Subversive Environmental History

Subversive Environmental History

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, USA, April 1936. (Photo: Arthur Rothstein / Farm Security Administration)

In an original essay Aldo Leopold wrote in volume 31 of the “Journal of Forestry,” in 1933, he connected the survival of America to an abiding respect for nature, especially the integrity of the land.

Leopold was professor at the University of Wisconsin. He was disturbed by America's misuse of its forests, land and wildlife. He drew an intimate connection between land and civilization, insisting that civilization “is a state of mutual and interdependent cooperation between human animals, other animals, plants and soils, which may be disrupted at any moment by the failure of any of them.”

Disruption on a huge scale did take place in the United States in the 1930s, in Leopold's time. In his classic, “A Sand County Almanac” (Oxford University Press, 1966), he likened the United States to “a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.”

In fact, Leopold saw the American obsession spreading throughout the world. He lamented: “The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap” (p. xi).

Industrialized farmers “broke” the land causing a dust bowl in the Great Plains that dusted out some 3.5 million Okies, especially from Kansas and Oklahoma. Wrecking the land triggered the calamity of the Great Plains.

Some 30 years later, in the early 1960s, three books elaborated Leopold's message to some degree. The first was “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson (Boston, 1962). Carson documented the misuse of pesticides, the heedless dumping of millions upon millions of pounds of biocides all over America, but especially in the lands of industrialized farmers.

The second book was “The Quiet Crisis” by Stewart Udall (New York, 1963). This is an absorbing history of what America did to its pristine and abundant, natural treasures of land, forests, rivers, lakes and mountains.

Udall paints not a pretty picture. He keeps talking of over-grazing, over-farming, cut-and-run policies of the timber barons, land grabbers, great giveaway, every man for himself and lumber tycoons in order to capture the violent relations of Americans toward nature in the first century and a half of the country's life. The main characteristic of that era was plundering of the natural world by corporations and individuals.

White Americans also nearly exterminated the indigenous population, the only humans in the continent who had a land ethic. Whites also were responsible for the near annihilation of the beaver and the buffalo.

However, thanks to thinkers and activists like John Muir and Leopold and the policies of a few statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America, after the dust bowls of the 1930s, made the late transition to “conservation” policies, which are some kind of a tenuous truce in its ever-present war against nature.

Udall writes with doubtful conviction. He was in a position of power in the 1960s, but he failed to walk the talk.
Udall was the secretary of the Interior Department under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He did precious little to stop the plunder of nature in America, especially in California when corporate farmers violated the law in grabbing subsidized water, incessantly becoming larger and larger.

The Department of the Interior was then and remains the largest owner of land in the United States.

Udall could have stopped the rising agribusiness empire in the West, ending the water subsidies to huge corporate farmers, putting an end to the decimation of public lands by ranchers and land grabbers, projects of both agribusiness and state and federal governments. However, he did nothing of the sort. His eloquent book was, in some measure, a quiet apologia steeped in guilt.

The third book is “Pesticides and the Living Landscape” by Robert L. Rudd (Madison, Wisconsin, 1964). This is a variation of the theme explored by Carson, only more scholarly and suggestive of the futility of trying to dominate nature with toxins. Rudd talks about the ruthless arrogance and the scientific incompetence and greed of those exploiting the land, hubris pitted against the eternal values and verities of the natural world.

These studies, especially “Silent Spring,” triggered all kinds of alarms in the country. The chemical industry called Carson “communist,” an old spinster who did not know science. President Kennedy and a few senators praised Carson.

The federal government, however, stayed on the sidelines. It started half-hearted policies of trying to control pollution and ecological despoliation.

The environmentalists also sided with Carson. Yet, for many of them it was not easy to fall in love with nature. They had the guilt of moneyed men who meant to do good while not infringing on the privileges of their class. With such muddled thinking, “environmentalism,” always deferential of corporations, never captured the country's soul.

On the other hand, corporations remained on the offensive. Their armies of lobbyists and purchased academics have been killing the ecological idea even before it makes it to the print or public debate, especially that. They fight ferociously any plan to “regulate” their industrial activities while spreading disinformation about the environment, denying the country's severe ecological crisis, even rejecting the toxic effects of agribusiness and the calamity of global warming.

On the face of such corporate audacity verging on gangsterism, the federal government remains polite and silent and supportive of corporations.

For example, in 1966, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of the Department of the Interior administered by Udall published a pamphlet, “Fish, Wildlife and Pesticides” in which it described the serious ecological harm caused by farm sprays while assuring Americans, “There has been no Silent Spring – yet. The frogs croak their love songs, the wild geese fly north on schedule and the salmon splash their way upstream to spawn.”

Aside from this gentle if misleading treatment of pollution and death in nature, the FWS ignored the damming of the rivers threatening the salmon with extinction.

In December 1969, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare elaborated the pesticide danger in greater detail in the hefty “Report of the Secretary's Commission on Pesticides and Their Relationship to Environmental Health.”

The report said that, yes, pesticides are hazardous, indeed, they are threat to global ecosystems, but Americans have no choice but to adapt to them: they are indispensable to food production.

The report also, for the first time ever, documented environmental racism in America. Blacks receive greater dosages of pesticides than whites. The following figure shows the unequal amounts of poison in the form of DDT in the blood of whites and blacks:

Once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came into being, it also started studying the effects of agricultural sprays. In the early 1970s, it completed 11 reports examining the uses of pesticides everywhere in nature and society: in forests, aquatic environment, suburban homes and farms.

The EPA's Herbicide Report (1974) was an example of good science serving the public interest. The report, prepared by the EPA's Science Advisory Board, was groundbreaking in its assessment of weed killers, bringing to light startling news: herbicides altering the nutrition value of crops, changing their physiology, making them appetizing to insects. Herbicides also cause insect-pest outbreaks while stimulating their reproduction (pp. 45, 61).

The EPA, however, did nothing with the findings of this report. In 1974, the EPA had some more bad news about the farmers' spays, challenging the assumption that farmers use pesticides to increase food production. “Farmer's Pesticide Use Decisions and Attitudes on Alternate Crop Protection Methods” by Rosmarie von Rumker, an EPA consultant, reported that farmers turned to pesticide merchants for advice and, second, chlorine-based sprays reduced the yield of corn and soybeans, the implication being that all toxics are inimical to crops.

This was the time of Jimmy Carter in the White House. Carter spoke about the 1970s being “a decade of environmental progress,” which started on January 1, 1970, with the signing into law of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Carter was effusive in his comments about NEPA calling it “the nation's charter for protecting and improving the environment.”

However, Carter's rosy picture of environmental progress was wrong. The NEPA is a good law but, like so many other good laws, corporations and their lobbyists, who had plenty to do in the writing of these laws, kept working through their purchased members of Congress, crippling the NEPA's effectiveness, making it a routine administrative program of endless assessments without teeth. In addition, when it comes to agribusiness issues, the chemical industry, assisted by the scientists of the land grant universities, controls the mind and the policies of both farmers and policymakers, thus neutralizing the NEPA and all other legislation.

In July 1980, only a few months before the election of Reagan, the EPA published “Acid Rain,” a report on the sulfuric and nitric acids coming out of the stacks of American factories and cars burning fossil fuels. These acids travel hundreds of miles with the wind and then fall to the earth, forming deadly acid rain. Now, we know that the same factories and cars burning coal and petroleum also emit carbon dioxide, thus causing global warming.

One of the EPA scientists responsible for the preparation of the “Acid Rain” report, Richard Laska, said to me on March 17, 1988, that Reagan's first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch, was so enraged by the findings of the “Acid Rain” report she “burned” it, perhaps symbolically.

The Carter administration also studied America's agricultural crisis, the rural exodus of family farmers and the threatening rise of agribusiness as the dominant force in rural America. And, again, just before the Reagan men and women took over the government, the Carter Department of Agriculture (USDA) published two pioneering studies, one on organic agriculture: “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming” (July 1980) and another on the precarious nature of American agriculture, becoming primarily agribusiness, “A Time to Choose” (January 1981).

Yet, the time to choose had just about expired. Agribusiness was in the saddle all over the country.

Robert van den Bosch, professor of biology at Berkeley, exposed the corruption in America's agricultural and environmental education and policy establishment in his pioneering “The Pesticide Conspiracy” (New York, 1978).

The story van den Bosch tells is extraordinary, but true: Merchants of poison bribe professors and politicians, fund the suppression of research into traditional farming and treat the USDA and the EPA like subsidiaries of the chemical industry. They write the laws and enjoy the protection of the government.

From my experience at the EPA, where I worked from 1979 to 2004, I can certify that van den Bosch is right: the government envelops the industry's corruption with the epiphenomena of science and regulation, so that the actions of the chemical industry mafia look both legal and routine.

Whether one is concerned about spreading cancer, the general decline in the quality of life throughout nature and society, global warming, the killing of America's democratic family farming or children eating food contaminated with toxins, the source of the problem is the same: powerful corporations abusing society's trust and the political system for their profits, using methods for food production which are not safe for humans or wildlife.

Indeed, I would argue that the mafia model is the unspoken factor in the government-industrial-academic complex determining the fate of agriculture, public health and the environment in the United States.

Consider these additional examples:

  1. Children are by far the greatest victims of our toxic agriculture: Two scientists with the Environmental Defense Fund, now Environmental Defense, Stephanie G. Harris and Joseph H. Highland, reported that the late 1970s, when they studied children, were not “normal times,” children being “the defenseless victims of environmental pollution.” Their report, “Birthright Denied” (New York, 1977), was thorough and timely, examining all kinds of toxins found in mothers' milk, including dioxins.

    Like Harris, a former reporter for The New York Times, Philip Shabecoff and his wife Alice Shabecoff, investigated the fate of children born and growing up in a toxic world. The result is “Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children” (New York, 2008), a powerful indictment of giant corporate polluters; agribusiness; large farmers and other poisoners responsible for higher rates of birth defects, cancer, asthma, autism and other deadly diseases of America's children.

  2. In her 1983 book, “A Bitter Fog,” Carol Van Strum dissects the forces at work allowing for the endless spraying and contamination of nature by pesticides, especially those carrying with them dioxins, by far the most lethal of toxic substances of industrialized societies. Van Strum said to me in the spring of 1989 that, once the Sierra Club published her book, it immediately pulled it back from the market. She had no doubt that it was herbicide merchants who set fire to her house, killing her children in the woods of Oregon.
  3. In order to undermine the public's fear of cancer and dilute the charge it was approving cancer-causing chemicals for food, in the mid-1980s, the EPA, with the blessings of the Reagan White House and Congress, funded the US National Academy of Sciences to “study” the Delaney Clause, the only provision in the federal law prohibiting cancer-causing chemicals – carcinogens – in processed food. In its 1987 report, “Regulating Pesticides in Food,” the Academy prepared the ground for the EPA to dismantle the Delaney Clause, which the Academy renamed the “Delaney Paradox.”

    By 1987, cancer-causing sprays were pervasive in American crops and food. Sixty percent of weed killers were carcinogens, 90 percent of crop disease-fighting chemicals (fungicides) were carcinogens and 30 percent of insect sprays were also cancer-causing chemicals. And since most of the crop spays concentrate in processed food, the easy, but dangerous, option for the EPA was to get rid of the troubling prohibition, which the EPA did with fanfare in 1996 under a Republican-dominated Congress, but a Democratic White House. President Bill Clinton; the EPA administrator Carol Browner; and Dr. Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and assistant administrator for pesticides at the EPA, signed off on that abhorrent policy.

  4. While the united Democrats-Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House and the EPA were celebrating the elimination of the Delaney Clause, three researchers, two environmental scientists and one journalist, Theo Colborn, John Peterson Myers and Dianne Dumanoski authored “Our Stolen Future” (New York, 1996). This was another silent spring-like story, updated to include the effects of hormone-like toxins, many of them farm sprays, on humans and wildlife. The book documented the effects of the toxic hormone imposters to be global and lasting – causing malformations of newborns and declining fertility in wildlife and humans.

Al Gore, vice president of the United States, wrote the preface to “Our Stolen Future.” Yet, his former personal assistant who had become the EPA administrator, Browner, ignored the tragedy of the hormone-like sprays in the environment.

In this shameless fashion, Gore repeated his inaction on global warming about which he wrote a good book while a US senator: “Earth in the Balance” (Boston, 1992). Gore was vice president and Browner the administrator of the EPA from 1993 to 2001. Gore did nothing on global warming and Browner did nothing to protect human health and nature from the torrent of dangers issuing from America's industrial establishment.

However, being out of power brought Gore back to his senses and he became a passionate defender of the earth, publishing an honest and eloquent book on global warming: “An Inconvenient Truth” (Rodale Press) in 2005. On October 12, 2007, he earned the Nobel Prize for peace for his eloquent and courageous stand on the environmental emergency we face because of global warming.

Gore's late conversion does not diminish his failure as a politician. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton-Gore administration appointed a woman pediatrician, Goldman, to administer the EPA's largest office, which was responsible for pesticides and other toxic chemicals, my base for most of the years of my tenure at the EPA.

Goldman kept talking about children's health, but her policies, like those of Browner, left children in the same terrible condition they had been and continue to be under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Environmentalism is in crisis in the United States. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (“The Death of Environmentalism,” Grist Magazine, January 13, 2005) argue – still persuasively six years later – that environmentalists have to rethink everything they do.

Environmentalists do not fail because they don't have consistent or attractive values. They do. Environmentalists fail because their opponents – mafia-like corporate plunderers of nature, unethical academic scientists, large farmers, oil companies, power companies, mountain destroyers, developers of wetlands, loggers, industrial fishers and other industrialists – are armed to the teeth.

These businessmen make up the military-industrial complex. They often do their work under various covers. Some of them operate behind the façade of nonprofit or faith-based organizations, as well as domestic and international development.

They make up a kleptocracy instrumental in the making of environmental policy. For example, preachers like Pat Robertson and Republican politicians set the tone of the George W. Bush administration's outrageous attack against both nature and public health.

The Obama administration comes perilously close to following on the footsteps of the Bush administration. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, an EPA colleague fired by the Bush administration, wrote a letter to the EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (August 5, 2011) in which she accused her of fostering “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.”