Monday, January 23, 2012

Today's GOP and the Environment



I’m spending my week combing through the papers of Russell Train, lawyer-turned conservationist.  Train, inspired by an African safari, founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, chaired the Council on Environmental Quality, headed the EPA under Nixon, served as president of the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund, and continues to write and speak about the importance of international conservation.

Oh, and he was a life-long Republican, never voting for a Democratic presidential candidate until George W Bush opened up the back-door of the EPA and other regulatory agencies to the oil companies.

Train’s career (to be fair, he was criticised by many environmentalists for not going far enough in reforms) is a salutary reminder that Republican Party leaders weren’t always card-carrying buffoons, and didn’t always make up mere goon-squad for the least savoury elements of the corporate world.

As many people know, the Nixon Administration (best known for its abhorrent conduct of war in southeast Asia and the Watergate scandal) actually put in place many of the agencies and oversaw the creation of many laws which today form the bedrock of our approach to the environment.

I don’t know what Nixon’s motivations were, though presumably people who have written about his administration have some ideas.  Perhaps he simply saw the common sense in tackling a set of issues which so clearly impact the physical and moral health of a nation.  Russell Train suggests, in recounting a dinner in January of 1968 in which he sat beside Nixon, that the President might have been interested in legislation that could attract broad-based support.  Train sat beside Nixon at a dinner at which various task forces were present.  When he raised the issue of the widespread benefit of sound environmental policy, Nixon asked, “I am sure you are right in the suburbs and among much of the middle and upper classes.  But what about the blacks and the poor in the cities?  What is the appeal of the issue to them?”*  Most likely, Nixon saw environmentalism as an increasingly powerful force, representing a set of constituencies, ideas and concerns which would be of steadily-increasing importance during the coming decades, and decided that he wanted to be on the right side of the debate.

Interestingly, Train’s biographer, J Brooks Flippen, identifies Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy in the House as one of the moments when it all started to go downhill.  Flippen notes that “for many the environment had joined taxes and a litany of social concerns such as abortion and gay rights as wedge issues, defining one’s partisan allegiance.  When Texas Republican congressman Tom DeLay called EPA ‘the Gestapo of government’, environmental support for democrats increased”.**

The knee-jerk absurdity which characterised the approach of people like Gingrich and DeLay is nothing new to us today.  The San Francisco Chronicle announced that environmentalists are worried about a possible Republican victory in November, as though it is somehow news that the Republican Party has decided that our natural world and its resources should be sold to the highest bidder whatever the social costs to the rest of us.  Almost every Republican presidential candidate has laid into the EPA with a vigour born of either ignorance or cynicism.  They wholeheartedly embrace the destruction that unchecked oil drilling would wreak on our coasts, seabeds and landscapes, sparing nary a thought for its effects on attempts to wean ourselves off of oil (their answer, of course, is that we don’t need to, because global warming is all fake). 

Train, a lifelong public servant, abhors this attitude.  “We will never”, he wrote, “achieve excellence in government by trashing it at every opportunity”.**  In his years heading the EPA, Train repeatedly made the moral case for limiting growth, for regulating pollutants, and for the cultural or even spiritual importance of the natural world.  But he also made the obvious point that if industries are polluting, it means they are being inefficient and wasteful.  This is an argument that would undoubtedly appeal to many conservatives if they weren’t so dependent on the campaign cash that energy, agricultural and industrial lobbies use to turn our elected leaders into their wind-up political flunkies.

For today’s Republican Party, the fantasy called the “Free Market” is the panacea for all the world’s ills.  They sing the praises of markets, to accompany the corporate cash that comes clinking into their campaign coffers.  In a 2004 interview with Mother Jones, Train, who campaigned ferociously against Bush, offered the following when asked whether there was “a free-market case to be made for clean, renewable energy”.  Rather than extolling the virtues of the market, he paused to recognise its limitations, arguing that the market can help “to the extent that we can harness market forces”.  But, he cautioned, “I’ve never felt that market mechanisms can take the place of regulatory functions”. 

Given his willingness to apply reason, and to accept that a publicly-accountable government will be a more effective regulator than a profit-oriented industry, it’s no wonder why Train felt out of step with his party.  It is a discomfort that most people in California and the U.S. would undoubtedly feel if they stopped and thought about the importance of ensuring that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we grow our crops in are all safe.  The Republican Party’s glorification of ignorance and its radical assault on environmental values and ethics should trouble anyone who wants the products they buy to be sustainably made and safe to use.  It should be of concern to anyone who enjoys national parks, national forests, state parks or our beautiful coastlines.  All those who find any solace in walking in nature or watching wild creatures should feel a degree of alarm at the callousness the Republican Party leaders increasingly show for our physical surroundings. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, together with the haunting early photos of Earth from space, are often cited as sparking the modern environmental movement.  Those photos are a reminder of our inherent fragility, and of the care we owe our natural surroundings.  Conservation and environmentalism were once issues almost free from partisanship, so universal was their applicability.  It should be so once again.

* Library of Congress, Manuscripts: MSS85254: Box 67, Folder 4.

** J Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Louisiana State University Press, 2006): 216, 10.

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