Waterkeeper: Redefining the Environmental Debate
Corporate polluters, their phony think tanks and political toadies like to marginalize environmentalists as “tree huggers,” or “radicals” but there is nothing radical about clean air or water. Environmentalists are battling for the very mainstream values that right-wing fanatics so often herald in their rhetoric: property rights, law and order, local control, and free market capitalism. Too often these are only hollow facades that mask the radical agenda of the White House’s doublespeakers whose only real value seems to be corporate profit taking. These federal officials have taken the “conserve” out of conservatism. They only embrace property rights when it is the right of polluters to use their property to destroy their neighbor’s or the public property. (Where is their clamor when industrial hog syndicates and mountaintop mining conglomerates destroy the properties of their neighbors?) While proclaiming law and order, they let corporate polluters off the hook. (As President Bush did last year when he ordered the Justice Department and EPA to drop dozens of lawsuits against coal-burning utilities and corporate hog farms that had contributed millions to his campaign.) “Local control” is only invoked to dismantle the obstacles to corporate dominion at the local level (When Arnold Schwarzenegger passed the toughest auto emissions law in the U.S., the White House threatened to join Detroit in suing). And while proclaiming Christianity, they routinely violate the manifest mandates of Christianity that we act as stewards of the Earth and exercise responsibility toward our children. Rather than honoring the free market, they fight for corporate welfare and envision a system of capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.
In a true free-market economy you can’t make yourself rich without enriching your neighbors and your community. A true free-market properly values natural resources and promotes efficiency and the elimination of waste. Waste is pollution. So the free market eliminates pollution. But polluters subvert the discipline of the free market. Corporations are externalizing machines – ever seeking ways of foisting their costs on the public, and pollution is perhaps the most common method for loading production costs onto the rest of us. Acid rain pollutants, asthma-causing particulates and deadly mercury that are now discharged from coal burning power plants thanks to President Bush’s blessing, imposing costs on society that should, in a true free market, be reflected in the price of those utilities’ energy in the market place. You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy—a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market.
All our federal environmental laws were intended to promote free market capitalism by forcing actors in the marketplace to pay the true costs of bringing their products to market. Werkeeper Alliance and our 128 local programs enforce these laws. We go into the marketplace, and catch cheaters. “We are going to force you, we tell them, “to internalize your costs the same way you are internalizing your profit.” I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist anymore. I’m a free-marketeer. So long as the polluters are cheating, none of us will get the benefits of the efficiency, prosperity and democracy that the free market promises America.
This issue of Waterkeeper Magazine focuses on mercury, which has led to warnings against eating fish in 45 states. One out of every six American women of childbearing years now carries so much mercury in her body that her children are at risk for permanent IQ loss, blindness, autism, kidney, heart and liver damage. I recently tested my own blood for mercury and found levels double those considered safe. Dr. David Carpenter, a national authority on mercury and human health, told me that the children of a woman with equivalent concentrations would have cognitive impairment. He estimated they would suffer permanent IQ loss of five to seven points. Half of the mercury emissions in our country are coming from coal-burning plants that could remove this poison cheaply and easily but choose instead to externalize their costs by poisoning our children and contaminating our waterways.
Proposed Clinton-era regulations required utilities to remove 90% of the mercury within 3 years, but President Bush, after accepting $100 million from the industry, scrapped those regulations in favor of regulations penned by utility lobbyists that will effectively allow the industry to escape enforceable mercury controls forever.
All environmental injury is a subversion of the market system and an assault on democracy. The corporations that persuaded our President to dump those public health regulations don’t want free markets or democracy, they want profits. Oftentimes the best path to profits is to capture government officials using our campaign finance system, which is nothing more than legalized bribery, and then use that power to privatize and plunder the commons. Corporations are a good thing for our economy, but they should not be running our government. To protect our democracy and our environment, we must ensure that government agencies and public trust assets stay within the hands of the people.
Pollution threatens all of our national values. It violates the free market, diminishes property rights, mocks law and order, promotes corporate rather than local control and shatters the duties of responsibility mandated by Judeo-Christian and other religious traditions. It is pessimistic, defeatist and anti-democratic. It contradicts America’s historical ties to wilderness and the American tradition of responsibility, resourcefulness and commitment to community. It is unpatriotic and un-American and threatens our public health and national security far more than any terrorist. Our battle is a battle for those values and for all the things that make us proud of our country.
Letter From the President
04 Waterkeeper Magazine Fall 2004 www.waterkeeper.org