A Dangerous Legacy

Bush’s “ownership society” champions a hyper-individualism that threatens the commons.

Adam Werbach

It would be difficult for a president to express more disregard for the environment than George W. Bush. Bush refused to act on global warming, declaring the Kyoto treaty dead. He refused to continue the Superfund program, sticking Americans with a multi-billion-dollar tab for cleaning up corporate toxic waste. He refused to enforce the Clean Air Act and shelved years worth of legal work by the Environmental Protection Agency to hold power plants accountable for breaking pollution laws. From the downright absence of discussion of the environment in his State of the Union address to his decision to appoint anti-regulation oil and gas industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles as Deputy Secretary of the Interior, his consistent hostility has sent shivers down the spine of every nature-loving American.

Although Bush’s attacks on the environment virtually match those conducted against the rest of America, the environment stands apart from these other issues. Unlike a Bush-appointed federal judge who eventually will retire or an ill-conceived tax policy that can be reversed, once the environment is sacrificed it cannot be revived.

But Bush’s most insidious action to date has been changing the terms of the debate on the environment, effectively making extremism the new standard.

The success of the Bush administration’s assault on the environment suggests a much larger failure in what we collectively assumed was an unstoppable march toward greater respect for our fellow humans and the broader natural world. Facts about misdeeds alone are no longer enough to stop the encroachment on nature, our bodies and our civil rights. Many progressives can’t comprehend why the majority of Americans continue to think the president is a strong leader and at the same time admit that he gets the facts wrong, whether it’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or calling an increase in mercury releases in the air an environmental achievement. Even more alarming is the rapid decline in support for environmentalism that predates Bush. From 1996 to 2000 the percentage of Americans willing to accept higher pollution in the future to preserve jobs rose from 17 percent to 25 percent, according to an in-depth national values survey conducted by Environics. At the same time the number of Americans who believe that people who belong to environmental groups are extremists rose from 32 percent to 41 percent. While the 2004 results of this survey have yet to be released, the numbers likely will continue to suggest that the age of environmentalism is waning.

The core of the problem lies in the progressive approach to solving problems through policy initiatives, rather than refocusing the debate on the underlying values that are being attacked. The Bush administration has spoken plainly about their values project: The creation of an ownership society.

The CATO Institute, the preeminent champion of the ownership society, defines it as follows: An ownership society values responsibility, liberty and property. Individuals are empowered by freeing them from dependence on government handouts and making them owners instead, in control of their own lives and destinies. In the ownership society, patients control their own health care, parents control their own children’s education, and workers control their retirement savings.”

The values represented by a society where individuals own everything are anathema to the collective values of stewardship and ecological protection that science tells us we must foster to sustain natural systems burdened by the size and consumption patterns of the global population. In an ownership society, everyone has the right to own the most-polluting sports utility vehicle; in a society with commons values, those people who buy polluting SUVs are responsible for paying higher taxes to compensate society for taking from the common atmospheric resource we share. The commons values that we have relied upon since the Great Depression have been the underpinning of the economic and cultural growth of America. From Social Security to public education to the Clean Water Act, the framework for progressive political action has been the commons.

Today, the commons framework is under attack, and the individual movements that progressives have created to maintain our commons values are impotent to fight the larger battle through the lens of individual issues. Most environmentalists would not think that fighting against school vouchers and privatizing public education are the most important battlefronts for the protection of our forests. But if the battle is for the value of ownership versus the value of the commons, winning the fight over public education in a way that raises the profile of commons values may very well be the best battle that environmentalists can fight. Likewise, campaign finance reform advocates may find their most effective battle to be the reining in of the oil and coal industries’ attempts to seize public mineral rights, for there is no better example of private greed subverting the American political system.

The Bush administration’s greatest victory over the environmental movement has been changing in the terms of debate. Our challenge is not to create specific policy initiatives to counter each of the administration’s corporate giveaways, but to change the values framework that allows them to get away with it. If progressives can counter the advance of the ownership society, we’ll stand a better chance of stopping environmental insults, and in the process, we might save public education as well.

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Adam Werbach is the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is a former president of the Sierra Club, a position to which he was elected at the age of 23.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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