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Douglas H. Chadwick

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Pollutocracy

Posted: 02/23/2012 12:55 pm

Regulate: to direct, control, or govern; from the Latin regula -- rule.

Hell yes, you can count me as another American burdened by too many regulations. I'm feeling more herded, hassled, and hemmed-in by the day -- practically straight-jacketed compared to earlier generations. Don't do this, can't do that. Not here. Nope, not there either. Not any more. Having choices about what I'm able to even try taken away one after another leaves me as irate as any voter in the country.

It isn't fair. Simply by having been born in an era of industrial technology combined with skyrocketing human populations, it looks like I'm stuck for life among dirty skies and rivers and lakes too contaminated to swim in. People keep adding more toxic compounds to everything from the soils to the seas to the household products in my cupboards. At home, I face overcrowding and unchecked sprawl. When I travel, the routes are commonly jammed, and the traffic gets worse all the time.

Advertisers snatch at my senses from billboards, jumbotrons, neon signs, televisions, computer screens, radios, magazines, and even posters in public restrooms, vying for temporary command of my thoughts. Stores employ mood-altering music and color schemes selected through psychological testing to make me subconsciously want to spend more. Rural landscapes I used to visit have become blighted. The last of the wild backcountry I love to ramble continues to shrink. Wild species are going extinct on a scale never seen in recorded history. And all the while, concentrations of gases released by the burning of fossil fuels are heating up the planet's climate at a rate that invites wholesale disaster.

If all that doesn't add up to a set of conditions that restricts -- curbs, constrains, exerts control over; in a word, regulates -- my freedoms and my future, I don't know what would. So when I hear politicians promising to get rid of regulations, I'm primed to respond. Sign me up!
Incredibly, and yet somehow all-too-predictably, it turns out that what the politicos actually have in mind is the exact opposite. They're pushing legislation to further limit the quality of the air I breathe and the water I drink. They also want fewer protections of the foods that nourish my body, the open countrysides and untamed places that nourish the spirit, the wildlife communities sharing this nation, and the ecosystems that ultimately sustain us all.
If enacted, such laws are certain to degrade our health and disrupt social stability over time. That they violate a basic principle enshrined in our Declaration of Independence - the inalienable right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- is equally certain. This is regulation of the most burdensome and contemptible kind. The term for it is tyranny.

Why would any politician be promoting an agenda so openly hostile to the good of the American public, not to mention Ma Earth? Although the answer is fairly simple, it tends to be obscured behind baffling ideologies. But you can find it by using an old, surefire method: just follow the money. The public does not receive large sums of cash from powerful financial interests. Politicians do. Given our campaign finance system in the U.S., they come to depend on contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations. A major goal of those donors is to roll back environmental standards in order to maximize profits, and there you have it.
I can almost hear the pols' indignant protests and rationalizations as I type. To borrow one of their stock phrases, let me be clear: I'm all for enterprise, entrepreneurship, and stimulating business opportunities. But the paradigm that endless growth plus ever-increasing consumption equals progress is canned nonsense and way past its sell-by date.

When founded in 1776, the United States held about 2.5 million people. The count now stands close to 310 million, an increase of 12,300 percent. Americans' uptake of resources and output of wastes have shot up by still higher percentages. Although we comprise just four percent of the global population, which just shot past seven billion, we consume a quarter of the world production of fossil fuels. It provides 85 percent of the energy demanded by our current lifestyles.

There are already too many extreme weather events as global temperatures rise, and too many unusual shifts in the patterns of flora and fauna. There are too many U.S. wetlands, native prairies, old-growth forests, game ranges, marine habitats, and species being lost to reckless development. There are too many recently invented chemical concoctions surrounding us that can disrupt organisms' glands, immune systems, nervous systems, and brains, ours included. There are too many unexplained increases in ailments such as autism, bipolar disorder, asthma, cancers, diabetes, and low sperm counts.

There are not too many environmental regulations.

I didn't set out to write this because I think I have brilliant solutions to such challenges. I don't. I do, however, have a modest suggestion: Stop letting politicians take ownership of the word regulation and twist it to their purposes.

Opponents of environmental standards are working hard to confuse regulation with bureaucracy, knowing that almost everyone resents the latter to some degree. Bureaucracy merely refers to the institutions a society puts in place to meet the diverse needs of its inhabitants. But the bigger the population, the bigger the bureaucracy. Yes, dealing with it can become frustrating. Yes, we have to invent ways to somehow make large-scale bureaucracy more efficient and responsive to the individual. That doesn't mean that we need to do a worse job of protecting the environment.

Of course the politicians don't pitch their agenda as pro-pollution and anti-nature. Instead, they make it sound as though the only things standing between us and economic nirvana are some fussy environmental rules enforced by arrogant officials. The pols are betting that folks who would like to see the bureaucratic apparatus streamlined can be conned into voting to foul their own nest. Surely we're smarter than that.

When politicians intent on dismantling environmental regulations promise to "get the government off our backs," ask yourself why they pretend to be shocked that government has grown larger when they know the U.S. population has increased more than 120-fold. Then ask why they insist in outraged tones that government is the problem when the government is us -- you and I and those 310 million other Americans. It's a government of, by, and for the people. Isn't it?

Recent decades have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the great majority of citizens to a very small and very well-to-do segment of the U.S. population. Considering the outsize role this select group plays in underwriting political campaigns and anti-government rhetoric, I sometimes think that what they really want is to get democracy off their backs. The dictionary defines "an elite or ruling class of people whose power derives from their wealth" as a plutocracy. Make that pollutocracy, and maybe we're onto the real problem.

The combined environmental impacts arising from unprecedented levels of human activity have become a force that threatens to overwhelm the biosphere. Weakening natural life-support systems across our nation, squeezing individual space, and re-shaping settings on every side, this juggernaut regulates our existence more tightly every year. By comparison, the effects of U.S. environmental laws the pollutocrats call burdensome are scarcely even noticeable. The juggernaut keeps gaining strength and speed.

America the beautiful deserves the kind of protections that don't just tug at this out-of-control growth monster's coattails but race ahead, tackle the thing, and let us believe once again that better days lie ahead. We need stronger environmental standards with tougher enforcement, and so do our children. Period. Any politician who tells you different is lying. Imagine that.

Douglas H. Chadwick is the author of The Wolverine Way.