Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2001

Clinton's Environmental Legacy

By Paul Wapner

When Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, he said that he would spend every day of his presidency thinking about how to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Four years later, the United States and the former Soviet Union possessed more nuclear weapons in their arsenals than before Carter's arrival in the White House. What was Carter thinking about on those long afternoons in the Oval Office?

Bill Clinton began his presidency with an outspoken commitment to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to address climate change. He said that climate change was a global strategic threat that required bold leadership and, in his first Earth Day address, promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. When Clinton left office, however, emissions were nowhere near 1990 levels. In fact, they stood roughly 15 percent above that target. What kind of president ignores his most cherished commitments? What kind of "green" president leaves his country deeper in greenhouse debt than before raking office? The answer: a real one.

Many of us have the notion that, once we place someone who shares our progressive agenda into office, we can walk away and expect great things to happen. What Carter and Clinton show us is that progressive presidents can enact good policies and accomplish much to enhance collective well-being. But, when it comes to deep, structural challenges, they often make little progress. Like all presidents, they are beholden not simply to special interests but to broader paradigms that constrain their actions.

Clinton came into office, like most of his predecessors, promising foremost to get the economy running. He worked everyday of his presidency to increase the pace of economic growth. Clinton didn't invent this goal; he simply understood that promising prosperity provides the ticket into office and filling people's pocketbooks is the best way to stay there. He didn't have to read books to figure this out, he only had to look around. We live in the most affluent society ever and yet many of us spend the majority of our waking hours trying to get richer and accumulate more material things. We do all this in the name of comfort and security. Pursuing comfort obviously doesn't mean we don't care about our families, friends, or country. It is just that we believe that the foundation for caring about them rests significantly on providing for their material well-being.

Clinton's commitment to economic prosperity blinded him to other issues, including environmental protection. Yes, he preserved much land, cleaned many brownfields, and set stronger standards for air and water quality. Furthermore, he understood the scope and challenge of global environmental problems. For all of this, we should be thankful. But he pursued his environmental agenda under the more immediate one of economic prosperity, and this limited his achievements.

Clinton was not the first nor will he be the last president to place economic priorities above other values. As long as society continues to put money and material goods above other social goals we will keep getting presidents who place economic growth at the forefront of their agendas. And, as long as this happens, we maybe able to save some land here and clean a little air there, but overall we will continue what Gore himself called our slow "nuclear war" against the environment. The work ahead for environmentalists involves nothing less than finding ways to dismantle the hegemony of economic idolatry. It entails developing what Michael Lerner calls a new "bottom line," a society that still cares about material well-being but makes it subservient to our higher aspirations for justice, peace, and ecological balance.

To many of us, establishing a new bottom line may sound quixotic, especially given that our best efforts during the sweet Clinton years came nowhere near doing this. Such a goal never made it onto his administration's nor society's radar screen. But, what choice do we really have? Environmentally, is it realistic to think that we can protect the earth's ecosystems in any meaningful sense without rearranging our priorities and valuing, at a minimum, the health of our land, water, air, and fellow species over the size of our pocketbooks? Is it really possible to protect the environment over the long run when our number one objective--material accumulation--entails polluting the earth and stripping its resources? As long as we worship economic prosperity, our best hope is to bring more Clintons into office and find ourselves, at the end of their terms, celebrating environmental reforms, but still longing for environmental transformation.

The Clinton Legacy: The Good

Within the boundaries of conventional politics, Clinton has an impressive environmental record and his inability to transcend society's ideals shouldn't take this away from him. One might not go so far as the League of Conservation Voters, which proclaimed that, "Bill Clinton's environmental record in office is one of the best of any president," but one should give credit where it is due. Clinton appointed genuine environmentalists to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Interior, and chose a Vice-President who, despite Gore's many bouts of amnesia, had deep-seated environmental commitments. Clinton established offices within the Department of Justice and the EPA to address issues of environmental justice, and the State Department under his watch began focusing on environmental security threats. Clinton also proposed the largest budgets ever for wildlife protection and preservation of our national parks.

Clinton's most visible legacy will be his protection of large parcels of land from exploitation and development. In his last years of office, he used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to place over 3 million acres of federal land off-limits to development by declaring them "national monuments." These areas include Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante, Arizona's Grand-Canyon-Parashant and California's Pinnacles. With these actions, Clinton set aside more acreage under the Act than Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to take advantage of the Act and the one most credited with establishing the U.S. system of federal land protection.

Clinton also used executive power to order one-third of national forest land off-limits to road building, logging, and oil and gas exploration. This move, which covered more than 58 million acres in 39 states, protected all remaining national forest land that had not already been developed or granted permanent protection as a wilderness area, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

These measures, along with efforts to restore the Everglades, restrict flights over the Grand Canyon, ban snowmobiling in national parks, and fight off congressional attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, represent significant achievements. Clinton will he remembered foremost, along with Roosevelt and Carter, for preserving many of America's wildlands and scenic landscapes.

The Clinton administration also made headway in so-called "brown issues," those environmental threats associated with industrial pollution. It approved new clean air standards for soot and smog, cleaned up 515 Superfund sites (more than three times as many as the previous two administrations), doubled the number of chemicals that industry must report to communities through "right to know" laws, and set new tough standards for reducing sulfur levels in gasoline. The administration also took measurable action to protect the nation's waterways and water quality by launching the Clean Water Action Plan, strengthening the Safe Drinking Water Act, and permanently barring new oil leasing in national marine sanctuaries.

Perhaps Clinton's most significant environmental accomplishments come not in the form of what he achieved but what he staved off. Clinton faced an aggressive and hostile Congress that worked consistently to dismantle fundamental environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and to frustrate the ability of agencies such as the EPA to carry out their regulatory work. Clinton consistently resisted these attacks by vetoing numerous anti-environmental bills, including the package of anti-environmental legislation that was part of the 1995 Congressional leadership's "Contract with America." Counterfactual evidence is rarely impressive, but Clinton's efforts to beat back Republican attempts to emasculate U.S. environmental law and process should not be missed when assessing his environmental legacy. Things would be a lot worse now if Clinton had not been steadfast in his opposition to the Republican Congress.

The Clinton Legacy: The Bad

The record, while impressive, is not all rosy and is far from consistent even within the realm of conventional environmental politics. While well-intentioned, many of Clinton's achievements were low-cost initiatives or taken at the very end of his tenure so that neither he nor his fellow Democrats would feel the heat. Moreover, his administration committed a number of real blunders that significantly tarnish his legacy. On the 1992 campaign trail, Clinton and Gore went to East Liverpool, Ohio to denounce the operation of a hazardous waste incinerator that was built on a floodplain and stands next to an elementary school. They pledged that, if elected, they would deny the plant a permit if, indeed, the incinerator posed a public threat. Notwithstanding clear evidence of hazard, Clinton and Gore reneged on their promise and the incinerator continues to spew out dangerous levels of mercury, dioxins, and lead, all of which pose long-term health threats.

Early in their administration, Clinton and Gore proposed raising fees on livestock that graze on federally owned land as a way of protecting land quality. Higher fees would have limited the number of cattle and provided resources for restoring damaged areas. As was typical of Clinton's tenure, when a few Western governors and members of Congress issued pro forma complaints, he back-pedaled on the issue, leaving grazing fees at essentially subsidized rates.

Perhaps Clinton's most glaring bungle came when he supported a supplementary funding bill that contained a rider permitting salvage logging in national forests. Salvage logging was proposed as a way to placate loggers by allowing them to remove diseased and fire-damaged trees from areas that are otherwise off-limits to the industry. The problem is that the practice not only removes important habitat but the provision was written so broadly that it was interpreted by a federal judge to allow unrestricted logging in many healthy forests. Brent Blackwelter, head of Friends of the Earth, called the rider the "worst single piece of public lands legislation ever signed into law."

These disappointments and many others have led critics to denounce Clinton's environmental efforts. Taken as a whole, Clinton left a limited environmental legacy--one of forward movement but not wholesale redirection. The structural constraints that were present when Clinton came into office are still very much with us. Addressing these would have required Clinton to question his fundamental commitment to economic growth. But this, for Clinton and almost all of us, was not negotiable.

The Clinton Legacy: The Ugly

Imagine, for a moment, what the Clinton environmental legacy looks like from the perspective of the earth itself. Over the past century, we human beings have grown in such numbers and have spread ourselves so extensively that there are few places left on the planet that are devoid of human presence. Humans use over 40 percent of the earth's primary productivity--the total amount of consumable energy from photosynthesis--and yet we are only one of some 10-20 million species. Moreover, our actions deplete the earth's organic and inorganic resources and plug up its ecological sinks such that large-scale systems, like the carbon and water cycles as well as the intricate links that sustain biological diversity, have been fundamentally disrupted. What did Clinton do to speak to this level of ecological concern? How do we assess a mixed environmental record against the needs of a fragile planet? Clinton never touched the large-scale structures that fuel ecological degradation. He tinkered at the edges, to be sure, b ut he never redirected the fundamental engines of collective life in a way that would have ushered in a new environmental era.

Over the last half century, the world economy has more than quintupled in size and it is supposed to quintuple again over the next generation. For those of the consuming nations, this has meant unparalleled buying power. Most people of the North have more discretionary income than they or their ancestors ever had, and they are using this to satisfy greater and greater degrees of desire. For example, greater affluence is spurring baby boomers, whose kids have gone off to college, to routinely buy or build bigger homes. According to environmental writer Bill McKibben, the average American home is now roughly 2,500 square feet in size compared to 1,900 square feet in 1977. Additional income is also enabling car owners to buy bigger, fatter, and more gasguzzling machines. Expeditions, Navigators, and Explorers now outsell Civics and Metros even though most drivers go nowhere near a dirt road and have no desire to drive up the face of a mountain. Greater prosperity is also driving up demand for luxury goods. McKi bben records that, in the 1990s, high-end retailers like Hermes, Patek Philippe, and Neiman Marcus had back-orders for $4,000 Kelly bags, $75 ,000 Jaguars, and $44,500 watches. Industry, of course, is happy to try to meet this demand by producing increasing amounts of stuff. But that is just it: doing so uses more resources and creates more waste, both of which fundamentally damage the environment.

Clinton never once questioned consumerism and affluence as social goals. In fact, it was Clinton's administration which famously told us that it is the economy, stupid, that drives all other social goods and promised everyone a taste of the high life. Almost every policy measure that Clinton undertook had an eye toward economic growth, and economic productivity became the answer to all our woes. Clinton told us that growth would reduce welfare, crime, the federal deficit, and inadequate health care at home, and promote democracy, peace, cultural exchange, and individual liberty abroad. As Clinton pursued this vision through back-to-work welfare reform, fast-track trade talks, and market-opening policies across the globe, other social values had to translate themselves into economic productivity or fall by the wayside.

By failing to address affluence as a problem, Clinton not only limited his own agenda but failed to set meaningful strictures for future policy. For example, many of us now fear that President Bush will open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, despite its protection under federal law. But how surprised should we really be? Clinton's commitment to economic growth, like those of all his predecessors, was premised on greater energy use and, since the industrial revolution, this has meant burning more fossil fuel. Had Clinton taken a strong stand against fossil fuels and begun the necessary transition to an alternative fuel-based economy or addressed the ecological problems of an ever-growing economy, Bush's threats would seem grossly out of step. To many Americans, however, they are clearly in line with our historical orientation toward energy and, aside from heartfelt concerns about caribou, bear, and stunning landscapes, have a certain common sense behind them.

Clinton toyed with the idea of moving beyond fossil fuels very early in his administration when he proposed raising the price of oil, coal, and natural gas through a BTU tax (based on measuring energy in British thermal units). This would have reduced energy consumption and spurred investment in alternative fuels. Like many of his retreats, however, Clinton rescinded the proposal after critics complained that it would cripple the economy. To show that Clinton got the criticism, he twice offered to open-up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to keep gas prices down. (He did this shamefully during the 1996 presidential election to boost his own chances at the voting booth and during the 2000 election as a campaign gift to Gore.) Clinton's attempt to keep the economy growing by subsidizing oil reveals how difficult it is for even a progressive president to tackle those structures that feed ecological degradation. Clinton never really questioned the hierarchy of social goods as he inherited it, and his actions ended up wedding us closer to fossil fuels and the religion of consumerism and economic growth.

Beyond the Clinton Legacy

It is easy to blame Clinton for not doing more for the environment. But, as we begin to build a post-Clinton environmental movement, it is important to recognize our own role in his limited policies. Many of us were party to Clinton's infatuation with economic prosperity. His economic policies made it possible for more Americans than ever before to invest in stocks and mutual funds, and many of us smiled as these investments shot through the roof of our financial expectations. We spent more during the Clinton years on non-necessities than in any comparable time in U.S. history and, despite plenty of philosophies that explain the poverty of materialism, this made us feel good. Clinton made the economy hum and we sang along. In fact, we knew the tune well because we had been singing it for decades.

Let's face it: almost all of us wish to be materially rich, even if we want this so that we can do more good in the world. We are convinced that material well-being provides significant opportunities to appreciate life in various ways and have a hard time restricting our spending in the absence of bank notices. A central challenge to environmentalists, but especially those in the North, is to come to terms with how the pursuit of affluence can be re-channeled in meaningful and realistic ways. Clinton told us, rightly, that economic and ecological goals are often compatible. However, he said nothing about when the two find themselves at loggerheads. For too long, we've accepted a paradigm that continues to privilege economic prosperity above all other values. It is time to cultivate a new one.

Paul Wapner is associate professor and director of the environmental policy pro gram at American University. His most recent publication is Principled World Politics: The Challenge of Normative International Relations (Roman and Littlefield, 2000).

Source Citation

Wapner, Paul. 2001. Clinton's Environmental Legacy. Tikkun 16(2): 11.

tags: Environment, Environmental Activism, President Bill Clinton, US Politics