Is The BP Spill Big Enough To Resuscitate The Environmental Movement?
The Blue Marble from Apollo 17, taken on December 7, 1972 Image credit:NASA, Earth Observatory
Floating residues from the ongoing BP oil 'blowout' in the Gulf are expansive enough to be easily visible from space. Satellite photos of oil on salt water may even impact the politics of environment in the USA, just as did NASA's first photos of the Blue Planet two years after the first Earth Day, helping inspire Congress to pass major pieces of environmental legislation. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman mentioned this possibility in his piece titled Drilling, Disaster, Denial , in which he frames the loss of environmentalism's hold on the public as stemming from the difficulty of getting the "...public focused on a form of pollution that's invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days." and on pushback from the radical right. The latter effect is my focus in this post.Here's Krugmans' crucial point.
As the photogenic crises of the 1960s and 1970s faded from memory, conservatives began pushing back against environmental regulation.I left University just after the first Earth Day and have worked as an environmental professional ever since. Krugman is dead on.
Much of the pushback took the form of demands that environmental restrictions be weakened. But there was also an attempt to construct a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists -- "eco-Nazis," according to Rush Limbaugh -- or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans. (I'm sorry to say that the long effort to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod -- which may finally be over thanks to the Obama administration -- played right into that caricature.)
The anti-environmental narrative has been carefully constructed, beginning with the first Reagan Administration, and to great effect. For a sample of how well the pushback narrative is now deployed, with the ongoing BP spill as benchmark, have a look at how in 2009, a BP Executive Told Congress That Offshore Drilling Has Been "Safe And Protective Of Environment"
The 'narrative' has been increasing well funded over the course of three decades, with oil and coal producing firms among the biggest donors. "Think Tanks" funded with this money have kept the push-back narrative humming even while public interest in environmental protection is at an all time low. Why this continuing need to kick a dead green horse?
No fine levied by EPA ever made a noticeable impact on short term stock price. The anti-environmental narrative has always been more about protecting brand and bonuses, ensuring access to resources on public land, and boosting market demand for commodity products. Think back on the decade of Beyond Petroleum, the Hummer, and "Drill Baby Brill?" A decade of Renewables, Plug in Hybrids, and Conservation in its place would not have been nearly as 'good for business.' Hence, the need to vilify and push back to protect markets.
What's going to happen politically?
Demonizing BP in particular and corporations in general will do little to convince the public that environmentalism is something they can believe in and rely on for a better future.
Krugman got at the leadership factor right when he wrote that
President Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain.
Obama has to do much more than that. Keeping industry funded Think Tanks and lobbyists away from Congress is vital. Another requirement is regulating to protect health, safety, and environment. Who cares if small banks have no money to loan fishermen on the Gulf Coast if fish can not be sold?
I made the point about doing environmental management for almost 40 years. Makes me feel obligated to go beyond the usual headline with an open ended question mark. Here goes.
When, at summer's end, and just before midterm Congressional elections, the costs to the taxpayer of responding to this leak are tabulated, and the financial losses of ruined tourism and boating and fishing industries along the Gulf coast are summarized, the figures may overwhelm any whining and complaining that might otherwise be heard from the the oil industry and equipment suppliers. Talking heads on cable TV and AM radio will not be able to spin their way out of money that would have been better used to create jobs or provide the normal state and local government services.
Update: Per Times Online of yesterday:
The cost to Louisiana's fishing industry could be $2.5 billion (£1.6 billion) while the impact on tourism along the Florida coast could be $3 billion, according to Neil McMahon, an analyst at the investment firm Bernstein.
Much will be made of which candidates took oil money and how that compares to their voting records. Environmental lobby groups will be watching that ball.
Unless our attention is diverted by a horrible hurricane season, it is reasonable to expect that grass roots environmental groups will gain new dues-paying members and that the usual Think Tank suspects will get fewer sound bytes on the news.
That is change I can live with. Not too optimistic; but at least no more back sliding for a few years.