Environmental movement needs a big shot of adrenalin

At 30-plus years of age, the environmental movement is spinning its wheels, awash in good proposals it can't get passed. It is focused on litigation and playing within the system instead of moving courageously to build broad, potent political alliances that might have the breadth and the moxie to save a dangerously imperiled planet.

The allegation isn't mine; it comes from James Gustave “Gus” Speth – chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, and dean of environmental studies at Yale.

Mainstream environmentalism, Speth notes, has had its successes. Building on the landmark statutes pushed through in the early 1970s, air quality has improved, water is cleaner, and dangerous toxic emissions have been curbed.

But a nation fully protected? Hardly. Just check the record, suggests Speth in his new book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World.” A third of our rivers and half our lakes are too polluted to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's basic standard. Thirty-seven percent of estuaries are in “poor” condition. Beach closings have reached all-time highs. Two-thirds of Americans live in counties that register pollution levels over EPA's fairly basic standard.

Rural acres paved

Wilderness areas are set aside. But since 1982, Americans have paved or built on 35 million once-rural acres, the size of New York State. Since the 1970s, our miles of paved roads are up 53 percent, vehicle miles traveled up 177 percent.

And just check the world scene, impacted so hugely by U.S. consumption and policies. Development and agriculture have destroyed half the world's tropical and temperate forests, triggering landslides, flooding and soil depletion. Species are disappearing at about 1,000 times the normal rate, threatening the biodiversity that may be crucial to mankind's survival.

Twenty percent of coral reefs are gone. Soil erosion, salinization, devegetation – and eventual desertification – are proceeding at alarming rates. Freshwater supplies are increasingly threatened. Mercury, lead and arsenic are among the hundreds of millions of tons of yearly hazardous waste emissions. At current levels of economic expansion, according to the Global Footprint Network, humanity's demand on nature will be twice the biosphere's productive capacity, threatening “large-scale ecosystem collapse” by mid-century.

And then there's climate change, directly triggered by the burning of fossil fuels. It's affecting polar ice caps, melting glaciers, bringing about both heavy storms and severe droughts, imperiling shorelines. It's the culprit in the loss of tens of millions of acres of forest in the American West as warming permits bark beetles to move northward, attacking pine, fir and spruce.

U.S.: Main footdragger

So who's to blame? Mostly, argues Speth, the wealthy, industrial countries “and especially … the United States, the principal footdragger” in the push for global restraints.

And why? It's the basic capitalist system, says Speck. To survive, corporations must produce profits, which means they need to keep introducing smart new products or strategies for fear of being outstripped by competitors. So they keep expanding across cities, nations and the globe. Today there are 63,000 multinational firms with 91 million employees.

By the way they are constituted, corporations feel obliged to retain profits for shareholders and executives. Conversely, to hold down costs, they “externalize” – throw off to others – their environmental and social impacts. So a mining company naturally tries to send polluting chemicals downstream, a utility tries to burn coal and let someone else worry about global warming, or a big box merchandiser tries to get state governments to cover its employee health costs.

Plus, with their money supplies and armies of lobbyists, corporations can fight environmental regulations or help install government officials friendly to them. Worldwide, Speth reports, businesses get $850 billion of public subsidies yearly for agriculture, energy, transportation and more – about 2.5 percent of the global economy.

The pillar of modern capitalism? It's consumerism – the selfish urge for “more more more” we all experience to some degree. So since 1972, the average size of our homes has increased 50 percent, electricity consumption per person is up 70 percent, municipal wastes per person 33 percent. McMansions, SUVs, gadgets beyond count – we love to consume. Result: Corporations profit and the demand on global resources soars.

Risk confrontation

The environmental movement, Speth suggests, hasn't wanted to offend consumers by suggesting lifestyle changes. It's often held back fire on corporations, hoping they'll voluntarily turn “greener.”

But it will have to risk more confrontation, openly advocate less consumptive lifestyles, and mobilize youth, unions and alarmed citizens. Because “right now, we're headed toward a ruined planet.”