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Reclaiming the environment



One of the unrecognized costs of the war in Iraq is the way it has taken our time and attention away from other issues that require action as urgently as the war itself. Imagine what we'd be talking about if there were no war in Iraq--all of us, supporters of the war and opponents alike, would be spending more political effort on issues like health care, Social Security and campaign finance reform. The truth is, we have only so much energy.

There are few issues more pressing right now than the Bush Administration's assault on decades of work to protect the environment. Last week marked the 34th anniversary of the first Earth Day, when more than 20 million people rallied across the country for recognition of environmental degradation as a vital political issue. That day, April 22, 1970, is often called the day the modern environmental movement was born.

It's hard to imagine today that it was a U.S. Senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who suggested a national day of environmental protest. We're not seeing that kind of leadership on environmental issues. And we need now as much as we needed it then.

This is from the executive summary of an update released this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group (go to for a copy of the report, called "Rewriting the Rules: The Bush Administration's Assault on the Environment"): "Today, it is clearer than ever that U.S. environmental laws face a fundamental threat more sweeping and dangerous than any since the dawn of the modern environmental movement in 1970. What's more, this threat is now being translated into damage on the ground. After years of improvement, data indicate that the nation's water and air pollution problems are getting worse. Sewage contamination is now a major problem in lakes, rivers and beaches around the nation, even as the administration moves to weaken basic Clean Water Act safeguards addressing the problem. Anglers in most parts of the country are confronted with health advisories against eating locally caught fish due to mercury contamination, yet the administration proposes to dilute and delay mercury pollution standards. Across the West, natural treasures belonging to all Americans are being handed over to logging, mining and energy companies, while public input and environmental analysis are circumvented to speed the process."

The forces behind the assault are made clear in an article last year by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the NRDC's senior attorney: "The White House has enlisted every federal agency in a coordinate effort to relax rules aimed at the oil, coal, logging, mining, and chemical industries as well as automakers, real estate developers, corporate agribusiness and other industries."

The reason, of course, is corporate profits. Kennedy wrote: "There is no better example of the corporate cronyism now hijacking American democracy than the White House's cozy relationship with the energy industry. It's hard to find anyone on Bush's staff who does not have extensive corporate connections, but fossil-fuel executives rule the roost. The energy industry contributed more than $48.3 million to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, with $3 million to Bush. Now the investment has matured. Both Bush and Cheney came out of the oil patch. Thirty-one of the Bush transition team's forty-eight members had energy-industry ties. Bush's cabinet and White House staff is an energy-industry dream team--four cabinet secretaries, the six most powerful White House officials and more than 20 high-level appointees are alumni of the industry and its allies."

We have to fight back. We can support the efforts of visionaries like Bo Lozoff, described in this week's cover story by Melinda Ruley. And we must reclaim the power of the first Earth Day from interests that hide behind the war and put profits above all else.

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