Profits Before Environment
by Mark Bittmam
from the NY Times
I wasn’t surprised when the administration of George W. Bush sacrificed the environment for corporate profits. But when the same thing happens under a Democratic administration, it’s depressing. With little or no public input, policies that benefit corporations regardless of the consequences continue to be enacted.
No wonder an April 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center found that about only 20 percent of Americans have faith in the government (it’s one thing upon which the left and right and maybe even the center agree). But maybe this is nothing new: as Glenda Farrell, as Genevieve “Gen” Larkin, put it in “Gold Diggers of 1937,” “It’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.”
But is anyone in power even trying? Last winter, the Department of Agriculture deregulated Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa, despite concerns about cross-pollination of non-genetically modified crops. It then defied a court order banning the planting of genetically modified sugar beets pending completion of an environmental impact study.
Monsanto engineers these plants and makes Roundup, the herbicide they resist. But Roundup-ready crops don’t increase long-term yields, a host of farmers are now dealing with “superweeds” and there is worry about superbugs, nearly all courtesy of Monsanto. In fact, this system doesn’t contribute to much of anything except Monsanto’s bottom line. Yet Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave Monsanto the nod, perhaps yielding to pressure from the White House.
The United States exerts that same kind of pressure abroad. WikiLeaks cables show that U.S. “biotechnology outreach programs” have promoted genetically modified crops in Africa, Asia and South America; they’ve also revealed that diplomats schemed to retaliate against any European Union countries that oppose those crops.
Sacrificing the environment for profits didn’t stop with Bush, and it doesn’t stop with genetically modified organisms. Take, for example, the Keystone XL pipeline extension. XL is right: the 36-inch-wide pipeline, which will stretch from the Alberta tar sands across the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast, will cost $7 billion and run for 1,711 miles — more than twice as long as the Alaska pipeline. It will cross nearly 2,000 rivers, the huge wetlands ecosystem called the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer, the country’s biggest underground freshwater supply.
If Keystone is built, we’ll see rising greenhouse gas emissions right away (tar sands production creates three times as many greenhouse gases as does conventional oil), and our increased dependence on fossil fuels will further the likelihood of climate-change disaster. Then there is the disastrous potential of leaks of the non-Wiki-variety. (It’s happened before.)
Proponents say the pipeline will ease gas prices and oil “insecurity.” But domestic drilling has raised, not lowered, oil prices, and as for the insecurity — what we need is to develop wiser ways to use the oil we have.
They say, too, that the pipeline could create 100,000 new jobs. But even the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union oppose the pipeline, saying, “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil.”
Sounds as if union officials have been reading the writer and activist Bill McKibben, who calls the pipeline “a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” and NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who says the oil Keystone will deliver “is essentially game over” for the planet.
Game over? No problem, says the State Department, which concluded that the project will have no significant impact on “most resources along the proposed pipeline corridor.” The Sierra Club quickly responded by calling the report “an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people.”
I do expect that, and I am insulted. President Obama can deny Keystone the permit. A truly environmentally friendly president (like the one candidate Obama appeared to be) would be looking for creative ways to leave fossil fuels underground, not extract them. Perhaps he doesn’t “believe in” global warming at this point, like many Republicans?
When government defends corporate interests, citizens must fight. McKibben has helped organize protests at the White House against Keystone, and he’s one of hundreds who’ve been arrested in the last couple of weeks. These people are showing that the role of government as corporate ally must be challenged.
As it will be in the fight against carte blanche for genetically modified organisms: From Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, there will be a march from New York City to Washington to demand that genetically modified foods be labeled, something a majority of Americans want. This small, perfectly reasonable request has run into joint opposition from the biotech industry and (here we go again) the Food and Drug Administration.
Why are most of us are filled with mistrust of the government? Maybe because we, like Gen Larkin, know it’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.
More from MARK BITTMAN
Keystone XL Is Self-Destructive. Does the Obama Administration Need to Be Also?
So many thoughts after today’s column, in which I wrote about the Keystone XL pipeline. If it’s approved by President Obama, it would carry diluted bitumen — acidic crude oil — 1,700 miles from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The Times has already come out against the pipeline, citing the risk of spills, spikes in greenhouse gas emissions and massive destruction of Canada’s boreal forest. Proponents cite job creation and “oil security.”
Oil security suggests that by getting more oil from our peaceful upstairs neighbors and less from our suppliers in the Middle East — sometimes seen as volatile or even hostile, though the supply has been steady — our national security is enhanced. We’re only “safe” if we can reliably obtain all of the oil we “need.”
This is an infuriatingly shortsighted and self-destructive position. This is the behavior of addiction, and the only people who can justifiably — though still incorrectly — argue otherwise are those who truly believe that the oil that gives us such comfort now won’t be causing catastrophic harm later. As far as I know, President Obama isn’t one of those people, but if he doesn’t block the pipeline he will be acting just as ignorantly as if he were. (He thinks this is what voters want?)
Yesterday, Vice President Biden said that a failure to invest in clean energy would be “the biggest mistake this nation has made in its entire history.” He went on to say, “There’s absolutely no reason why the United States can’t lead the world in clean energy.” Actually, there is. You can’t lead the world in clean energy when you’re a slave to promoting dirty energy.
There are people on the ground right now — literally — who are making this point powerfully, protesters staging a sit-in to try to convince Obama to deny the permit needed to proceed with Keystone XL. This act of civil disobedience marks Keystone XL as the most important environmental decision of the Obama era — the keystone of 21st century environmental policy, if you will.
You might associate this type of activism with the left, but Keystone XL has drawn opposition from conservatives as well. (The pipeline, by the way, would cross predominantly red states.) Here’s a great article from Madeline Ostrander, which asks, “can opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline bring conservatives back to conservation?” She details the independent risk assessment compiled by a civil engineer from Nebraska, which predicts that Keystone XL could have 91 significant spills over the next 50 years — eight times as many as TransCanada suggested. “Moreover,” she writes, “the Plains have enough of a libertarian and populist streak to make at least a few people distrustful of a Canadian oil corporation and a federal-government-led review process with little public input.” Ironically enough, it looks like the left and right are finding common ground around a pipeline that would cut the country in two.
In any case, the protests: one by one the protesters are being cuffed and sent off to jail, over 500 so far. (Groups of people carrying signs aren’t allowed to block the sidewalk outside the White House.) The writer Bill McKibben and 65 others spent two days in jail. The actress Daryl Hannah has been arrested, and so has a former Obama campaign writer. (Two thousand people have committed to this protest, which will end Sept. 3. Watch this video for footage of the sit-in and an interview with McKibben about why he and the other activists are there.)
The renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen has joined the sit-in as well. Here’s why. (Teaser: “If he chooses the dirty needle it is game over because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction. Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.”) Of course, he’s been arrested, too.
The original Tea Party was arguably the most famous act of civil disobedience in American history. And it’s never stopped, only paused; most of the great causes have been aided by civil disobedience: the underground railroad, women’s suffrage, the Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed “the Wobblies” (a plug here for the excellent new book about Joe Hill, a Wobbly hero murdered by the Utah courts almost 100 years ago), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the great civil rights, anti-nuclear and anti-war movements of the ‘60s, Stonewall and all that followed it, and countless others.
Sometimes things get done electorally in this country, although these days, most change emanating from Washington benefits the corpocracy. But civil disobedience is as much a part of the American fabric as government laying down for capitalism.
As always, people without money and power must struggle to be heard. That’s why it’s so heartening to see courageous citizens putting their butts on the line at the White House right now: they’re the latest in a long line of Americans being both civil and disobedient. All they want is to see President Obama come to his senses. Anything else is beyond self-destructive, all the way to stupid.