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Bush's "Greenwashing"


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On a lake in Maine, Rachel Carson's warning resonates

By Ellen Goodman, 8/31/2003


JUST AS WE ARRIVE, a pair of media-savvy eaglets enter on cue, soaring and screaming above us. They show little of the majesty that has made bald eagles such an impressive national symbol. They are just a pair of full-sized adolescents, pushed out by their parents and protesting the end of their free lunch. Charles Richards, who lives here, is used to his noisy tenants. Though it must be said that these birds have no respect for private property, eagles and Richards have coexisted comfortably for decades. They nest beside the lake, in the skyscraping white pines that once provided masts for tall sailing ships.

Leading us down the wooded path to the site of the nests, the 83-year-old retired engineer describes the secret of this coexistence with dry Maine understatement: "They don't bother me and I don't bother them." But, in fact, "un-bothering" nature has become something of an environmental art and goal.

What's drawn us to the cackling adolescents is their starring role in this success story. Or at least this partial success story. Back in 1965, only four eaglets fledged in a state that once saw thousands. Last year 115 made it into the sky.

Through all this time, the nesting site on this lake has been one of the most successful. Indeed, the generations of eagle parents that the neighbors have generically nicknamed Sam and Betsy probably produced a good percentage of the offspring that helped demote bald eagles from an endangered status to a threatened status.

But what "bothered" the eagles most was DDT. The postwar pesticide had won its inventor a Nobel Prize. But it thinned the shells of eagles who live at the top of the aquatic food chain, threatening their survival.

In 1962, Rachel Carson, who spent summers near here, took on the pesticide in her book, "Silent Spring." The chemical industry spent some $250,000 to discredit her work and trivialize her as a "bird and bunny lover." But the book led to federal investigations and a domestic ban on DDT in 1972.

On this summer day I wonder what would happen to a Rachel Carson now?

A few days ago, Interior Secretary Gale Norton introduced the president as a "compassionate conservationist." This administration has weakened the Clean Water Act, undermined wetlands protection, taken 200 million acres of lands off the protected lists. This week they eased the rules against air pollution for the sake of industry. But they've learned how to "greenwash" the language.

It was all in the famous memo by political strategist Frank Luntz, who urged the Bush people to talk of "climate change" instead of "global warming," and to "be even more active in recruiting experts who are sympathetic to your view."

Of all the anti-environmental policies, none has been so insidious as that advice to politicize science. Marching in step, the Environmental Protection Agency said the air was safe in New York after 9/11 when it wasn't. The same EPA deleted a whole section on global warming from its report on the environment.

The Bush administration has created a partisan science, barely distinguishable from industry science. If a Rachel Carson came before this White House or Congress, would they hire experts to insist that the jury was still out on DDT? Would chemical companies with friends in high places -- and I do not mean in white pine trees -- carry the day?

It's 30 years since DDT was banned; half the eagles in Maine still carry traces of the pesticide. But today their protection, their "un-bothering," goes on. Bald eagles, says Charlie Todd, the eagle "guru" at Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, "need more privacy than we are accustomed to giving wildlife." So the state watches over shorelines and utility poles. The road construction nearby was halted until this pair hatched. And even if he wanted to, which he does not, Richards would be forbidden from cutting down the white pines.

But lately it seems the protection ethic itself is on the endangered list. In a matter of weeks, Mike Leavitt, the governor of Utah and the nominee to the head the EPA, will come up for confirmation hearings. Some describe him as a Humvee in environmentalist clothing, others as a coalition builder. The real question is whether his EPA would follow environmental science or political science.

This is no "silent summer." As Sam and Betsy's "kids" noisily circle the lake, I am reminded of Rachel Carson's warning: "Man's endeavors to control nature by his powers, to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself." No amount of greenwashing can change the color of that reality.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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