacturer, Trans Circuit, Inc. compounded the' problem. Trans Circuit had built an evaporation pond, but it was inadequate to hold the 336,000 gallons of effluent the company produced per month. Waste spilled over the liner when it rained and the company was warned several times. The city of Riviera Beach began using air strippers to remove contaminants from municipal well water in 1988, footing the bill itself.
For years, the mayor of Riviera Beach, Michael Brown, sought help from the EPA in vain. The Palm Beach Post reports that when he first met with EPA officials in 1999, they offered a do-nothing solution: natural attenuation, according to Mayor Brown. In 2002, the EPA approved a $500,000 reimbursement toward purification costs -- upwards of five million dollars -- that the city had carried for fourteen years. Recently the EPA held meetings with the mayor to discuss a plan to clean up the aquifer, presumably with money from Honeywell, although the company made no firm commitment. The Post reported Mr. Brown's perhaps ironic reaction: "Nobody really knows with this recommendation today if it will take 20 years, 50 years or 100 years [to complete]. We're delighted."
There may be no town in America as polluted as Anniston, Alabama. "In my judgment, there's no question this is the most contaminated site in the U.S.," Dr. David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health at the State University of New York in Albany, told the country on CBS's 60 Minutes. Anniston's 24,000 residents live in an environment saturated with PCBs, probable human carcinogens banned by the EPA in 1979. Monsanto Corporation, the manufacturers of PCBs in Anniston for years, ran a plant that leaked 50,000 pounds of PCBs into a local creek every year and buried more than one million pounds of PCB-laced waste in its antiquated landfills, reported the Washington Post after examining Monsanto's internal documents.
The Post reports that, in 1996, PCB levels in the area "were as high as 940 times the federal level of concern in yard soils, 200 times that level in dust inside people's homes, 2,000 times that level in Monsanto's drainage ditches. The PCB levels in the air were also too high. And in blood tests, nearly one-third of the residents of the working-class Sweet Valley and Cobbtown neighborhoods near the plant were found to have elevated PCB levels." In addition, Anniston is now home to an Army chemical weapons incinerator run by part of the most polluting enterprise in the country (including its contractors): the U.S. Department of Defense. Local residents' concerns that the incinerator is unsafe (substantiated by incomplete burning, toxic releases and safety problems at the Army's similar Tooele incinerator in Utah) have been ignored.
President Bush is asking American taxpayers to foot the bill for cleaning up some of the more than 11,000 toxic Superfund sites across the nation. The 2005 budget will require at least 1.27 billion dollars of tax money to clean up after the worst polluters in corporate America. The law requiring that polluters pay expired in 1995 and has not been renewed, Some of the most polluted sites are the toxic legacy of corporate welfare mining. According to a Green Scissors report, mines have polluted more than 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds. The antiquated General Mining Act of 1872 allows mining companies to buy federal land for five dollars an acre (1872 prices) and pay no royalties for gold, copper, zinc and other minerals extracted from our land. So taxpayers are robbed of billions of dollars in mineral wealth .and then are expected to pay the stiff costs associated with cleaning up abandoned mine sites. Needless to say, countless other contaminated sites lie untouched.
Along with clean air, there is no more basic environmental right than clean drinking water. Since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, too few drinking water standards have been set compared to the many hundreds of contaminants found in drinking water across the United States. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the pesticide atrazine is present in the water of more than one million Americans, while perchlorate from rocket fuel is present in the water supplies of more than 20 million Americans. Lead contamination continues to be a problem. Antiquated pipes mean more organic matter in drinking water combining with chlorine residues to form toxic trihalomethanes. Twenty years after the passage of legislation to deal with leaking underground fuel storage tanks, 136,265 tanks remained leaking in September 2003, according to the EPA. The gasoline additive MTBE has migrated into drinking water supplies in Santa Monica, California, and many other municipalities.
In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office found that $232 to $402 billion in investments will be needed over the next two decades to upgrade and repair the nation's drinking water systems. The United States remains well behind Europe in water treatment. Organic pollutants, the largest class of contaminants, can be dealt with wholesale using activated carbon filters, while ozonation is effective against viruses, bacteria and certain parasites. A handful of U.S. cities use these technologies; many more could benefit from them.
A visionary approach to cleaning up water supplies comes from a sadly unique comer of the manufacturing sector. In Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world's largest commercial carpet and tile companies, the Interface Corporation, run by Ray Anderson, set the astonishing goal of having its effluent be pure water. The idea is that chemicals used to make tile and carpet will be entirely re-used and recycled in the manufacturing process. This has the happy effect of reducing pollution and also company cost.
Erasing Habitats and Killing Off Species
Clearly, some environmental problems have effective solutions that can prevent or reverse damage. Species extinctions resulting from habitat erasure, however, are permanent. And the loss of old growth forests and regional biodiversity might as well be permanent with respect to human life cycles. It is axiomatic that as we lose wilderness, protecting what remains becomes evermore urgent. Such is the case with our national forests.
After the massive clear-cutting of the Reagan years, timber harvested from federal lands dropped to 12 percent of the total timber harvest in the United States. Old growth was down to less than 5 percent of its original extent and urgently needed protection. By the time Bill Clinton was elected president, the case for ending timber harvests in national forests was already very clear.
Damage to cut-over national forests could be partially reversed, at least to the extent that forest ecosystems are understood. With the U.S. Forest Service pouring over one billion dollars every year into the timber cut, the potential for using that money instead for a major subsidizing effort to restore our national forests would add the benefit of creating many needed jobs in logging communities. Recreation, hunting, and fishing already contribute at least $111 billion to the overall economy each year, according to the National Forest Protection Alliance, far more than logging does. While ending timber harvests on federal lands seemed extreme to some touting compromise a dozen years ago, it was in fact the only reasonable option given the levels of exploitation that had occurred and the damage that exploitation caused, both within forest ecosystems and outside of them -- for example, the devastating impact clear-cutting has had on salmon fisheries.
Far from seeking a moratorium on logging in national forests, in July 1995, President Clinton signed into law a bill that contained the now notorious "salvage rider." Though the rider was deviously attached to a bill providing extra relief to victims of the bombings in Oklahoma City, the president was well aware of the logging provisions therein, having criticized those very provisions when he initially vetoed the bill. The law called for salvage timber sales to be offered and stipulated that they be subject to only a very narrow judicial review. Salvage timber was to include not only damaged trees, but green trees "imminently susceptible to fire or insect attack," an amorphously broad definition that the Forest Service then adopted. The rider also stipulated that green timber sales from an earlier appropriations bill that had been halted over environmental concerns be carried out.
By the time the rider expired on December 31, 1996, the Forest Service had offered 4.6 billion board feet of timber as part of salvage sales. Though Clinton did not support efforts in Congress to repeal the rider, the Forest Service did halt sales of 672 million board feet -- enough wood to surface a four-lane highway from coast to coast with inch-thick planks- because these proposed sales clearly had little to do with salvaging dead or diseased trees. The areas in dispute had excessive content of green timber, were not imminently susceptible to insect attack or fire, or were in road-less areas, among other objections. But when in 1997 the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that these sales had not been offered before the rider expired, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman hastened to respond that, "In fact, the majority of the volume was simply delayed. It is anticipated that only a small fraction of this volume will be cancelled."
The salvage rider had the effect of increasing timber sales 35 percent over what the Forest Service had planned for the same period. Far worse than this increase was the precedent set for lawless timber sales. Environmental groups have only a limited ability to monitor and challenge sales offered on an accelerated schedule. According to the GAO, of 11,435 salvage timber sales governed by the rider, only sixteen faced legal challenges.
Widespread forest fires in 1994 provided the impetus for the original salvage rider; the fires of 2002 are causing history to repeat itself, only now the political situation is considerably worse. Mark Rey, Bush's Under Secretary of Agriculture who now oversees the Forest Service, was a principle author of the salvage rider.
Still, the target volume of timber to be cut from national forests shrinks; the volume of wood materials from national forests now comprises only 2 percent of the U.S. wood supply. The situation is worse simply because that much less old growth forest remains. Removing from the market the 2 percent of the nation's wood supply now derived from national forests would have a negligible effect on the price of lumber, especially with the advent of engineered wood products, wood recycling and alternative fibers. But protecting all federally owned old growth and carefully restoring clear-cut areas in national. forests would have immeasurable environmental and recreational value to the nation and future generations as the years pass. Posterity needs our trees.
As staggering as it is that corporations and the government have managed to reduce our virgin forests to a tiny fraction of what they once were, the condition of the world's oceans even more clearly reveals the stranglehold over the planet. The Pew Oceans Commission (POC) reports that "we are depleting the oceans of fish, and have been for decades. The government can only assure us that 22 percent of managed fish stocks are being fished sustainably. The decline of New England fisheries is most notorious. By 1989, New England cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder had reached historic lows.... Populations of ... Pacific red snapper, have been driven to less than 10 percent of their historic numbers."
The POC documented occurrences of thirty-six "dead zones" on the U.S. coastline between 1970 and 2000. These zones are depleted' of oxygen after nutrient-rich run-off causes huge algal blooms and subsequent overgrowth of bacteria. Many locations have had several repeat occurrences. The most well known of these, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, is the size of New Jersey. Oceans expert David Helvarg reports that the world's aquatic species are going extinct at a rate fives times faster than that of land animals. In the Gulf of Mexico, for every pound of shrimp trawlers drag in, they waste seven pounds of other marine animals, called simply "bycatch."
The situation is bleak, but Helvarg has a clear solution to America's fisheries crisis. He would start with buybacks of boats by the government in order to reduce the size of the fishing fleet to make entry into fisheries commensurate with sustainable harvest targets. In the past, the U.S. fishing fleet was hugely overcapitalized, thanks to special tax breaks put in place by President Reagan. Undersea reserves are a key, proven component to fisheries recovery. And Helvarg stresses that conflicts of interest (wherein active commercial fishermen serve on oversight boards) that pervade fisheries management must be eliminated.
Looming Large on a Small Planet
We've known "for some time that human beings have the capacity to slowly but surely chew our way toward the creation of significant holes in the planet's biosphere, its forests and oceans, and associated creatures. But there are two potential impacts that we know humans will have on life that involve so many feedback consequences -- of which we have a still primitive understanding -- that we cannot predict their directions, implications or precise magnitudes with much precision at all. The first is human-caused global warming; the second, the widespread release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded in June 2001 that: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures, are, in fact, rising." Furthermore, the NAS wrote that "national policy decisions made now and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century."
What is much more difficult to predict is how this warming, even if we manage to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases, will interact with the extremely complex forces that cause weather patterns. For some, including President Bush, this uncertainty surrounding the exact effects of global warming is reason to dally, to avoid making even the modest changes that the Kyoto agreement stipulates. But there are many clear arguments for these changes besides global warming mitigation.
Even a modest increase in average fuel efficiency could dramatically reduce Our dependence on foreign oil, our ground-level air pollution, and greenhouse gases. The temporary cost of raising CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards to forty miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and light trucks would be more than offset by the savings in fuel cost in the first 50,000 miles driven. The forty miles per gallon standard carries a projected savings of more than ninety billion gallons of gasoline by 2010. That standard, however, currently looms as a mirage. General Motors, followed by the rest of the world's automakers, has exploited the loophole exempting light trucks from fuel efficiency standards to generate an explosion of gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles over the past dozen years. Thus, true average fuel efficiency dropped back to 1980 levels during the Clinton administration, costing many times more oil than is held in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and adding significantly to global warming. Many engineers can demonstrate as well how SUV fuel efficiency can be raised to 35 miles per gallon with simple and inexpensive modifications, apart from hybrid technology.
Minimizing carbon emissions can be shown to produce healthy ripple effects throughout the economy. Thus, arguments for fundamental changes in the way we derive and use energy should be made on all fronts to build the support needed to confront human-caused global warming.
The Union of Concerned Scientists calculates that achieving a 20 percent reliance on renewable energy sources (up from 6 percent now) by 2020 would save a total of 20.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or nearly 50,000 coal-bed methane wells producing strong for ten years, a huge carbon emissions savings. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University showed that in 24 percent of locations where wind was measured, wind speed in the United States is fast enough to provide power at the same current cost of coal and natural gas generators. But, in 2002, Denmark, Germany, and Spain together installed 78 percent of the wind-power added worldwide, leaving the United States lagging far behind, according to the World-watch Institute. Though the U.S. Department of Energy's renewable energy program cites "real potential of cutting solar prices by half," the United States continues to progress very slowly on solar development compared to Europe and Japan. What we've known about the potentials of wind, solar efficiency, and other non- fossil fuel energy for thirty years is being applied far too slowly, given the urgency of global warming and the danger of resource wars.
The other human impact with largely unforeseen, though not unimagined, consequences -- the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment -- is a potentially grave threat. There are innumerable reasons to worry about the ecological consequences for wild organisms and ecosystems of the widespread release of GMOs. Most of these reasons, however, involve thought experiments. Our scientific understanding of the consequences of genetically modifying organisms and releasing them lag far behind the highly sophisticated ability we have to engineer these organisms.
Quite possibly, we will see genetically engineered salmon escape from an aquaculture operation in the future like the 100,000 nonengineered Atlantic salmon that escaped into Puget Sound. in 1999. We have terrifyingly little idea of what the effects on wild salmon populations would be of a Franken-species designed for fast growth. Ignacio Chapela's and David Quist's work showing that genes are somehow moving from bioengineered corn to native corn in Mexico has been confirmed, showing a danger to native varieties. In February 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists released an analysis of seeds of six traditional varieties of canola. All six had been contaminated with DNA from genetically engineered strains. Once again, big business makes these decisions to change the nature of nature, and the corporate grip on our freedom tightens.
Consider the case of Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Bruno, Saskatchewan, in Canada. For forty years, this farmer -- who also served as mayor of Bruno from 1966 to 1983 -- has developed his own varieties of canola using traditional plant breeding methods. In 1997, Schmeiser was sued by the Monsanto Corporation for allegedly using their patented herbicide-resistant 'canola seed without paying for it. He was making a decent living with his own seed and had no need for Monsanto's product. Schmeiser had harvested seed from his crop to be planted the following year, as he had always done. The seed he collected inadvertently included seed that had germinated from Monsanto's engineered plants, which had blown onto Schmeiser's land. Some of the GMO seed germinated after the next round of planting and Monsanto inspectors found those plants through testing. The company flexed its muscle, Schmeiser's crop was confiscated -- so he lost his own seed as well -- and Monsanto sought to punish him financially. From Percy Schmeiser's point of view, Monsanto had contaminated his crop. He used no herbicide and therefore took no advantage of the attributes of Monsanto's engineered seed. It was impossible for him to remove the invading Monsanto seed from his own seed. Despite this logic, two successive courts in Canada found against Schmeiser. But he was not found guilty of stealing Monsanto's genetically engineered seed. Simply the presence of Monsanto's plants on Schmeiser's land -- regardless of how they got there, and regardless of whether Monsanto's pollen had contaminated other plant stocks -- made Schmeiser liable, according to one imaginative judge. Schmeiser's case was finally heard before the Supreme Court of Canada, which concluded that he owed Monsanto nothing, but upheld Monsanto's right to patent life, regardless of how it might become dispersed. Schmeiser views the result as a draw. Monsanto has dozens of such suits pending against farmers across North America.
What if we had the freedom to choose whether or not we support GMO foods in the marketplace? In public hearings allover the United States, over 90 percent of Americans asked for that freedom at the close of the twentieth century: they wanted labeling of GMO foods. President Clinton's Food and Drug Administration said, No, sorry, we won't allow you that freedom; furthermore, we'll give that freedom to large corporations like Monsanto. Most Americans are eating GMO foods without their knowledge. And if the consequences of releasing such organisms into the environment are dire down the road, we will have been robbed of the opportunity to stop such experiments by making a daily choice. Enough! Do we want freedom to pollute the environment, or freedom from self-devouring policies that contaminate our nests?
Once again, the corporate sphere is dominating our ecosphere and blocking known energy- efficient technologies and other environmentally benign methods. We owe it to our descendents to reverse priorities and force corporations to adjust to the sustainability of the planet and its fragile circle of life.
In the 1970s, we had the luxury of giving the bedrock environmental laws a chance to work, to gradually and progressively reclaim the damage done by polluting and pillaging companies. We no longer have time. We thought we had urgency then, but it has failed to carry us through. It is hard to exaggerate the new heights of urgency needed now to clean up our act on the planet. We are up against global trade agreements which erode environmental progress, and technologies old and new that can change the face of the Earth. But we have the awareness to turn it all around. That is what the last 30 years have given us. From the state of California's breakthrough new law passed in 2002 which mandates that motor vehicles reduce their contribution to global warming, to the burgeoning organic food movement, to zero effluent factories, environmental mobilizations are at last starting to move across the land again. We only have to apply focused urgencies to the ready and unused solutions which are parked idly on the shelves.