One Nation, Underperforming

California unveiled the design on its state quarter last week: a picture of John Muir, an image of Half Dome. It's an apt representation of American environmentalism at the moment -- rich in history, but not worth much at present.

Modern environmentalism can fairly be described as an American invention. It got its rhetoric from John Muir, its fighting savvy from David Brower, its sense of the world from Rachel Carson, and its institutional framework from the Congress of the Nixon years, which bowed before the loud will of the American people in the years after Earth Day I. The rest of the industrialized world followed, its NGOs patterned on the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, its laws modeled on ours. We paved the road; we drove innovation.

So it is odd for American environmentalists to look up now and realize that we no longer play a leading role of any kind. If you spend much time at international conferences, you see that we are no more the center of gravity, the fount of new ideas. Long before President Bush ditched the Kyoto treaty, we were drifting toward the back of the pack.

Name the field. Technology? In 1980, the U.S. was far and away the world's biggest player in the nascent wind market. If you wanted to meet with a windmill guru, you booked a flight to California. Then the Reagan administration gutted subsidies for renewables. While the Danes and the Germans and the Spaniards have advanced the technology, we've only recently begun to revive our interest. If you want to meet a wind guru now, you fly to Copenhagen.

What about cars? The Japanese managed to put hybrid engines on the market half a decade before Detroit; now Toyota is licensing the technology to American automakers. The president promises hydrogen cars by 2020 -- but the biggest player in the field is Canadian.

Or consider design. Green building is still an uphill struggle here -- the odd showpiece stuck among sprawling tract mansions. But go to Western Europe and you feel the difference immediately -- green architecture embedded in increasingly green cities, where planners have created livable downtowns and built effective mass transit.

Our great technological innovations of late, by contrast, seem to be things the rest of the world would happily do without: space-based lasers, Roundup Ready corn.

Even our framework of laws -- the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, on down the list -- now seems threadbare. Carbon dioxide is recognized as a deadly pollutant everywhere else, but it's not regulated in the U.S. The Europeans are working out their own market in carbon emissions and can only shake their heads at our laggardly ways. Even the lapdog Blair government in Britain won't back us on this -- their environment chief came to Washington earlier this winter and declared that global warming was a bigger peril than terrorism.

In fact, what standing we still have in the environmental world now comes not from our cleverness, our resolve, our initiative, but the opposite -- from the sheer size of our unrestrained appetite. Our uncontrolled emissions make us too big to ignore, like a creditor the bank wishes it could simply write off but can't. We're like China now -- a spewing, sprawling giant that the rest of the world must somehow coax into loose restraints.

It would be nice to think that a different administration could change all this. Badly as we need it, though, it won't materially change our position. Our political system is too broken; we simply can no longer innovate policy. Canada, for example, last month followed European nations and after careful debate passed landmark regulations to control human genetic engineering. It's the sort of law most Americans would endorse, but in D.C. it would be mired in the play between anti-abortion activists and biotech entrepreneurs; the result would be stalemate. And our culture is broken too -- we've turned ourselves into such privatized consumers that the only message we've got for the rest of the world is more.

For environmental patriots, proud to live in the country that birthed the national park and the wilderness area, that led the way in cleaning up urban air and dirty rivers, it's hard to go to Europe and be treated with a mix of suspicion and pity. But that's the new reality.

Like call centers and sneaker factories, environmental leadership has been outsourced.

Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature. His latest book is Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.

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