Ideologues vs. Environmentalists
Published on Thursday, September 29, 2005 by the Miami Herald
Ideologues vs. Environmentalists
by Carl Pope

Selma was a transformational moment in the civil-rights movement. The truth and tragedy that played out on our streets and televisions shook us up and challenged us to take a long, unflinching look at ourselves and ultimately to change deeply and forever.

Katrina is that kind of galvanizing moment for the conservation movement, and that's precisely why the radical Right is now trying so hard to attack environmentalists and laws that protect our air, water and land.

This monster storm laid waste to the Gulf Coast, forced one of the world's great cities to its knees, killed perhaps thousands and sent more than a million people in search of life's basics -- food, clothing and shelter. Katrina is also forcing us to reconsider how we live on the land. There is no doubt that while Katrina was a natural disaster, it was also a man-made one.

Katrina raises the fact there are consequences for our actions -- that there's a heavy price to pay for destroying wetlands, subjugating rivers, ignoring global warming. It is a wake-up call, a warning not to repeat past mistakes, an opportunity to reconsider our values, our relationship to nature and to rebuild better, smarter and safer.

Katrina has lit a fuse that can't be stomped out and will change us in fundamental ways. It is then troubling, though not surprising, that the powers that be see Katrina as an opportunity -- to benefit their friends and to make their political agenda the law of the land.

Katrina has made it clear for whom this government works and for whom it does not. It is telling that among Washington's first acts were to award Halliburton a major contract for cleanup and recovery, and to suspend a laws that require federal contractors to pay a decent wage and that protect the environment and public-health.

It is also revealing that in an effort to divert attention from the Bush administration's total failure, some leaders tried to shift the blame for Katrina to environmentalists. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who asked a federal agency to dig up dirt on the environmentalists when it should be focused on helping Katrina's victims, even suggested his intent to make Katrina-related hearings into something of a witch hunt.

Inhofe also offered to do his part for the relief effort by trying to grant the Environmental Protection Agency authority to suspend air, water and hazardous-waste requirements for anywhere up to 18 months on any decision related to Katrina. It doesn't matter that EPA Administrator Steve Johnson told Congress that existing safety laws would not hamper cleanup and that it already had the flexibility needed to respond in an emergency; or that EPA and the Centers for Disease Control have identified myriad serious environmental and public-health problems after the hurricane.

Inhofe's moves are part of a larger attempt by the majority in Congress to pass a long-standing, controversial agenda that they haven't been able to advance under normal circumstances, from school vouchers to weaker labor standards to oil drilling near protected coastline.

We can no longer afford to perpetuate the sound-and-light show that has passed as political discourse. The nation is paying a terrible price for a government run by ideologues who aren't willing to do what it takes to keep us safe, don't value us all equally and don't take responsibility or accept the consequences of their actions.

We need a government that connects us and cares for us, that protects and promotes the common good and our commons -- the lands and waters we all share and that humble us equally.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club.

© 2005 The Miami Herald