Clean Air and Clean Water Are Not Free

Taking care of our environment is not a Republican or Democrat issue; it is a health issue, a quality of life issue, even a life and death issue. Regardless of political views, life’s interconnectedness links us all. This means we cannot damage our air, land, water, each other, and the earth’s other creatures without harming our own health, well-being, and the life of our planet. To think otherwise is to believe the impossibility that value can be withdrawn indefinitely from nature’s “bank” of renewable and non-renewable resources without conserving and replenishing “capital.” In reality, our ongoing abuse of nature is amassing an ecological debt that must be paid or we will bankrupt the natural world, and humanity’s ruin will accompany it. Such thoughts are not new. Indeed, in his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon wisely proposed that our nation “make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.” Moreover, in order to “make our peace with nature,” he said we must change the ways we live and work to reduce our negative environmental impacts. We must face the truth that “clean air is not free, and neither is clean water.” For a cleaner and healthier environment, the White House and Congress that year created the National Environmental Policy Act to confront unprecedented air and water pollution and their deadly affects on humans, animals, and plants alike. Our nation’s leaders also enacted in 1970 the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, they passed the Clean Water Act. Since then, the nation that gave the world national parks and forests, conservation and cleaner technologies, has worked to make peace with our environment whose services make life possible for all living things. Until now. Today, our nation’s policy makers are proving to be the most anti-environmental, pro-pollution legislators in over fifty years, perhaps even in U.S. history, as chronicled by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), also created in 1970 to track legislative proposals and votes on the environment and public health. According to the LCV’s 2016 Scorecard, the present Congress processed a record-breaking 38 votes on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the aim was to block or undo protections for the environment and human health in favor of corporate profits. Even the nation’s foundational environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Endangered Species Act were attacked. South Carolina’s legislators contributed to this sea change. In fact, five of our state’s seven Congressmen (Wilson, Duncan, Gowdy, Mulvaney, and Rice) and one of our Senators (Scott) voted uniformly against environmental safeguards (0%). More sensibly, two Congressmen (Sanford, 21%; Clyburn 92%) and one Senator (Graham, 29%) voted variously in support of the environment and incentives for cleaner energy. Their combined voting average for the environment on behalf of South Carolinians was 16%. By contrast, a 2016 national Gallup poll found that 74% of U.S. adults believe the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” and 59% support stricter environmental sanctions to safeguard human health. Are South Carolinians so much more anti-environment than the rest of the nation? Or are we somewhere toward par with the national poll? If the latter, then whose interests are represented by our elected officials? Could it be the Holy Grail of Profit? Already in 2017, our national legislators have removed limits on carbon pollution from power plants, allowed coal mining on federal public lands, and scrapped requirements that energy companies disclose what chemicals they pump into the ground. They have also removed the stream protection rule that would keep poisonous heavy metals of mining sites out of our waterways. Presently, they are seeking to overturn the Methane Flaring Rule that would curb the release and burning of hazardous methane gas into the atmosphere. Sadly, pumping more pollutants into every realm of our environment only advances our ecological debt toward bankruptcy. It is neither wise nor far-sighted to spoil what should be the birthright of every American—clean air, clean water, and clean land. Moreover, such policies undervalue the services that a clean environment provides and assume they’re free, even though common sense, faith, science, and our own national history prove they are valuable and not free. In sum, our human inclination to self-interest makes environmental protections necessary, but our human capacity for caring makes a cleaner environment possible. It remains to be seen whether this nation still cares to have a healthy environment in which to live and work. (Dr. Bob Bryant is the Kristen Herrington Professor of Religion at Presbyterian College and a member of the Laurens County Trails Association board of directors.)

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