Is Nothing Sacred?

Some years ago I had a job working on the staff of a geological sciences journal. On the wall of the office was a bumper sticker that read: Earth First! We'll Mine the Other Planets Later.

Kind of funny. But I soon learned that it was an accurate portrayal of the sensibilities of some of my colleagues; decent people who appreciated nature but whose obsession with minerals, gems and other geologic goodies tended to shape their worldviews. The earth was a container full of mysteries to be discovered and used.

My boss, a mining geologist, once showed me a photograph he had taken of Bingham Canyon, the largest open-pit mine in the world. Located near Salt Lake City, the mine measures nearly a mile deep and two and a half miles across, and in its 100-year existence it has yielded about 17 million tons of copper, as well as gold, silver and other ores.

This boss of mine was a good guy; generous, fair, intellectually curious. We agreed on many things, but when it came to the environment, we parted ways. To him, Bingham Canyon was a marvel of technology and science. To me, it was a poster pit for pollution: for poisoned rivers and groundwater; for arsenic and other toxic byproducts of mining – not to mention sheer ugliness.

That conversation has been on my mind a lot lately, as the election looms and the differences between the candidates come into sharper focus. John Kerry and George W. Bush are polarized on many issues, but perhaps none so intensely as the environment. A look at their voting records, policies and platforms reveals that, when it comes to that diverse collection of concerns we call "the environment," the two candidates are standing on opposite sides of a philosophical abyss as wide and deep as Bingham Canyon.

Bush is intent upon gutting federal protections to our air, water and wildlands. He will drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency; and overturn the 40-year-old Wilderness Act, which protects tens of millions of acres of the country's pristine forests from the oil, gas, timber and mining industries. These aggressive attacks on the environment are a clear sign that the very air we breathe has become a casualty of what author John Carroll calls, "the slow-motion wreck of American values that has occurred over the past three years."

In a recent editorial, the New York Times observed that the Bush administration "seems to make no accommodation for anything besides humans' economic desires."

There is a simple reason for this: one of the core values of Bush conservatives is that natural resources are there to be exploited for the good of mankind. In their view, the world – and especially nature – is a hostile place that needs to be conquered and controlled. Bush's policies are the modern-day extension of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief in bringing god, civilization and technology to the primitive, untamed lands of the West.

That became crystal clear in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, when he declared that, "In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command-and-control regulations, but through technology and innovation."

The Republican party platform includes a detailed discussion of environmental policy, but most of it is linked to the supply of energy. Environmental conservation for its own sake gets only a nod. The platform refers to "modernizing" the Endangered Species Act, and developing the Artic Refuge using the most "sophisticated technologies."

The Bush administration wants to reduce the role of government, dismantle pesky regulations and assert man's dominion over nature; in this, they avow they are doing "god's work."

Oddly, visiting shock and awe on the environment is hardly in concert with traditional Republican values. After all, we have President Eisenhower (a Republican) to thank for designating the Arctic Refuge, and Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was a renowned conservationist whose legacy includes the very Wilderness Act that Bush is dismantling.

More moderate Republicans – that is, pre-Reagan administration – have historically supported some measure of government regulation and acknowledged the need to protect and preserve the land.

Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment2004, says, "Conservation is deeply ingrained in the Republican ethos, and Bush is betraying his Republican roots."

A growing number of old-school Republicans, alarmed at the right-wing tilt of their party, are trying to foster some reforms. Martha Marks, founder of Republicans For Environmental Protection, told Sierra Magazine that the GOP has "been hijacked over the last two decades, catering to special-interest money and ideologues."

The result, Marks says, is "an anti-environmentalism that flies in the face of some of Roosevelt's most inspiring pronouncements: 'I do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.'"

Polls reveal that the majority of Americans, no matter what political party they belong to, desire stronger environmental protections. People want to breathe clean air and drink fresh water. They want their children to enjoy the same beaches, deserts and mountains as they did when they were kids.

As linguist George Lakoff says, the weaker the conservatives' positions, the more Orwellian their language. Since Bush knows that most Americans want a healthy environment, he employs deceptively labeled legislation like "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" to camouflage the fact that these bills are gifts to industry polluters and do little to protect the environment or the interests of the average American.

John Kerry, unlike Bush, talks about the environment in terms of responsibility and nurturance. Kerry recognizes that environmental issues are public health and safety issues: communities that are free of toxins are healthy, secure communities, able to care for healthy children and families.

As a strong believer in conservation, Kerry is upholding not just progressive values, but traditional American values. "As Americans," his web site says, "we have the right to breathe unpolluted air, drink safe water, eat uncontaminated food, live in clean communities and enjoy our natural treasures. In the 21st century, we can have progress without pollution – we can grow our economy while protecting our natural resources."

A clean environment, Kerry emphasizes, is an American right. Forests, rivers, wetlands and oceans, fish and wildlife – these things have their own intrinsic value and are not to be recklessly exploited. Kerry promises that he will "defend our environmental values and protect our environmental rights."

George Bush wants to let power plants spew three times more poisonous mercury into the air than they currently do; John Kerry co-sponsored a bill in 2003 that would cut power plant emissions of mercury and other pollutants.

Bush and Kerry have warring visions on the environment, because the environment represents different things to each of them. Bush sees nature as a treasure trove of raw materials to be used for short-term gain. To John Kerry, wildlands, rivers and oceans are publicly held assets to be cared for and guarded for future generations.

Sometime it seems like I'm looking at that photograph of Bingham Canyon all over again. And I wonder: is it a shining example of man's domination over nature – or just a big, ugly hole in the ground?


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