Red Sky at Morning
The environmental movement has suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of the Bush Administration. In this winter of our discontent it is important to remember that liberal ideas in western society continue to be dominant, in theory if not always in practice. Liberal ideas, the primacy of the public interest over private interests, so thoroughly set the framework for our thinking about government that even the Bush Administration has to use the language of liberalism, with often comic effect. From Roosevelt's New Deal, through the activism of the 1950s, 60s and 70s the U.S. has undergone more positive social changes than at any time in our short history. While the President dithers, people at the state and local levels are addressing the big environmental and social issues that are bearing down on us: global warming, social and economic equity, and conservation of ecosystems. These issues will increase in urgency with time and the longer our government refuses to deal with them, the more costly the solutions will be. Although no administration has been as hostile to the environment as Bush's, in fairness it should be noted no previous administration has dealt with global warming either.
Bush's ideological cohorts define themselves primarily by what they are not; that is, they are definitively not liberals, but since liberalism defines our political possiblities they have few ideas with which to work. Bush's support for teaching creationism in public schools, for example, is a combination of political calculation and intellectual sloth.
Bush and his fellow travelers are trying to hold back a rising tide, but they cannot repeal the laws of physics. As the world becomes warmer, more populated, and ecosystems more stressed, we will have to be more intelligent in our economic and political choices, we will have to plan better, and we will have to manage natural systems far more than we have in the past. In this brave new world the advantage will accrue to those people and societies that plan and manage best. Conversely those who do not use care and foresight will only have force and violence to fall back on.
In the 1960s and 70s the federal government made a good start on environmental legislation and made substantial progress on air and water pollution, forest protection and public health. We spoke with Gus Speth about some of the history of environmental legislation and policy, in which he was actively involved, and what needs to be done next.