April 22 was the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Even though it has never been as popular as when it began in 1970, we have continued the tradition of showing an interest in the environment at least once a year. Sadly, ever since the first Earth Day, when given an alternative of a pro-environment presidential candidate or an anti-environment candidate, the majority of voters have most often preferred the anti-environmental choice.
The five Republicans were either actively hostile to the environment (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush), or primarily indifferent (Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush) – strangely, Richard Nixon was both hostile and disinterested, but it was he who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act into law. Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, but he was overridden by a Democratic-controlled Congress. Every Republican president or Republican Congress since Nixon has tried to weaken the Clean Air and Water Acts and the EPA. It’s their blanket policy to oppose any regulation of Big Business.
Only the three Democrats of the eight presidents during those 40 years can be considered environmentalists: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama. President Obama’s instincts and intentions to use science seem to be good, but there have already been some disappointments.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has yet to protect the wolves that have once again been targeted for extinction. With all we know about wolves today and all that’s been done to restore wolves to their ecological niche, the governors of such states as Alaska, Montana, and Idaho who encourage the slaughter of wolves can’t claim ignorance. They can only concede stupidity, maliciousness, and/or greed. Mr. Obama needs to demand more of his Interior secretary.
We also know that the U. S. Navy’s years of testing SONAR devices in the Bahamas, the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere have caused disorientation and/or death to the whales that use those waters. We never expected the Bush-Cheney administration to care, but the current administration should have immediately ended those tests and relocated the testing areas to places where they can do little or no harm. Mr. Obama has yet to order the Navy to do so!
In the upcoming budget, the Obama administration is planning to cut funding from previous levels for the National Park Service! We are still not truly out of the Great Recession, so there couldn’t be a worse time to cut necessary funding. There is a huge backlog of repairs and maintenance that is needed in our national parks, so this is an excellent time to catch up. The creation of additional jobs will not only help get our parks back in shape but will also help the economy. Cutting funding now will cost jobs – not create them.
Mr. Obama is also opening the possibility of reintroducing nuclear power plants as part of encouraging renewable energy. The primary problem is the catastrophic result if something goes wrong. Nuclear energy is potentially the safest and most efficient form of electrical power, but only if it is strictly regulated. Remember, most voters in the last 40 years have, more often than not, elected presidents who haven’t wanted our federal agencies to function properly.
Our President is also willing to reopen the eastern coast to offshore oil drilling. Considering the increasing intensity of hurricanes due to global warming, this is certainly a precarious path to tread.
We may presume that Mr. Obama is using all of the above – and especially offshore oil drilling and nuclear power plants – as offerings of bipartisanship to the Republicans to get a compromise bill on climate change and renewable energy. If that’s the case, there’s really no point. He is dealing with people who don’t believe in bipartisanship. They will take what he gives them and then vote against his compromise.
On the positive side, the Obama administration is reversing a high priority of the Bush-Cheney years. Instead of encouraging the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia in pursuit of coal, Pres. Obama will prohibit “mountaintop removal mining.” Coal mining companies have justified the daily destruction of the environment – bulldozing mountaintops downhill covering valleys, forests, and streams – by pointing out that it is safer for the miners than using caves. The recent disaster in West Virginia is proof of that. But two bad practices don’t make one of them right. Our president recently found that government regulation has been almost non-existent in cave mining for many years and promised that mining companies will finally be regulated. We should expect no less.
It is hard to imagine anything worse than a nuclear holocaust. Pres. Obama recently signed a treaty with Russia that will further reduce our nuclear arsenals. We no longer have any reason to want to destroy each other and the rest of the planet at the same time, so this treaty should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it will have to pass the Senate with a 67 % vote. This means that all Democrats and Independents must support it to get only 59 votes. The question is this: will 18 Republicans break the expected Republican unity of 41-against-anything-Obama and vote to ratify the treaty?
Mutually-assured-destruction was the Cold War rational for nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama understands that the present and future dilemma is how to prevent Muslim and Christian nutcases, like Osama bin-Laden and Timothy McVeigh, from getting possession of any of the various nuclear materials and weapons around the world. His recent conference of nearly 50 world leaders was a major step in the right direction, with the U. S. taking a lead role by agreeing to be a safe depository for nuclear materials that any terrorist would love to get his hands on.
Hopefully, voters will once again start paying attention to the needs of the planet as we did 40 years ago. If we don’t have the moral will to demand the right thing, then we can’t expect our elected representatives to have the political will to do what’s necessary. One should always remember the last frame of one of director-producer Stanley Kramer’s many masterpieces, On the Beach. The film was about the doomed remaining inhabitants on earth after an atomic war; everyone waited for the winds to bring the radiation to them. The not-very-subtle final scene is in front of a church where crowds had previously gathered, hoping for salvation. Now it is deserted except for a hanging banner – “There is still time..brother.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published April 22, 2010, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.