Two Little Words

BY Sandra Steingraber

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It came as a two-word directive right after the remark about protecting American businesses from “needless federal regulation” and right before the one about the glories of free trade. It was embedded in the middle of a longish sentence that seemed to include an encoded message about drilling Alaska’s wilderness for oil: “…so I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation, and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy.”

“Promote conservation”: Bush’s sole reference to the environment in the 2004 State of the Union address. One hundred eighty-two words about the imagined threats posed by gay marriage. (And what were those again?) Two words—sort of—about the real threats to our collective habitat.

Given that the state of the union is, in some demonstrable ways, dependent on the state of the union’s environment, a bit more commentary seems in order. How is our nation’s air supply faring? What is the status of our drinking water? Our topsoil? How are the union’s fish stocks holding up? Here are 182 words on the subject that an environmentally minded president might have said:

New research shows that small particulate matter, as from the burning of diesel fuel, is a dangerous threat to our health. Inhaling these particles contributes to asthma in our children, preterm labor in our pregnant mothers, and heart disease in our elders. We cannot afford this loss of human productivity. Moreover, our dependency on coal to generate energy not only fouls our air, but poisons our fish with mercury. Because of mercury contamination, sport-caught fish are now unfit for consumption in many of the nation’s states and mothers wonder how many tuna fish sandwiches they can safely feed their children. This is unacceptable. At the same time, pesticides and fertilizers threaten our groundwater. There is no point in looking for water on Mars when our nation’s own drinking water supplies are being poisoned by chemicals largely derived from barrels of foreign oil.
Tonight I call upon Congress to reform our environmental policies in ways that will end our 19th Century dependency on coal and oil. Let’s invest in wind and solar power. Rebuild our public transportation system. Buy organic. Promote conservation.

Biologist Sandra Steingraber is a visiting distinguished scholar at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Her most recent book is Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood.

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