Two Little Words

Sandra Steingraber

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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