The Republican Party, its Trumpian leadership and snarling pack of mad dog pundits, from Limbaugh to Coulter, have long been moving our country backwards so inexorably that in 2019 the GOP has, through executive fiat, managed to start turning the American environment once again into a cesspool of pollution as bad as anything seen 50 to 60 years ago.
It’s not only the GOP and its minions that are to blame. It’s virtually every major corporation in America, and everyone who sits on their boards, Republicans and Democrats alike, that puts profit margin above public health, and every Pentagon department that puts budget considerations over issues of clean air and clean water and the clean-up of the military’s massive legacy of pollution.
The Crazy Right in America, and the Go-Along Centrist Left, are literally trying to reverse history, not only stopping the momentum of environment-oriented public health legislation, but actually, if not always wittingly, attempting to recreate the hazardous conditions of decades ago — conditions that were the stimulus in the first place for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.
The engine of this reversal of history is the GOP’s dismantling of the EPA, started in the Bush era by taking money away from the Superfund Program, the federal government’s major environmental clean-up effort, and brought to a drastic level by the Trump Administration, with the GOP’s consent to staffing the EPA with its worst enemies, who are relentlessly rolling back clean air and water regulations.
When the EPA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, America’s air and water were atrociously filthy. Rivers were catching on fire or stank so badly no one could stand to get near them. The Potomac smelled like Washington D.C.’s sewer system. The Cuyahoga in Ohio became a river of flame. Almost 50 years later, largely because of the EPA and its Superfund initiatives, the obvious horrors have been dealt with. But now, because of conservative foot dragging and denial, climate change has become a world-threatening consequence of air pollution.
When Nixon proposed the EPA, he did so in dramatic fashion. “It is now or never,” he said. In his 1970 State of the Union address, Nixon came off as the exemplary environmental realist. “The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?”
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions,” he told the nation. “It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”
Because of a decades-long assault on the EPA, the values it represents, and its programs designed to prevent the “disaster” referred to above, we are in the early days of a human-caused environmental catastrophe, resulting not only from CO2 pollution heating the atmosphere, but from regulation dismantling carried out by the majority of Nixon’s own political party.
“Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be,” he said. “We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
The GOP power structure hasn’t been willing to pay what we owe since the Reagan-Bush-Trump era began. It all started to go really badly in 2003 when President George W. Bush slashed the primary source of revenue for Superfund clean-ups, the industrial pollution tax that generated some $3 billion a year from corporate polluters. He shifted the burden onto the American taxpayer. With that one move, the threat to rising profit margins that the EPA had posed was all but wiped out. And 15 years later, Trump’s forces moved us even farther back into the pre-EPA era by lifting regulations of mercury pollution from coal burning power plants, removing the requirement that gas producers report the amount of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) they release into the environment, and requirements that made factories seek and use state of the art technology to reduce cancer-causing benzine, lead, and dioxin as byproducts of their production processes.
The EPA’s programs cover everything from smart growth, pesticides, brownfield cleanup and pollution prevention on beaches to protection from radiation, environmental education, fuel economy, toxic release inventories, geologic surveys and aquifer studies, clean drinking water science and environmental justice enforcement.
While I don’t think we’ll see burning rivers anytime soon, it seems self-evident to me that the Crazy Right’s relentless attack on the EPA could create conditions far worse than those 50 years ago when President Nixon responded to the public’s outrage at gross environmental degradation. While the connection isn’t often made anymore, climate change caused by the release of greenhouse gases is a grotesque extension of the “carelessness” that once caused the “virgin” American landscape to become so filthy that even Republicans couldn’t ignore it.
The EPA, when it operated at full strength, was a federal agency of great promise. If we don’t restore it soon, the GOP will have literally turned back the clock to an era in which our nation’s natural landscape and water ways were visibly and irrefutably befouled by industrial and military waste. And added to that, of course, will be the unprecedented consequences of global warming. Perhaps with an EPA at full strength again, some of the misery of drought, floods and rising tides can be mitigated by good science and devoted effort. But without the EPA, America becomes a polluted wasteland once again, and one more terrifying then we could have imagined in the seventies when the EPA was created.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it