The Charge to Protect


Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth. —Albert Schweitzer

I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially. —E. B. White

The Environmental Protection Agency was launched in the United States on December 2, 1970. The legislation came after over a decade of increasing alarm over environmental degradation, the most resounding of those alarms being Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller, Silent Spring. Carson’s specific focus was pesticide, but as evidenced by the quotations prefacing her book, above, her wider environmental goal was to emphasize the need for stewardship principles and the regulatory muscle to pursue them.

When he was appointed the first administrator of the EPA, William D. Ruckelshaus endorsed those stewardship principles by declaring that “the technology which has bulldozed its way across the environment must now be employed to remove impurities from the air, to restore vitality to our rivers and streams, to recycle the waste that is the ugly by-product of our prosperity.” Today, many environmentalists feel that Carson’s legacy and the mandate Ruckelshaus envisioned for the EPA are in peril. Shortly after Scott Pruitt took over at the EPA this spring, the Trump administration rescinded the Clean Air Plan and the Clean Power Plan — the CPP about-turn symbolically announced in the Rachel Carson Green Room at the EPA offices.

When recently announcing a decision not to ban the agricultural pesticide chlorpyrifos, Pruitt said that the EPA is “returning to using sound science in decision-making, rather than predetermined results.” In Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake, Kathryn Miles notes that many scientists and environmentalists regard such comments by Pruitt as the new guiding principle at the EPA, one that turns a deaf ear to scientific alarm bells. In her chapter on fracking, Miles notes how “energy companies continue to bank on the opportunities that a lack of specific correlation or scientific certainty affords,” and how many scientists — the passage below is based on comments by the geologist Todd Halihan, a fracking specialist — feel silenced and discredited:

He says a lack of total certainty never used to be a sticking point when it came to making safe choices based on the best science. We’re always going to have some inherent uncertainty when it comes to induced seismicity, he says: “That’s how this problem works. We have variabilities concerning wells, concerning pressure, concerning emerging science about faults.” That’s nothing all that novel, he says. Instead, what is new is what we do with that uncertainty. “We used to believe that a perspective of uncertainty would be a reason to slow down something. Now uncertainty is being used to avoid things.”

In Toxin Toxout, their sequel to Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith focus on the protectionism that individuals might practice to save both themselves and the environment from “the so-familiar, so surprisingly toxic icons of our global consumer culture.” The danger lies not with the individual products, many of which contain toxins at levels believed to be safe, but with the cumulative effect:

Significantly, an increasing number of studies are now indicating that the extent to which people can withstand the toxic chemical cocktail we are all exposed to is highly variable and at least partly based on their genetic makeup. But do you want to play that kind of Russian roulette?

In No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, Colin Beavan offers a more radical approach to environmental health — not purging your toxins but, as described in his chapter “How a Schlub Like Me Gets Mixed Up in a Stunt Like This,” taking a scalpel to your entire lifestyle:

For one year, my wife, baby daughter, and I, while residing in the middle of New York City, attempted to live without making any net impact on the environment. Ultimately, this meant we did our best to create no trash (so no take-out food), cause no carbon dioxide emissions (so no driving or flying), pour no toxins in the water (so no laundry detergent), buy no produce from distant lands (so no New Zealand fruit). Not to mention: no elevators, no subway, no products in packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV, no buying anything new . . .

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