Some Silver Lining

| Mon Sep. 29, 2003 2:00 AM EDT


    "'Allow me to introduce you to a fabulous opportunity,' Chris Thorpe, a sales representative for Hummer of Alaska, writes in a promotion letter. 'A tax 'loophole' so big you could drive a Hummer H2 through it! Imagine being able to purchase the #1 large luxury SUV in America today . . . and receive a deduction for the entire purchase amount from your taxes this year!'

    'How is this possible?... Thanks to the Bush administration's recent economic stimulus package, small businesses and the self-employed are eligible to deduct the entire purchase cost of new equipment up to $100,000 the year of the purchase....The Hummer H2 qualifies for this IRS Sec. 179 deduction by its gross vehicle weight of over 6,000 lbs. Cars and medium sized SUV's don't qualify for this deduction...'"

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This pitch, according to political columnist Al Kamen of The Washington Post, sold an extra 35 Hummers for Thorpe's Anchorage dealership -- mostly to doctors "for the tax benefit." Plus, I suppose you feel like Arnold as you drive it into your garage (if it fits). The Hummer, which should really be known as the Guzzler, gets ten miles to the gallon. You might as well buy a gas station, or occupy a Middle Eastern country, and never leave the pump.

Adds Kamen: "And energy independence from Mideast oil? So passé."

The other side of Eden:

If the eagle is the symbol of this country, the Hummer should be the symbol of the Bush administration (and if it were, they'd be proud of it, too). We all know that, from the state of New York's air at Ground Zero to the realities of global warming, this administration has gone to great lengths to tailor the "scientific" information it's fed the public to its own needs and its eat-now-pay-later environmental agenda, which could also go under the rubric of "the Guzzler." Recently, the British Observer reported on emails and internal government documents it had obtained showing how Bush administration officials

    "have sought to edit or remove research warnings that [global warming] is serious. They have enlisted the help of conservative lobby groups funded by the oil industry to attack US government scientists if they produce work seen as accepting too readily that pollution is an issue.

    Central to the revelations of double dealing is the discovery of an email sent to Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, by Myron Ebell, a director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI is an ultra-conservative lobby group that has received more than $1 million in donations since 1998 from the oil giant Exxon, which sells Esso petrol in Britain.

    The email, dated 3 June 2002, reveals how White House officials wanted the CEI's help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming. 'Thanks for calling and asking for our help,' Ebell tells Cooney. The email discusses possible tactics for playing down the report and getting rid of EPA officials, including its then head, Christine Whitman."

In the meantime, chunks of the Artic ice shelf continue to slip into the sea -- and we are just now leaving behind the warmest summer on record, one which led to global dislocations of all sorts and a slaughter of the old and vulnerable in Europe. All of this Mike Davis considers in a piece included below on our upcoming roller-coaster ride through an ever hotter, less predictable world.

Just the other day, the British Independent, whose environmental coverage is quite good, passed on the following news:

    "The largest ice shelf in the Arctic, a solid feature for at least 3,000 years, has broken in two and climate change is to blame, say American and Canadian scientists. The Ward Hunt ice shelf, on the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada, has split down the middle, and a freshwater lake held behind it has drained away, the researchers say. Reporting in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists say the fracture, which had been developing since 2000, was further evidence of continuing and accelerating climate change in the north polar region."

Hummers, oil, warming, melting, pollution, dislocation, war, death... you make the links. Or rather, don't bother, as the Bush administration has already made so many of them for us all. It would be ridiculous to claim that they were responsible for the massive environmental problems building for decades, if not (when it comes to global warming) generations; but the fact is, the only long-term thinking/planning they do involves making the United States the dominant power on this globe to the end of time, and them (and their cronies) the dominant force within that imperial order until hell freezes over. Every other aspect of their thinking is so short-term that they threaten to bring end-time ever closer. They stand between us and the true, deep, confounding problems of our planet. They're like a Humvee bearing down on you. They have to be taken off the road before you have the space to notice that you're actually fogged in.

However, there's no reason to mourn. The news is not all bad, environmentally speaking. There are signs not only of mounting opposition, but also of the very thinking we'll need to clear that fog once the Bush administration has gone. First of all, as with the Iraq crisis, the extremity of the administration's environmental plans and acts is forcing insiders and figures from the mainstream -- in the case of Iraq, they range from General Anthony Zinni to ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson -- into the open and into opposition. Recently, for instance, Russell Train, an honorable man who was the second head of the Environmental Protection Agency (under Presidents Nixon and Ford), did a piece for Grist magazine headlined 'E.P.-Eh?' in which he suggests,

    "how radically we have moved away from regulation based on independent findings and professional analysis of scientific, health, and economic data by the responsible agency to regulation controlled by the White House and driven primarily by political considerations. The U.S. EPA has been muzzled on the issue of global climate change; its independent appraisal of the airborne health threats from the World Trade Center disaster of Sept. 11, 2001, was apparently altered by White House spin artists. Its recent decision to give indefinite time to coal-fired energy plants to comply with the Clean Air Act appears to have been made under White House pressure. (Given that the act has been in effect since 1970, one would think those plants would have had ample time to get into compliance.) Two of the top EPA officials associated with the issuance of that regulation are reported to have now left the agency to work, in one case, for the nation's second largest coal-using energy company and, in the other, for a principal industry lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. Such actions do not build much confidence in the integrity of the regulatory process. Such cases reflect a steady erosion of the public interest."

This is strong stuff, given the source, and indicative of how broad environmental opposition to this administration is likely to prove. But beyond that, all truly is not just gloom and doom. We humans have proved reasonably adaptive over the centuries, and while it might be an exaggeration to say that Eden is about to break out all over, minds are at least at work and there are all sorts of interesting potential developments simply awaiting their all-too-delayed moment.

For instance, for those of you who have, reasonably enough, decided that we Americans, the charismatic carnivores of our overheated orb, may not change our lifestyles soon enough, at least some people are trying to come up with a few quick techno-fixes to help. For instance, take one of my banes, the SUV.

At his blog The Daily Outrage at the Nation magazine website, Matt Bivens writes this:

    "The Ford Explorer, America's most popular sport-utility vehicle, gets about 21 miles to the gallon, and like most SUVs it's got a lackluster safety record. But look what happens when the engineers and consumer advocates at the Union of Concerned Scientists get through with it: For just $600, they add better tires, more aerodynamic mirrors, a stronger-yet-lighter body frame, and an efficient six-cylinder engine -- and their new SUV, the UCS Guardian, is the same size, with the same zero-to-60 acceleration, yet gets 27.8 mpg. The gas savings alone pay off that $600 investment in about two years. The owner of a UCS Guardian would, over the vehicle's life, spend $2,500 less on gas than the owner of a Ford Explorer.

    So much for fuel economy. What about safety? For just $140, the engineers add front and rear crumple zones, seat belts designed to grip tight should the vehicle roll, and a reinforced roof. If all SUVs deployed such features, UCS says, it would save 2,200 American lives every year.

    And this is just the UCS Guardian. Check out the even sexier model, the UCS Guardian XSE, which gets 36 miles to the gallon and has some more exotic -- yet wholly tested -- technologies already available in cars, including in some Fords."

On a far larger scale, Ruth Rosen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle has recently written of a new environmental/labor proposal for an "Apollo project" aimed at thinking big about creating a renewable future and doing so under the splendid rubric, "Let's switch our energy dependence from the Middle East to the Midwest." Her column begins:

    "'Sure, it's a dream,' says Michael Shellenberg, executive director of Americans for Energy Freedom, based in El Cerrito. 'But when President Kennedy directed the first Apollo Project to put a man on the moon, who believed it would actually happen?'

    The dream to which he refers is a new Apollo Project -- a 10-year, $300 billion research and investment plan that aims to attain energy independence from foreign oil and create millions of new jobs in energy-efficient industries. The Apollo Alliance is the new labor-environmental coalition that is promoting the project. The Alliance consists of 12 of the country's biggest unions -- including the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- and has received ringing endorsements from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups."

And finally, I'd like to recommend a long, thoughtful piece on the subject of how to move our country in such directions -- and what the problems might prove to be. Check out The Joseph Strategy by Rutgers biology professor David Ehrenfeld which can be found at Orion magazine online. Ehrenfeld starts from the finite nature of our present energy-use policies and of global energy resources. He comments, "If... energy analysts are right (they seem fairly conservative), we can expect widespread electricity blackouts in a decade or so, followed by the rapid unraveling of our highly complex, highly interlinked, highly unstable, and highly unpredictable globalized system."

He then discusses such energy alternatives as mandatory energy rationing (as in World War II), and various techno-fixes (as in the Rosen piece above), none of which are likely to be invented or perfected in anyone's garage. ("Technological innovation, like rationing, also leaves us subject to top-down control. With a few exceptions, such as the solar oven, modern technological innovation in this field requires large amounts of capital and large research establishments; and the kinds of organizations that can carry out this research -- the federal government and multinational corporations -- are not disposed to give up power.")

Both rationing and technological breakthroughs are essentially top-down answers to an onrushing problem, involving greater centralization and governmental (or corporate) power. So Ehrenfeld moves on to consider counter-balancing bottom-up approaches, especially movements to lower consumption levels and some of the problems these might in turn create. It's a most provocative look at the future that emphasizes how quickly we should indeed move on these issues.

Additional contributions from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a weblog of The Nation Institute.

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