Road To Ruin
By Matthew Engel
26 October, 2003
the map of the United States, just below halfway down the east coast,
you can see a series of islets, in the shape of a hooked nose. These
are the Outer Banks, barrier islands - sun-kissed in summer, storm-tossed
in winter - that stretch for 100 miles and more, protecting the main
coastline of the state of North Carolina. They are built, quite literally,
on shifting sands.
Twenty years ago,
these were, by all accounts, magical places, hard to reach and discovered
only by the adventurous and discerning. They are still fairly magical,
at least the seemingly endless stretch of unspoiled beach is. It is
the lure of that which causes the traffic jams on the only two bridges
every Saturday throughout the summer. The narrow strip of land behind
the beach, however, has been built up with enormous holiday homes, costing
up to $2m (£1.2m) each. And prices rose by 15-20% (25% for those
on the ocean front) in 2002 alone, according to one agent.
This is what local
agents call "a very nice market", and last month their area
had a week of free worldwide publicity. Hurricane Isabel swept in, washing
out much of the islands' only road and picking up motels from their
foundations and tossing them, according to one report, "like cigarette
butts". One island was turned into several islets, with a whole
town, Hatteras Village, being cut off from the rest of the US - for
ever, if nature has its way.
reported, were in shock. Many scientists were not. Speaking well before
Isabel, Dr Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University
in North Carolina, described the Outer Banks property boom to me as
"a form of societal madness". "I wouldn't buy a house
on the front row of the Outer Banks. Or the second," agreed Dr
Stephen Leatherman, who is such a connoisseur of American coastlines
that he is known as Dr Beach.
For the market is
not the only thing that has been rising round here. Like other experts,
Pilkey expects the Atlantic to inundate the existing beaches "within
two to four generations". Normally, that would be no problem for
the sands, which would simply regroup and re-form further back. Unfortunately,
that is no longer possible: the $2m houses are in the way. According
to Pilkey, the government will either have to build millions of dollars
worth of seawall, which will destroy the beach anyway, or demolish the
houses. "Coastal scientists from abroad come here and just shake
their heads in disbelief," he says.
The madness of the
Outer Banks seems like a symptom of, and a metaphor for, something far
broader: the US is in denial about what is, beyond any question, potentially
its most dangerous enemy. While millions of words have been written
every day for the past two years about the threat from vengeful Islamic
terrorists, the threat from a vengeful Nature has been almost wholly
ignored. Yet the likelihood of multiple attacks in the future is far
Earlier this year,
just before he was fired as environment minister, Michael Meacher gave
a speech in Newcastle, saying: "There is a lot wrong with our world.
But it is not as bad as people think. It is actually worse." He
listed five threats to the survival of the planet: lack of fresh water,
destruction of forest and crop land, global warming, overuse of natural
resources and the continuing rise in the population. What Meacher could
not say, or he would have been booted out more quickly, was that the
US is a world leader in hastening each of these five crises, bringing
its gargantuan appetite to the business of ravaging the planet. American
politicians do not talk this way. Even Al Gore, supposedly the most
committed environmentalist in world politics, kept quiet about the subject
when chasing the presidency in 2000.
Those of us without
a degree in climatology can have no sensible opinion on the truth about
climate change, except to sense that the weather does seem to have become
a little weird lately. Yet in America the subject has become politicized,
with rightwing commentators decrying global warming as "bogus science".
They gloated when it snowed unusually hard in Washington last winter
(failing to notice the absence of snow in Alaska). When the dissident
"good news" scientist Bjorn Lomborg spoke to a conservative
Washington thinktank he was applauded not merely rapturously, but fawningly.
report that Kilimanjaro's icecap is melting and Greenland's glaciers
are crumbling, the US government has been telling its scientific advisers
to do more research before it can consider any action to restrict greenhouse
gases; the scientists reported back that they had done all the research.
The attitude of the White House to global warming was summed up by the
online journalist Mickey Kaus as: "It's not true! It's not true!
And we can't do anything about it!" What terrifies all American
politicians, deep down, is that it is true and that they could do something
about it, but at horrendous cost to American industry and lifestyle.
In the meantime,
all American consumers have been asked to do is to buy Ben & Jerry's
One Sweet Whirled ice cream, ensuring that a portion of Unilever's profits
go towards "global warming initiatives". Wow!
candidates for the presidential nomination have been testing environmental
issues a little in the past few weeks. Some activists are hopeful that
the newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger of California is genuinely
interested. But, in truth, despite the Soviet-style politicization of
science, serious national debate on the issue ceased years ago.
Of course, nimbyism
is alive and well. And, sure, there are localized battles between greens
and their corporate enemies: towns in Alabama try to resist corporate
poisoning; contests go on to preserve the habitats of everything from
the grizzly bear to rare types of fly; Californians hug trees to stop
new housing estates. Sometimes the greenies win, though they have been
losing with increasing frequency, especially if Washington happens to
be involved. These fights, even in agglomeration, are not the real issue.
Day after day across America the green agenda is being lost - and then,
usually, being buried under concrete.
a war on the environment, a very successful one," says Paul Ehrlich,
professor of population studies at Stanford University. "This nation
is devouring itself," according to Phil Clapp of the National Environmental
Trust. These are voices that have almost ceased to be heard in the US.
Yet with each passing day, the gap between the US and the rest of the
planet widens. To take the figure most often trotted out: Americans
contribute a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. To meet
the seemingly modest Kyoto objective of reducing emissions to 7% below
their 1990 levels by 2012, they would actually (due to growth) have
to cut back by a third. For the Bush White House, this is not even on
the horizon, never mind the agenda.
Why has the leader
of the free world opted out? The first reason lies deep in the national
psyche. The old world developed on the basis of a coalition - uneasy
but understood - between humanity and its surroundings. The settlement
of the US was based on conquest, not just of the indigenous peoples,
but also of the terrain. It appears to be, thus far, one of the great
success stories of modern history.
this country is built very heavily on the frontier ethic," says
Clapp. "How America moved west was to exhaust the land and move
on. The original settlers, such as the Jefferson family, moved westward
because families like theirs planted tobacco in tidewater Virginia and
exhausted the soil. My own ancestors did the same in Indiana."
Americans made crops
grow in places that are entirely arid. They built dams - about 250,000
of them. They built great cities, with skyscrapers and symphony orchestras,
in places that appeared barely habitable. They shifted rivers, even
reversed their flow. "It's the American belief that with enough
hard work and perseverance anything - be it a force of nature, a country
or a disease - can be vanquished," says Clapp. "It's a country
founded on the idea of no limits. The essence of environmentalism is
that there are indeed limits. It's one of the reasons environmentalism
is a stronger ethic in Europe than in the US."
There is a second
reason: the staggering population growth of the US. It is approaching
300 million, having gone up from 200 million in 1970, which was around
the time President Nixon set up a commission to consider the issue,
the last time any US administration has dared think about it. A million
new legal migrants are coming in every year (never mind illegals), and
the US Census Bureau projections for 2050, merely half a lifetime away,
is 420 million. This is a rate of increase far beyond anything else
in the developed world, and not far behind Brazil, India, or indeed
This issue is political
dynamite, although not for quite the same reasons as in Britain. Almost
every political group is split on the issue, including the far right
(torn between overt xenophobes such as Pat Buchanan and the free marketeers),
the labor movement and the environmentalists. The belief that the US
is the best country in the world is a cornerstone of national self-belief,
and many Americans still, wholeheartedly, want others to share it. They
also want cheap labor to cut the sugar cane, pluck the chickens, pick
the oranges, mow the lawns and make the beds.
But the dynamite
is most potent among the Hispanic community, the group who will probably
decide the destiny of future presidential elections and who do not wish
to be told their relatives will not be allowed in or, if illegal, seriously
harassed. "Neither party wants to say we should change immigration
policy," says John Haaga of the independent Population Reference
Bureau. "The phrase being used is 'Hispandering'". Yet extra
Americans are not just a problem for the US: they are, in the eyes of
many environmentalists, a problem for the world because migrants, in
a short span of time, take on American consumption patterns. "Not
only don't we have a population policy," says Ehrlich, "we
don't have a consumption policy either. We are the most overpopulated
country in the world. It's not the number of people. It's their consumption."
Ehrlich may be wrong. It is, though. somewhat surprising that the federal
government's four million employees do not appear to include anyone
charged with even thinking about this issue.
This brings us to
the third factor: the Bush administration, the first government in modern
history which has systematically disavowed the systems of checks and
controls that have governed environmental policy since it burst into
western political consciousness a generation ago. It would be ludicrous
to suggest that Bush is responsible for what is happening to the American
environment. The crisis is far more deep-seated than that, and the federal
government is too far removed from the minutiae of daily life.
But the Bushies
have perfected a technique of announcing regular edicts (often late
on a Friday afternoon) rolling back environmental control, usually while
pretending to do the opposite. Morale among civil servants at the Environmental
Protection Agency in Washington was already close to rock-bottom even
before its moderate leader, Christine Todd Whitman, finally threw in
her hand in May. Gossip round town was that she had endured two years
of private humiliation at the hands of the White House. Few environmentalists
have great hopes for her announced successor, the governor of Utah,
What is really alarming
is the intellectual atmosphere in Washington. You can attend seminars
debunking scientific eco-orthodoxy almost every week. Early in the year,
there was much favorable publicity for a new work Global Warming and
Other Eco-myths, produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an
organization reputedly funded by multinational corporations. Outside
Washington, it can be far nastier. "I've never threatened anyone
in my life," a conservation activist in Montana complained to the
Guardian. "I do know, though, that I have gotten very ugly threats
left on my telephone answering machine over the past year, and twice
had to scour my sidewalk in front of the building to erase the dead
body chalk outlines."
Out in the west,
words such as enviro-whackos are popularized by rightwing radio hosts
such as the ex-Watergate conspirator Gordon Liddy, who passes on to
his millions of listeners the message that global warming is a lie.
"I commute in a three-quarter-tonne capacity Chevrolet Silverado
HD," he swanked in his latest book. "Four-wheel drive, off-road
equipped, extended curb pickup truck, powered by a 300hp, overhead valve,
turbo supercharged diesel engine with 520lb-feet of torque... It has
lights all over it so everyone can see me coming and get out of the
way. If someone in a little government-mandated car hits me, it is all
over - for him." Fuel economy in American vehicles hit a 22-year
low in 2002.
In this country,
green-minded people can't even trust the good guys. The Nature Conservancy,
the US's largest environmental group with a million members - with a
role not unlike Britain's National Trust - was the subject of an exhaustive
exposé in the Washington Post in May, accusing it of sanctioning
deals to build "opulent houses on fragile grasslands" and
drilling for gas under the last breeding ground of the Attwater's Prairie
Chicken, whose numbers have dwindled to just dozens.
On April 22, 1970
more than 20 million people attended the first-ever Earth Day. In New
York, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and 100,000 people attended
an ecology fair in Central Park. The Republican governor of New York
wore a Save the Earth button, and Senator John Tower, another Republican,
told an audience of Texan oilmen: "Recent efforts on the part of
the private sector show promise for pollution abatement and control.
Such efforts are in our own best interests..."
So what happened
next? The problem for the green movement was not what went wrong, but
what went right. Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, said: "In
the 1970s, the world will undergo famines - hundreds of millions of
people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked
on now." The famine never came. And after the oil crisis came and
went, and Americans began to tire of the gloom-filled, eco-oriented
presidency of Jimmy Carter, they turned instead to Ronald Reagan, who
proposed simple solutions of tax cuts and deregulation and, lo, the
world got more cheerful. With doomsday postponed indefinitely, the politics
of the Reagan years have lingered.
Some activists remain
bitter about the Clinton White House, which was only patchily interested
in green issues. "It left a bad taste in the mouth of the environmental
community," says Tim Wirth, a former senator and one-time Clinton
official. "They trimmed their sails over and over again. The old
House speaker, Tip O'Neill, had a very important political aphorism:
'Yer dance with the person who brung yer.' They never did." This
bitterness was one of the factors that led to the hefty third-party
vote for Ralph Nader in 2000, which proved disastrous for Al Gore, the
In the three years
since then, Bush has danced like a dervish with the folks who brung
him. Yet, even now, no one dare say out loud that they are against environmentalism:
the political wisdom is that the subject can be a voting issue among
the suburban moms, ferrying the kids around to baseball practice in
their own Chevrolet Silverados. Instead, the big corporations and their
political allies have - brilliantly - manipulated the forces that the
eco-warriors themselves unleashed and turned them back on their creators.
"In the 80s they took all the techniques of citizen advocacy groups
and professionalized them," explains Phil Clapp. "That's when
you saw the proliferation of lobbyists in Washington. The environmental
community never retooled to meet the challenge. They had developed the
techniques, but were still doing them in a PTA bake-sale kind of way."
Thus every new measure
passed to favor business interests and ease up on pollution regulations
is presented in an eco-friendly, sugar-coated, summer's morning kind
of way, such as Clear Skies, the weakening of the Clean Air Act. The
House of Representatives has just passed the Healthy Forests Restoration
Act, presented by the president as an anti-forest fire measure. Opponents
say it is simply a gift to the timber industry that will make it extremely
difficult to stop the felling of old-growth trees. Another technique
is to announce, with great fanfare, initiatives that everyone can applaud,
such as a recent one for hydrogen-based cars. We can expect more of
these as November 2004 draws closer. When they are scaled back, or delayed,
or dropped, there is less publicity. It is a habit that runs in the
family. Governor Jeb Bush's grand scheme to save the Florida Everglades
was much applauded; the delay from 2006 to 2016 was little noticed.
Even now the White
House does not win all its battles. In the Senate, where a small group
of greenish New England Republicans has a potential blocking veto, there
are moves to compromise on the forests bill. The New England Republicans
were largely responsible for Bush's inability to push through his plan
to allow oil drilling in the Alaskan wildlife reserve. Occasionally,
there is good news: some of the small dams that have impeded the life-cycle
of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout are being demolished; there are
reports of a new alliance between the old enemies, ranchers and greenies,
in New Mexico; renewable energy is under discussion. But some of their
policies are already having their effect. Carol Browner, Clinton's head
of the EPA, claims the Bush administration has set back the campaign
to cut industrial pollution in ways that will last for decades.
has sent a signal to the polluting community, 'You can get away with
bad habits'," says Browner. "State governments in the north-east
were much tougher, so the north-eastern power stations upgraded their
emissions standards in the 90s whereas the mid-west guys, who are their
competitors, didn't. Now they're not enforcing the law."
"So what they're
saying to the companies is: 'Don't go early, don't comply with the law
first. The rules might change.' Even a company that wants to do the
right thing has to look at its bottom line. If they get into a situation
like this, they think: 'We spent $1bn to meet the requirements and our
competitors didn't. Yeah, great. We're not going to do that again.'"
Under Bush, the
lack of interest at every level has at last come into balance. The US
is equally unconcerned globally, federally, statewide and locally. The
environmentalists' macro-gloom has been off-beam before, of course.
Perhaps global warming is a myth; perhaps the CEI is right and there
will be a blue revolution in water use to complement the green revolution.
There is probably just as much as chance that the next big surprise
will be a thrilling one - the arrival of nuclear cold fusion to solve
the energy dilemma, say - as a disaster. Maybe biotechnology, pesticides,
natural gas and American ingenuity and optimism will indeed see everything
right. It does seem like a curiously reckless gamble for the US to be
taking, though, staking the future of the planet on the spin of nature's
But it is only a
bigger version of the bet being taken by the home-buyers of North Carolina.
In a country supposedly distrustful of government, the Outer Bankers
have remarkable faith in their leaders' ability to see them seem right.
Post-Isabel, a group of residents there wrote a letter demanding government
action so they can protect their livelihoods and families "without
the fear of every hurricane or nor 'easter cutting us off from the rest
of the world". Quite. Who would imagine that in the 21st century
the most powerful empire the world has ever known could still be threatened
by enemies as pathetically old-fashioned as wind and tide?
Orrin Pilkey thinks
it quite possible that sea levels might rise to the point where the
Outer Banks will be a minor detail. "We're not going to be worried
about North Carolina. We're going to be worrying about Manhattan."
Still, macro-catastrophe may never happen. The micro-catastrophe, however,
already has: the US is an aesthetic disaster area.
If you fly from
Washington to Boston, there are now almost no open spaces below. This
is increasingly true in a big U covering both coasts and the sunbelt.
In the south-west, the main growth area, bungalows spread for miles
over what a decade ago was virgin desert. The population of Arizona
increased 40% in the 1990s, that of next-door Nevada 66%. That's, as
Natalie Merchant sang, "...the sprawl that keeps crawling its way,
'bout a thousand miles a day", which is not much of an exaggeration.
Every day 5,000
new houses go up in America. Many of these fit the American appetite
for size, however small the plot: "McMansions", as they are
known. The very word suburb is now old-hat. The reality of life for
many people now is the "exurb", which can be dozens of miles
from the city on which it depends. In places such as California, exurban
life is the only affordable option for most young couples and recent
are rarely gated but often walled, creating a vague illusion of security
and ensuring that the residents have to drive to a shop, even if there
happens to be one 50 yards away. Naturally, they have to drive everywhere
else. In August it was announced that the number of cars in the US (1.9
per household) now actually exceeded the number of drivers (1.75).
In many places -
especially those growing the fastest - developers have to deal only
with the little councils in the towns they are taking over. There are
often minimal requirements to provide any kind of infrastructure, such
as sewage or schools, to service these new communities. The rules for
building houses in the computer game Sim City are stricter than those
that apply in most areas of the Sun Belt. Too late, some parts of the
country have concluded that this is untenable. The buzz-phrase is "smart
growth", which means no more than the kind of forethought before
building that has been routine in Europe for half a century. Even the
Environmental Protection Agency is not above being helpful: its policies
for making use of brownfield sites have seen people moving, improbably,
back into the center of cities such as Pittsburgh.
But where it matters,
no one is talking strategy. "In the really fast-growing states,
the pace of development is such that they can build huge numbers of
houses without anyone considering what it means for the infrastructure,"
says Marya Morris of the American Planning Association. In California,
more than perhaps any other state, there is a debate. But while people
talk, developers act: a city catering for up to 70,000 people will soon
arise at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains. According to the Los Angeles
Times, it would effectively close the gap between Los Angeles and Bakersfield,
theoretically 111 miles away. "Southern California is coming over
the hill," said one resident.
have a presumption of infinite space. But I have made a curious and
mildly embarrassing discovery. In states such as Maryland and Ohio,
the pattern of settlement in supposedly rural areas is such that it
can actually be quite difficult to find a discreet spot away from housing
to stop the car and have a pee. Amid the wide-open spaces of Texas,
it can be worse: the gap between Dallas and Waco is a 100-mile strip
mall. The concepts of townscape and landscape seem non-existent: there
is land that has been developed and land that hasn't - yet.
And yet. Time and
again, around the US, one is struck by the stunning beauty of the landscape,
not in the obvious places, but in corners that few Americans will have
heard of: amazing rivers such as the Pearl in Louisiana, or the Choptank
in Maryland or the Lost River in West Virginia; the Chocolate Mountains
and the San Diego back country in California; the bits that are left
of the Outer Banks...
And equally one
is struck by the sheer horrendousness of what man has done in the century
or so since he seriously got to work over here. In the context of ages,
the white man is merely a hotel guest in this continent: he has smashed
the furniture and smeared excrement on the walls. He appears to be looking
forward to his next night's stay with relish.
Of course, there
are still huge tracts of untouched and largely unpopulated land: in
the Great Plains, where people are leaving, in the mountains, deserts
and Arctic tundra. But last spring, in another of Washington's Friday
night announcements, the Department of the Interior announced - no,
whispered - that it was removing more than 200m acres that it owned
from "further wilderness study", enabling those areas to be
opened for mining, drilling, logging or road-building. That's an area
three times the size of Britain. The New York Times did write a trenchant
editorial; otherwise the response was minimal.
Not long ago I went
for a walk in the Vallecito Mountains in California. After a while,
I got myself into a position where the contours of the land blotted
out everything and, after the noise of a plane had died away, there
was no sight or sound at all that was not produced by nature. This lasted
about a minute. Then, from somewhere, a motorcycle roared into earshot.
Sure, there are
still places in this vast country where it is possible to escape, but
they get harder and harder to find except for the fit, the adventurous
and those unencumbered by children or jobs. Most Americans don't live
that way. And nowhere now is entirely safe from being ravaged, sometimes
in ways that prejudice the future of the whole planet. Al-Qaida and
the Iraqi bombers have no need to bother. America is destroying itself.
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