Members of both parties in Congress, calling themselves
"conservatives," earlier this week managed to gut nearly two dozen
environmental laws and regulations, and to slash 30% from the $7
billion annual budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A
Presidential veto could still salvage something from the wreckage,
forcing another fight in Congress, but the drift seems unmistakably
clear: this "conservative" Congress shows little interest in conserving
health, safety, wildlife, forests, rivers or wetlands. The credo of
these "conservatives" seems to be, Whatever corporate polluters want,
corporate polluters get.
Corporations, as we have seen, are not capable of curbing their own
excesses--it is the nature of the corporate institution that it must
seek short-term money gain, no matter who or what has to be sacrificed.
(See REHW #449, #433, and #388.) This is not a question of evil--it is
merely the nature of the corporation as we, the people, have created it
in law. (And it will remain this way until we, the people, change it.)
The INDIVIDUALS within a corporation are powerless to alter its earth-
destroying course no matter what deeply-felt, unselfish beliefs those
individuals may hold (unless of course a way can be found for the
corporation to profit from the change).
But Congress is not a corporation. As a practical matter, it is true
that most members of Congress owe their souls to the wealthy few who
provide the mountains of cash needed to run an election campaign.
However, when campaign finance reform is proposed, in an effort to
remove the poisonous influence of private money from the electoral
process, members of Congress insist that they only vote their
consciences and the money doesn't influence them. Therefore, we must
presume that the "conservatives" in Congress personally believe it is
right and good to sacrifice the nation's few remaining healthy
ecosystems for corporate gain, to extinguish wildlife wherever and
whenever the corporados find it convenient to do so, and to expose the
nation's children to toxic and gender-bending chemicals from the moment
of conception onward.
This raises the question, What does it mean in the late 20th century to
be a conservative? Do ALL conservatives believe in sacrificing human
health and the environment to maximize short-term money gain for a few
wealthy investors? The behavior of this Congress certainly points
menacingly toward that conclusion. Yet a new book, THE MAKING OF A
CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST, offers quite a different perspective on
how a modern conservative thinks.
Author Gordon Durnil has spent nearly 30 years as a loyal Republican,
managing election campaigns and steering Indiana state politics along a
traditional conservative path. A friend and admirer of Dan Quayle,
Durnil served from 1981 to 1989 as Indiana Republican State Chairman
and member of the Republican National Committee. His conservative
credentials are impeccable.
When George Bush appointed Durnil to be U.S. Chairman of the
International Joint Commission in 1989, Durnil knew almost nothing
about pollution; he was a lawyer and politician who admits that he had
never thought much about the environment. But he took his IJC
responsibilities seriously and he stayed up nights reading mounds of
esoteric studies to educate himself. Created by treaty between the U.S.
and Canada in 1909, the IJC has official responsibility for water
quality in the Great Lakes--a vast and badly-polluted ecosystem that
contains 20% of all the fresh water on earth.
Initially, Gordon Durnil did not want to believe that pollution was a
serious problem. "The truth is, in the beginning of my tenure, I wanted
to disbelieve," he writes. "But being a good conservative, with the
ability to think for myself instead of being told how to think, I was
willing to change my way of thinking. Evidence is evidence and facts
are, indeed, facts."
Soon the facts convinced Gordon Durnil (and the 5 other commissioners
with whom he served--2 U.S. and 3 Canadian) that toxic chemicals were
very likely harming the children of North America. As he says, "In the
[IJC's] FIFTH BIENNIAL REPORT [in 1990], ...we, by consensus, concluded
that there was a threat to the health of our children emanating from
our exposure to persistent toxic substances, even at very low ambient
levels." Durnil's reading convinced him that "The scientific evidence
confirming problems with human reproduction, learning, behavior, and
the ability to ward off disease, is now becoming broadly accepted."
He points to such facts as these (among many):
** The U.S. General Accounting Office in October 1991 said, "In 1988,
about 250,000 U.S. children were born with birth defects, 600,000 women
experienced a miscarriage or fetal death, and many young children were
exposed in their homes and neighborhoods to chemicals that will reduce
their ability to develop the intellectual skills necessary to function
in the 21st century. There is growing scientific evidence that exposure
to environmental chemicals causes a broad spectrum of adverse
reproductive and developmental outcomes and that they are preventable
if the exposures are better controlled."
** Somewhere between 10% and 16% of all couples in the U.S. are
** The sons of Michigan mothers whose breast milk contained an
industrial flame-retardant chemical had a higher incidence of
testicular abnormalities and smaller penises than the norm.
Durnil --with the help of the IJC's scientific advisory board, and a 3-
year series of public meetings to gather evidence from industry,
government, and the public --became convinced that chemical exposures
are very likely damaging North American children in many ways --
reducing their ability to pay attention in school; diminishing their
IQs; making them hyperactive, aggressive, hostile and unruly; harming
their immune systems and thus reducing their ability to fight off
common infections and serious diseases such as cancer; perhaps even
predetermining their sexual characteristics, preferences and behaviors
before they are born.
Durnil's response, as a conservative, was simply this: putting our
children in harm's way by exposing them to industrial chemicals is
dangerous and immoral and ought to stop. Durnil, who says he has "spent
a lifetime in support of industry," has little sympathy for dangerous
polluters. With characteristic clarity, he says, "Science tells us of
bad effects that certain kinds of discharges can have on our children,
born and unborn, but we don't seem to see the analogy between a
perverted individual sexually molesting a child and an industrial
discharge affecting the basic sexuality of a child. I wonder why." It
is a good question. Durnil sees it as a basic conservative tenet that
an invasion of our bodies by toxics is a fundamental violation of a
most basic right.
Durnil's response was not to fudge, waffle, delay, deny, distort,
deflect, or pass the buck. He saw it as his responsibility, as a
conservative and a political leader, to devise solutions commensurate
with the scope and scale of the problem. Thus he led the IJC to create
(and to borrow from others) a set of principles that would protect
children. In a nutshell they are:
** The principle of "reverse onus." All chemicals, new and old, should
be considered harmful until proven safe. Chemicals that cannot be shown
to be safe should be sunsetted (eliminated by an orderly process as
rapidly as possible without completely disrupting industry).
** Because we can never prove the safety of chemicals that persist for
long periods in the environment and enter food chains, all persistent,
bioaccumulative toxics should be sunsetted.
** The principle of precautionary action, which says that as soon as
there is reason to suspect that a chemical is problematic, it should be
sunsetted--not waiting for scientific certainty.
These principles (and a few others that the IJC adopted), taken
together, provide a blueprint for sustainable industrial development.
In essence, Gordon Durnil and the IJC in 4 years did what the big
environmental groups and 20 years of liberal, Democratically-controlled
Congresses had been unable to do: come up with environmental-protection
ideas that might actually work.
What is a conservative anyway? True conservatives trace their
intellectual roots back to people like Edmund Burke (1721-1797), the
Irish philosopher and statesman. Burke believed that the current
generation holds the present as a patrimony in moral entail from its
ancestors and must pass it on to posterity -- improved, if possible,
but at all costs undiminished. Gordon Durnil says something similar:
"The symmetry of nature is loaned to us for human use over relatively
short periods of time, seventy or eighty years each if we are
fortunate. Each of us has a moral duty not to disrupt that balance."
Compare this to what's going on in Washington and you will quickly see
that "conservative" is not a word properly applied to most of this
Congress. Proper terms to describe the self-styled "conservatives" in
this Congress might include opportunistic, swinish, exploitive,
fatuous, boorish, reckless, racist, pusillanimous, improvident,
beggarly, perfidious, amoral, opprobrious, unprincipled, duplicitous,
cruel, petty, malevolent, mean, grasping, deceptive, deceitful,
disingenuous, dishonest, ignoble, self-seeking, venal, whorish, and
corrupt. Not conservative, definitely not conservative. But don't get
Copies of Gordon Durnil's excellent book should be delivered to all who
call themselves "conservatives" (at all levels of government) asking
them to sign on to its conservative principles of environmental
protection--or to give good ethical reasons for refusing. For that
matter, it should go to all liberal politicians --and all the
mainstream environmental groups, as well --asking them to do the same.
This would quickly separate the real environmentalists from the
apostles of appeasement, the corporate toadies, and it would engender a
worthwhile debate over fundamentals. In sum, this is an important book.
GET: Gordon K. Durnil, THE MAKING OF A CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST
(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995); $19.95 and well
 John H. Cushman Jr., "G.O.P. Leaders in House Succeed in Restoring
Limits on the E.P.A.," NEW YORK TIMES August 1, 1995, pgs. A1, A10. Two
weeks ago, the TIMES described what sorts of "limits" conservatives in
Congress had in mind: removing money from the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's budget that the agency was intending to use "to
enforce air pollution permits, to regulate toxic air pollution from oil
refineries, to encourage tough state automobile inspections, to require
accident prevention plans in the chemical industry, to limit pollution
from cement kilns, to encourage state car-pooling plans, to gather and
publish data on chemical use, to protect wetlands, to set water quality
guidelines for the Great Lakes, to write new industrial water pollution
regulations, to issue stormwater runoff rules, to control sewage
overflows into rivers, and much more." As the TIMES said, "Some of the
proposals are breathtaking in their potential effect." See John H.
Cushman, Jr., "G.O.P.'s Plan for Environment Is Facing a Big Test in
Congress," NEW YORK TIMES July 17, 1995, pgs. A1, A11.
Descriptor terms: congress; epa; budget; conservatives; liberals;
environmental groups; gordon durnil; ijc; great lakes; water pollution;
wildlife; human health; endocrine disrupters; canada; birth defects;
children; central nervous system; immune system; infertility;