August 30, 2011, 10:27 PM
By MARK BITTMAN
I wasn’t surprised when the administration of George W. Bush sacrificed the environment for corporate profits. But when the same thing happens under a Democratic administration, it’s depressing. With little or no public input, policies that benefit corporations regardless of the consequences continue to be enacted.
No wonder an April 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center found that about only 20 percent of Americans have faith in the government (it’s one thing upon which the left and right and maybe even the center agree). But maybe this is nothing new: as Glenda Farrell, as Genevieve “Gen” Larkin, put it in “Gold Diggers of 1937,” “It’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.”
But is anyone in power even trying? Last winter, the Department of Agriculture deregulated Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa, despite concerns about cross-pollination of non-genetically modified crops. It then defied a court order banning the planting of genetically modified sugar beets pending completion of an environmental impact study.
Monsanto engineers these plants and makes Roundup, the herbicide they resist. But Roundup-ready crops don’t increase long-term yields, a host of farmers are now dealing with “superweeds” and there is worry about superbugs, nearly all courtesy of Monsanto. In fact, this system doesn’t contribute to much of anything except Monsanto’s bottom line. Yet Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave Monsanto the nod, perhaps yielding to pressure from the White House.
The United States exerts that same kind of pressure abroad. WikiLeaks cables show that U.S. “biotechnology outreach programs” have promoted genetically modified crops in Africa, Asia and South America; they’ve also revealed that diplomats schemed to retaliate against any European Union countries that oppose those crops.
Sacrificing the environment for profits didn’t stop with Bush, and it doesn’t stop with genetically modified organisms. Take, for example, the Keystone XL pipeline extension. XL is right: the 36-inch-wide pipeline, which will stretch from the Alberta tar sands across the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast, will cost $7 billion and run for 1,711 miles — more than twice as long as the Alaska pipeline. It will cross nearly 2,000 rivers, the huge wetlands ecosystem called the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer, the country’s biggest underground freshwater supply.
If Keystone is built, we’ll see rising greenhouse gas emissions right away (tar sands production creates three times as many greenhouse gases as does conventional oil), and our increased dependence on fossil fuels will further the likelihood of climate-change disaster. Then there is the disastrous potential of leaks of the non-Wiki-variety. (It’s happened before.)
Proponents say the pipeline will ease gas prices and oil “insecurity.” But domestic drilling has raised, not lowered, oil prices, and as for the insecurity — what we need is to develop wiser ways to use the oil we have.
They say, too, that the pipeline could create 100,000 new jobs. But even the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union oppose the pipeline, saying, “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil.”
Sounds as if union officials have been reading the writer and activist Bill McKibben, who calls the pipeline “a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” and NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who says the oil Keystone will deliver “is essentially game over” for the planet.
Game over? No problem, says the State Department, which concluded that the project will have no significant impact on “most resources along the proposed pipeline corridor.” The Sierra Club quickly responded by calling the report “an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people.”
I do expect that, and I am insulted. President Obama can deny Keystone the permit. A truly environmentally friendly president (like the one candidate Obama appeared to be) would be looking for creative ways to leave fossil fuels underground, not extract them. Perhaps he doesn’t “believe in” global warming at this point, like many Republicans?
When government defends corporate interests, citizens must fight. McKibben has helped organize protests at the White House against Keystone, and he’s one of hundreds who’ve been arrested in the last couple of weeks. These people are showing that the role of government as corporate ally must be challenged.
As it will be in the fight against carte blanche for genetically modified organisms: From Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, there will be a march from New York City to Washington to demand that genetically modified foods be labeled, something a majority of Americans want. This small, perfectly reasonable request has run into joint opposition from the biotech industry and (here we go again) the Food and Drug Administration.
Why are most of us are filled with mistrust of the government? Maybe because we, like Gen Larkin, know it’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.