The Pathos of Politics (72-1) Environmental Protection

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No generation can exclusively own the renewable resources by which it lives. We hold the commonwealth in trust for prosperity, and to lessen or destroy it is to commit treason against the future. ~ Inter-American Conference on the Conservation of Renewable Natural Resources (1948)

Britain enacted various environmental laws, protecting wild birds (1902), weeds (1959) and badgers (1991, 1992), as well as a series of acts aimed at the quality of water (the 1st in 1852) and air (the 1st in 1853).

 London’s Great Smog

The Great Smog was a severe air pollution event 5–9 December 1952. Windless cold weather in London created a thick layer of smog that covered the city.

It was not thought to be a significant event at the time, as London had experienced many such “pea soupers.” The Great Smog killed 12,000 and made 100,000 ill.

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The link between clean air and health were well understood by the late 19th century. British legislative acts aimed at air quality were passed in 1853, 1856, and 1891. They had clearly been ineffectual.

The government was initially reluctant to act – downplaying the problem due to fears about the economic impact of reducing pollution. 4 years after the Great Smog, a Clean Air Act finally passed. This 1956 law was only in effect until 1964 but was then succeeded by the 1968 Clean Air Act.

The 1968 act introduced the idea of using tall chimneys for releasing the fumes from industrial emissions. Legislators were persuaded that fouling the air was an economic necessity, so they simply did something about it being spewed near the ground, where it was so obvious.

Convinced of the necessity of filth to succor capitalism, the British government has not bothered to effect clean air. London air pollution can be as bad as Beijing. 40,000 Brits die from toxic air each year, and millions more suffer from it, shortening their lives as well as degrading enjoyment of life.

 Los Angeles Smog

Los Angeles had its first episodes of thick smog in 1943. Some suspected a Japanese chemical attack.

A county commission was appointed to study the nature of the problem. It took scientists a decade to figure out that cars were the culprit.

People did look at tailpipes, but auto exhaust was clear, and the smog was brown, so it didn’t seem like there was a direct relationship between those 2 things. ~ American historian Sarah Elkind

In the decades that followed there were attendant protests, politics, industry denial, and an unwavering attachment to the automobile. All the while Los Angeles was promoted as a clean, healthy place.

Like Denver and Mexico City, Los Angeles is a natural pollution trap. Surrounding mountains combine with temperature inversions to snuggle filthy air.

Smoke fumes from steel and chemical plants, oil refineries, and backyard trash incinerators plagued city air. In 1974, the smog was so bad that Governor Ronald Reagan urged residents to limit travel and drive slower to reduce emissions.

It was not until 1975 that new cars were required to have catalytic converters to reduce exhaust emissions. California did not institute a smog-check program on vehicles until 1984; 4 decades after lung-burning blankets started covering the City of Angels.

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Environmental protection in the United States was left to the states until after the 2nd World War. The US enacted its 1st water pollution control act in 1948, when Harry Truman was President. The original statute was amended several times, most extensively during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.

The 1st US federal legislation aimed at reducing air pollution was enacted in 1955 under the Eisenhower administration. Amendments were made in 1963 under President Lyndon Johnson to reduce air pollution from stationary sources, such as power plants and steel mills.

The Johnson administration ushered in the 1st federal legislation aimed at preserving endangered species. Earlier acts were quite limited. The 1900 Lacey Act had ineffectual regulations over commercial animal markets. Migratory birds were supposedly protected in 1929, whales via treaty in 1937, and bald eagles were via a 1940 law. These specific acts raised little opposition, as they came at a low cost to society.

President Richard Nixon also furthered efforts to save endangered species and clean up toxic industrial sites. These efforts were in response to horrendous pollution in cities and publicized environmental horrors.

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Conservation and environmental awareness groups sprung up during the 20th century in Britain and the United States. Most have memberships that continue to climb into the 21st century.

Beyond legislation that somewhat lessened pollution problems, environmental successes have been partial and piecemeal: halting or limiting some projects which would have wrought severe onsite environmental damage, and curtailing pollution only to levels that are not apparently lethal to large numbers of people living in cities, or at least out of sight of urban dwellers.

American environmental protection was set back by the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, who embraced laissez-faire. But succeeding administrations, regardless of party, offered few to no environmental initiatives. Preserving the environment became just another special interest, and not an especially compelling one, as there is no money in Nature except in its exploitation. President Donald Trump proved the point by eliminating environmental quality as a priority to practically no protest from other politicians (the press and public have squawked a bit).

A recent trend has been to subsidize energy production from sources that are considered more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels (coal and petroleum), notably solar and wind power. These have been giveaways to corporations that have done nothing to solve the problem of environmental degradation. (In 2016, the US subsidized ‘renewable’ energy $7 billion while subsidizing fossil fuels $20 billion.)

Further, so-called ‘clean’ energy sources are nothing of the sort. Photovoltaics – what is commonly called “solar power” – is an environmental affront of a major magnitude in the mining of raw materials, waste, pollution from production, and disposal of spent products. The only thing clean about solar power is its energy source, and photovoltaics are so inefficient in the field that the effort is hardly worthwhile.

Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it. Yet in lengthy conversations, the vast majority of leaders from the largest environmental organizations and foundations in the country insisted to us that we are on the right track. ~ American political consultants Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus in 2004

The overall failure of environmentalism to date owes to an unwillingness to adopt Naess’ deep ecology and directly address the cause of the mass extinction event underway: the preservation of capitalism. As every doctor knows, only treating symptoms does nothing to cure an underlying disease.

Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” – “the environment” – than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~ Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus