The Pathos of Politics (124) The Environment

The Environment

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. ~ American environmentalist Ansel Adams

Abetting capitalist instincts, governments worldwide have universally allowed unrelenting environmental degradation on every front, and joining in as well in accelerating humanity’s demise. Such destruction has been checked sporadically only after popular outcry. All the while, politicians pay lip service to environmental quality. (Human devastation of the environment is surveyed in Spokes 6: The Fruits of Civilization.)

Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge; it’s common sense. ~ US President Ronald Reagan in 1984

Laws protecting the environment have always been incrementally piecemeal, intending business-as-usual with a bit of abeyance. The oligarchy of corporate interest squashes attempts to stay the demise of the human species from befoulment.

Various countries ban the use of toxic substances but allow domestic companies to manufacture them for export. Such is the case for the weed killers paraquat and atrazine, which China and Europe ban, but are nonetheless made for export to the US and other careless countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Paraquat is finding increasing favor in the US because the most popular weed killer there is losing its potency as plants sharpen their defenses against malevolent mammals.

United States

The Anacostia River flows through the nation’s capital, both symbolic and symptomatic of the country’s rivers. With its sluggish brown surface, the Anacostia retains its historic state as a slow-flowing garbage dump.

4.5 decades after the Clean Water Act obliged the federal government to make America’s main waterways “fishable and swimmable,” the Anacostia, albeit slightly improved, lingers in a disgusting state. Each year, over 7.5 billion liters of sewage and storm water flow into it, so clouding the water with feces and gunk that light cannot penetrate it.

The mussels and purifying weeds that once carpeted the riverbed are long gone. Anacostia is now coated in black ooze laden with lethal industrial pollutants, over 3 meters deep in some places.

The fish that survive do so blotted with toxic lesions. Though poisonous, they are still frequently consumed by some 17,000 poor people. In this too the Anacostia is both symbolic and symptomatic of the country at large.

(UK environmental laws: Metropolis Water Act (1852, 1871, 1897, 1899, 1902); Alkali Act (1863); Ground Game Act (1880); Wild Birds Protection Act (1902); National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949); Clean Air Act (1956); Weeds Act (1959); Environmental Protection Act (1990); Badgers Act (1991, 1992); Environment Act (1995); Water Act (2003); Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (2005); Merchant Shipping (Pollution) Act (2006); Climate Change Act (2008).)

(US environmental laws: Clean Air Act (1970); National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (1970), which established an Environmental Protection Agency and a Council on Environmental Quality; Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1972); Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972); Endangered Species Act (1973); Safe Drinking Water Act (1974); Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976); Clean Water Act (1977), Superfund Act (1980).)

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The greenhouse effect is an important environmental issue. We need to get on with it. ~ Dan Quayle

Begun by a Republican president (Richard Nixon) in response to overwhelming public outcry, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had bipartisan support for barely a decade. Industry quickly bit back for its God-given right to pollute, which Republicans affirmed.

Despite his nod to environmental quality, President Ronald Reagan paid heed to the corporate backlash. President George W. Bush turned more forcefully against environmental protection. President Donald Trump had so much respect for the environment that he put someone opposed to the EPA’s very existence in charge of it, with the Republican Congress’ blessing.

More generally, the Trump administration has been aggressive in not enforcing environmental protection laws and even encouraging corporate pollution. Congress, responsible for oversight, did nothing in response. Further, the Trump government undermined government-sponsored scientific studies on pollution and climate change via mandates on research methods and restricting publication of unfavorable results.

Meanwhile, the federal courts, stocked with conservative toads sympathetic to corporations, croak about cost.

It is not rational to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health and environmental benefits. ~ Justice Antonin Scalia in Michigan v. EPA (2014)

The EPA must justify its regulations by showing that societal benefits monetarily outweigh the costs imposed on polluters. It has proven a demanding metric, with the scales tipped to the status quo of pollution on a massive scale. The courts have repeatedly denied rational regulations to lessen pollution of potent toxins such as mercury and lead, as was the case in Michigan v. EPA.

Despite exhaustive consideration of costs, the court strikes down EPA’s rule on the ground that the EPA “unreasonably deemed cost irrelevant.” That is a peculiarly blinkered way for a court to assess the lawfulness of an agency’s rulemaking. ~ Justice Elena Kagan, in dissent in Michigan v. EPA

Further, US courts curtail the government’s ability to make polluters pay to clean up their messes. Instead, taxpayers foot the bill for whatever cleanup is done. In effect, the government subsidizes capitalist pollution.


UN talks failed. We continue to follow a path to a very dangerous warmer world within this century. ~ Swedish environmentalist Johan Rockström in December 2018

There is a long and growing list of international treaties to limit environmental destruction and pollution, most notably curbing output of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and thereby climate change. They have failed to slow the dynamic down. Further, the signed papers have not lessened the impetus for further deterioration, let alone favor Nature over human wants. The calculation is always how much pollution is acceptable.

All the lofty words of statesmen provide no means for enforcing compliance. Whatever assurances may be made, adherence is essentially voluntary, subject to the political whim of the moment. The resolute corporate lobby against environmental protection stands vigilant watch.

The world’s first agreement to limit global warming was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which went into force in 1994. It had negligible effect, as did succeeding treaties. The United States refused to ratify its successor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The latest effort was the 2016 Paris agreement, which was lauded as a “historic turning point”; but no turn is apparent. That is because of the price tag attached. The estimated cost for the US alone is at least $484 billion annually in remediation measures; roughly what the nation spends every year in national defense.

Under the Paris accord, the US pledged to cut greenhouse emissions 27% by 2025 from what they were in 2005. The first problem with that target is that greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 are not known. Estimates vary by at least 20%. But let’s get past fallacious statistics to substance.

The US has done nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The country was already on track to miss its avowed goal; so too other countries.

(Dispensing with pretense, President Trump rejected all efforts at pollution control, beginning with disavowal of American adherence to the 2016 Paris accord. Instead, Trump allied himself with the foulest polluters on the planet. No peep of protest issued forth from national politicians of either major party. Federal agencies under Trump argued in their reports that pollution controls were unnecessary because their effect would be incidental to the extinction event underway.)

Overall, the Paris agreement aims to limit the increase in global air-surface temperature to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. This is impossible. By 2019 the world had already warmed 1.3 °C and was getting hotter faster.

The measures Paris accord signatories agreed to were modest, to put it generously. Most developing countries promised insignificant change. India, the world’s 3rd-biggest generator of greenhouse gases, vowed to limit its emissions to rise no more than 90% above current levels.

By 2018, only 1 country in the world had actually met its Paris agreement commitment: Morocco. The rest of the world had done next to nothing at best.

It has now been 10 years since major industrialized nations (the G20) committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, yet astonishingly some governments are actually increasing the subsidies they give to coal power plants. ~ English political theorist, economist, and environmentalist Ipek Gençsü in 2019

To even begin to address the atmospheric ills of capitalism, the public will have to shell out for harms caused largely by the private sector (albeit with the implicit permission of the government). No such largesse is forthcoming without legislation that conservatives, which are in the majority, find anathema. Fighting climate change simply won’t happen.

The global warming limits set by the Paris Climate Agreement should not be considered a safe amount of global warming. ~ American environmentalist Jennifer Li

The pledges countries made during the Paris climate accord don’t get us anywhere close to what we have to do. Further, countries haven’t really followed through with actions to reduce their emissions in any way commensurate with what they profess to be aiming for. ~ American climatologist Drew Shindell in 2018

The invariable cost of vibrant economic activity under the market system is environmental deterioration unto extinction. Green growth simply does not exist.