Wars and Stratagems

Strategic Ignorance; Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress
By Carl Pope and Paul Rauber

The War Against the Greens; The “Wise Use” Movement, the New Right, and the Browning of America
By David Helvarg

(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Fall 2004, Volume 10, Number 3)

There is a certain grim satisfaction that comes of having your most dire prediction proven true. Everyone who knew in November 2000 that a vote for Bush was a vote against the health of the planet now has the satisfaction of knowing that she was right. Unfortunately, this is the only satisfaction that environmentalists have gotten from the Bush administration.

In Strategic Ignorance, Carl Pope and Paul Rauber take us into an Orwellian Bush world where “Healthy Forests” is code for aggressive logging and scientific research is “regarded as the raw material of spin, to be dribbled out, manipulated, or suppressed as suits the political needs of the moment.”

A radical shift in direction
According to Pope and Rauber, Bush the Younger has done much more than merely put a few bad policies in place. He has broken with a national consensus on the importance of environmental conservation that has held since Republican Teddy Roosevelt lived in the White House. Even as the GOP turned sharply right under Reagan and Bush the Elder, Republican officials paid obeisance to environmental principles, and felt real constraint about how far they could go making concessions to business that would pollute the air or water. Not so Bush the Younger.

Pope and Rauber summarize the Darwinist philosophy of the Bush administration in “Ten Commandments for the Hard Right.” Among these are “Stop coddling the public…. Only wimps and trial lawyers worry about parts per million…. Markets are smart, governments dumb…. Regulations just hobble American industry…. Say one thing, do another…. Go it alone in the world; who needs allies?”

These principles set the tone, but the proof is in the details—like the deal Tyson and Purdue cut with the administration to prevent the application of the Clean Water Act to industrial- scale hog farms. Pope and Rauber paint a compelling portrait of an administration obsessed by secrecy and committed to the idea that the highest and best use of land, water, and other resources is to enable corporations to turn them into profit centers— especially corporations that have been generous to Bush, Cheney, and the GOP.

A systematic strategy of anti-environmentalism
Bush the Younger did not invent antienvironmentalism. An important precursor is described in an updated edition of David Helvarg’s The War Against the Greens, a policy book that reads like a murder mystery.

Helvarg chronicles the cynical and deliberate campaign by western, resource-based industries to reverse decades of increasingly responsible environmental policy under the banners of “Wise Use” and “Property Rights.” Fearing that growing national consensus on the importance of environmental protection would threaten profit margins, the logging, ranching, mining, and petro-chemical industries undertook a well-funded campaign to create grassroots citizens groups to oppose things like the regulation of mine waste and the protection of old-growth forests.

It is hard to say which is more shocking, the cynicism of calling such an agenda “Wise Use” or the pretense that the industry-paid individuals who led the movement were citizen-activists. But the fundamental outrageousness of the Wise Use movement is that it could succeed in a nation where polls consistently show that 70, 80, or 90 percent of Americans are in favor of strong environmental laws. How, in a nation of self-described environmentalists, could an ideology like Wise Use have managed to move into the White House and take over the national agenda?

Here Helvarg’s own cynicism betrays him; he seems to believe that Wise Use is “little more than a front” that “greedy corporations” foisted upon an unwary public. True, the Wise Use and Property Rights movements were initiated by corporate interests. But once launched, the ideas resonated with a large number of Americans who tell pollsters that they support strong environmental laws and at the same time say that they have right to do as they choose with their own property, and that they want freedom from regulation and less government.

On the other hand, few people who voted for the Bush/Cheney ticket can have expected the thoroughness with which this administration would move to gut the environmental protections enacted over several decades by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Strategic Ignorance and The War Against the Greens are powerful books. Coming in this season of campaign books, they should inspire environmentalists to redouble our efforts to un-elect George Bush.

Diana Muir is working on a new book on the role of overpopulation in history.