October 11, 1992
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words. Words. Words.
– Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii
It’s interesting what a creative mind can do with language.
In a radio roundtable we shared last year, Carolyn Richardson of the California Farm Bureau declared US environmental protection “the best in the world.” No substantiation, just the sort of near-religious assertion that seems all too common in American political dialog (like the increasingly rare assertion that the US has the best health care system in the world, or former President Bush’s campaign claim that US workers are “the best educated in the world” — both demonstrably, and sadly, not true). For some reason, these political catechisms seem especially common on environmental themes.
The facts? According to Curtis Moore, counsel to US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works from 1978-1989, writing in the New York Times: “Air pollution limits in Japan and Germany are nearly four times as stringent as those in the United States…. Japan, followed by Germany, has the world’s cleanest, most efficient power plants and steel mills. Toyota is the leader in [automobile] fuel efficiency, followed by Volkswagen. General Motors, the third largest American car company, is a distant third. The world’s most stringent controls on toxics? In Europe. The toughest recycling programs? Ditto.”
The most ambitious environmental quality program in the world? Not here. The Dutch Green Plan, developed in collaboration with industry and labor, commits the entire country to reducing emissions 70-90 percent by the year 2000 — and they are running ahead of schedule.
The best air quality program. Nope, not here. Here President Bush tried to take credit for the Clear Air Act, then issued an executive order to suspend its implementation.
Wetlands protection? Sorry. After committing itself to a policy of “no net loss of Wetlands,” the Bush Administration simply reclassified half the acreage. If it’s not called wetlands any more, then any losses wouldn’t have to be counted. Clever politics, bad policy.
Which is nothing compared to the “linguistic detoxification” (a bitingly apt sarcasm coined by Dr. Barry Commoner). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually proposed classifying some “low-level” nuclear waste as “Below Regulatory Concern”, as if that would make it below biological concern. Former Vice President Dan Quayle’s Competitiveness Council tried to use the same trick to permit dumping of hazardous waste in municipal landfills; fortunately, they backed off once found out.
The best environmental protection in the world? Wishing, unfortunately, doesn’t make it so. Nor does wounded pride. Many Americans actually seemed to consider criticism–even documentable observations–disloyal. “How dare they say that about us? We’re the United States of America!”… as if our past accomplishments put us above crtiticism for our current reality. But–remember “family values”?–if a loved one is suffering an addiction, the most loyal and loving response is not to look the other way, but to help them confront their addiction and overcome it.
The fact is that our country, addicted to consumption in general and oil in particular, only has a shot at twenty-first century prosperity if we can overcome those addictions. To do that, we will also have to overcome the mindset that imagines the real world and the human economy necessarily in opposition. The looming tragedy is that the trend in the world is toward greater environmental quality, integrated with economic well-being. The United States simply can’t afford to miss this boat. Nor can any country that expects to succeed in the global marketplace.
Straight talk is the first step . Expecting political advocates to use fact instead of catechism may be too much to ask. But it doesn’t seem to much to ask to expect our media to give us pattern, trend and context along with what passes for news. What are the trends in the key indicators of our well-being? How do key US indicators stack up against other industrialized countries? (This could be presented as a sort of eco-stock market report, as proposed by Dutch engineer Jan Hanhart, or with sharp computer graphics on the nightly news.)
With a little luck, straight talk might even lead to forthright action. We might, for example, finally put environmental costs and benefits squarely on the corporate balance sheet and statement of national accounts, making so-called environmental “externalities” (another creative euphimism) internal to the accounting and financial management systems of both business and government. That’s one “new world order” that might make sense: a free market whose workings are directly tied to the realities of the biological world.
In the meantime, remember Goethe’s observation: “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.”