When President-elect George W. Bush speaks to reporters about his environmental policy, he takes them on a 90-minute hike to his favorite waterfalls. There he advocates diluting environmental laws, removing some of the most ornery clauses that hinder economic development, privatizing national parks and opening up Alaska to oil speculators. All this above his favorite waterfalls, which really are "his" before they are "favorite": They are on land he owns and only he can access.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of four years--at least--of the reign of George the Second, which promises to be a nervous one for those who care about the environment. George II has anointed Christine Todd Whitman, governor of New Jersey, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As one of my friends recently said, "Isn't the fact that she's Governor of New Jersey irony enough?" Moreover, his nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, is a staunch advocate of opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. With a slowing economy and energy crisis, such choices and comments point to a worrisome subjugation of the environment to the economy.
Most Presidents (and most people), however, subjugate the environment to the economy. That the United States did not meet its obligations set out in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for example, did not seem to concern President Clinton too much. George Bush and his administration differ here more by scale than by type. Yet his newly appointed Cabinet poses another, more pernicious threat to the proud--and bipartisan--tradition of American environmentalism. For George II seems to be the champion of environmental elitism, where the natural heritage of this country only falls to those able to afford it.
American environmentalism, as a credo, as an ideology, as whatever you'd like to call it, is a remarkably democratic tradition. Whether analyzing the thought of Henry David Thoreau, Class of 1837, or that of John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club in 1892) or Rachel Carson, the environmental movement in this country is founded on a belief in the link between all human beings and their natural environment. Some of these links, as Carson sought to inform us, are of a direct, "scientific" nature. The chemicals that enter into and damage our environments have similar consequences on our bodies; it makes sense then to pollute less. Some of these relationships are more spiritual or metaphysical, as Muir or Thoreau would have argued. Yet for all three of them, as well as many of the brilliant environmental scientists, ethicists and philosophers who fill the spaces between them, the U.S. landscape represents one of the most significant legacies that one American generation leaves for the next. As such, we are all privileged to enjoy and responsible for preserving it.
This tradition of democratic environmentalism has been well served under Bill Clinton's presidency. The emergence of the Environmental Justice movement in the early 1990s, which arose because of disturbingly disproportionate pollution in areas inhabited by those at a political or economic disadvantage, prompted Clinton to sign an executive order on the topic in 1994, and for the EPA to focus on these issues and formulate new policies during his first term of office. Moreover, Clinton has sought to protect more land from development than any other president, as well and he signed numerous bills to increase the effectiveness of environmental standards. In the last month alone, for example, Clinton has set aside over 60 million acres of land for the purposes of preservation, more than any other president in the last 35 years.
Bush, however, threatens to cast aside all of these measures as well as many of the important environmental laws promulgated by (Republican) President Richard M. Nixon's administration. First, he has asked his lawyers to look for every opportunity to reverse Clinton's executive orders on land preservation. Second, one of Bush's long-time environmental advisors, Terry Anderson, has argued that the federal government should relinquish all rights to public lands over the next 40 years. These included the National Parks, first founded by (Republican) Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, in the early part of this century. Third, the State Legislature in Texas proposed, under Bush's tenure, to use public lands in order to allow private companies to make destination resorts. In short, much of Bush's perspective on environmentalism revolves around looking at the environment as a function of private property that can be bought and sold, rather than as a public tradition that is amongst America's greatest legacies.
It's easy for a man who owns a waterfall--and has managed an oil company--to discuss the privatization of the environment. Bush will always have his backyard, and one can almost guarantee that no pollution will ever touch that domain. Yet the environment affects--perhaps with even greater impact--those who do not enjoy such privileges. Their experience of the environment, almost certainly, should not be restricted to private resorts on government land; they should not have to bear the cost--in economic and in public health terms--of the exploitation of natural resources at the hands of those who are already the most privileged in this society. Ultimately, the environment is not a good or commodity subject to the laws of supply, demand and free market pricing; it is not a luxury item. It is, instead, a permanent legacy that combines many of the glorious conquests of America's past with an enduring belief in the unparalleled potential for America's future. A future that, even George II would argue, belongs to all Americans, equally.
Rohan R. Gulrajani '02 is an engineering concentrator in Leverett House.