Austin, Texas, was the site for the 15th annual conference of the SEJ (Sept. 28 – Oct. 2, 2005), bringing together 600-some eco-scribes from around the country, from the auspicious to the acolyte. Also on-hand were oil company execs, the California congressman who’d just succeeded in gutting the Endangered Species Act, and Bill Moyers to give the keynote speech. It was 103 degrees when my plane touched down, but there was one bright note: right here, in the Texas capital, Tom DeLay had just been indicted.
I’ve assembled this report in six parts, the first five of which can admittedly be painful to digest (as any reality about our current conditions is bound to be). But Moyers, I hope you will agree, is like sunshine coming through the clouds.
Part I: ALCOA: the flacks and the farmers
Part II: The opening plenary: “Is journalism – environmental or otherwise – a dying idea?”
Part III: Breakfast with big oil
Part IV: Mercury rising
Part V: “Clear skies” and “healthy forests”
Part VI: Bill Moyers: a man for all seasons
PART I: ALCOA: THE FLACKS AND THE FARMERS
The first day offered a choice of bus tours, and I chose “Texas Energy: From Coal and Oil to Solar and Hydro.” We headed southeast of Austin about fifty miles. They say everything is big in Texas, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Rockdale Operations, as the Alcoa operation is called today, sprawls across 7,000 acres. This includes the aluminum smelter, the coal-fired power plant, and the man-made Alcoa Lake reservoir. Then there’s the lignite mining area, encompassing another 12,764 acres.
Our reportorial busload started out with a film and P.R. briefing in a building at the far end of the facility. Here we learned that 1.5 tons of aluminum a day are produced, and 6 million tons of lignite coal a year get mined here. The thousand megawatts generated every hour is enough to power a medium-sized city, but it’s all for the smelter. Some 1,100 folks are employed at Rockdale, toiling amid the potlines and the crucibles and the casthouse.
The rub is – and this, the public affairs manager doesn’t tell us – this plant has been one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Texas for years, releasing over 100,000 tons of pollutants annually. So they’re being forced to shut down their more than 50-year-old boilers in three years. That means, the flacks informed, that unless they find a partner, one-third of the plant will be closed before long. Right now they’re building new factories in Iceland, Brazil, and Dubai. (Labor’s probably cheaper there, too.)
We reboarded the bus for the grand tour. These huge mounds of black coal are used up in a single day. We couldn’t get out and walk around because that would require 45 minutes of safety instruction, and besides they don’t have enough “metatarsal boots” for all of us to wade around in. Pointing at the vaporous blue and white plumes coming out of the stacks, the environmental safety manager told us that just because one looks bad, that doesn’t mean it’s the worst emitter. Check out those aluminum ingots at roadside, they weigh 20 tons each. There’s the building where they make aluminum powder to fuel the space shuttles. It’s so flammable that if you entered in your stocking feet, you’d ignite. We turned right onto Reagan Street, and paused to view one of their potlines in the “Potroom” that operates 24 hours a day seven days a week. I looked for signs of smoke. Well….Who knew?
Onward past the 102-degree “cooling lake,” where the plant sends its daily discharge. It’s stocked with tilapia and catfish, but no fishing’s been allowed for a few years since a local fellow fell in and died. Onward past the immense toothed “drag line buckets,” each weighing a couple hundred tons and capable of carrying 105 cubic yards of earth. These help “reclaim” the land that’s been strip-mined, in fact they’re planting about 10,000 trees a year over the spoils. The strip mining starts at 20 to 40 feet down, and goes to 200 feet. There are huge earthen mounds at roadside where they “walk that drag-line” – we won’t see quite what that means until the end of the tour, just beyond the 12-mile-long world’s largest single pipe conveyor that takes the coal back to the smelter, where this machine powered by 25,000 volts of electricity with a big red white and blue Alcoa sign is sitting: the Great Drag-line itself! To mine this latest vein, they’ve rerouted all the rural roads, which will eventually become highways I imagine after this land, too, is “reclaimed.”
Time for lunch. We stopped at a rib joint in nearby Elgin. Here Travis Brown of the Public Citizen group offered a different reality. Lignite coal, high in sulfur and mercury, is about the worst you could mine, “like burning dirt.” Pollution controls at the plant remain minimal. There’s a matter of groundwater depletion but, what the heck, Alcoa is looking to go into the water marketing business and sell the commodity to San Antonio.
Michelle McFadden, a local lawyer who represented a grassroots group, Neighbor for Neighbor, in opposing surface and stormwater permits, was introduced. Just last week, the company demanded sanctions of half-a-million bucks from her, for having filed a “frivolous” lawsuit. She was accompanied by a couple of the local farmers, upon whose land the corporation is alleged to have illegally disposed of some industrial waste. They don’t feel “reclaimed.”
PART II: THE OPENING PLENARY: “IS JOURNALISM – ENVIRONMENTAL OR OTHERWISE – A DYING IDEA?”
This was an insider’s colloquy on the state of today’s media, and there was considerable talk about the coverage of hurricane Katrina. Mark Schliefstein, the environmental writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, described his sense of inevitability that such a disaster would eventually strike his city – but an editor saying of his earlier efforts, “Oh, that’s just more of Schliefstein’s disaster porn.” He had countered, “Well, 100,000 people need to know there is no plan to get them out.” Yet the editors had not wanted to raise the prospect of levees failing and floods inundating the city, because “why question the future of the paper and the city of New Orleans?” (The newspaper building itself had ultimately been submerged, publishing an on-line edition after the hurricane struck).
Judy Muller, an ABC News correspondent who moderated the panel, noted that 9/11 had had a chilling effect on newsrooms about challenging the Bush Administration, “mistaking journalism for patriotism.” Now, in New Orleans, you saw some like CNN’s Anderson Cooper coming of age. “But will this rising to the challenge in the moment be a lasting legacy?” she wondered. After all, where was the media when FEMA’s Michael Brown was up for confirmation? John Stewart, Muller added, “seems to be doing our job for us so often.”
The White House press corps had long been especially intimidated. Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’ chief science reporter, recalled being inside its “bubble” once, “watching it move like one organism” as Bush gave a speech on climate change. Afterwards, Revkin observed a big Greenpeace demonstration outside, but the press corps “bubble” had walked out a different door and never seen it.
Environmental journalism, Revkin noted, “grew up with the movement” and focused on heroes-and-villains, fear-and-loathing. But today, it was not an explosion at Bhopal, but rather the slow onslaught of climate change. The equivalent of one-and-a-half Exxon Valdez’ oil spills a year is going into our coastal ecosystems, “but there is no drunken sea captain” to place the blame upon.
It was a tough time for journalists, no question. Now that Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, has started blogging during the day, “is this to be one more thing they ask us to do?” Muller wondered. At a time when increasing numbers are being laid off from newsrooms, Revkin added, “we are expected to engage the public and file stories several times a day.”
I asked about the concentration of media in fewer corporate (and ideological) hands: how much of a problem for journalists is ownership with an agenda? Jay Harris, who resigned as editor of the San Jose newspaper because the owners wanted him to say that fewer journalists meant better use of resources “and I was not prepared to tell that lie,” responded: “Concentration of media is corrupting an institution of our democracy.” Muller said: “In the name of fair and balanced, we often forget to tell the truth.”
Revkin recalled how one Times editor commissioned a series on climate change, but then left the paper, and the new editor wondered, “Do we want to devote so much space to such a complicated subject?” “This is just not friendly stuff to put on the front page,” Revkin said.
Someone in the audience asked how do you fight against cynicism, when so many people today seem to have no faith in anything but their own self-interest. Schliefstein of the Times-Picayune said there is in fact a positive side, an antidote to cynicism. He broke down in tears as he spoke of all the newsrooms that sent gifts to his own after the hurricane, and how LSU provided dormitories and food to reporters.
Revkin, quoting Rene Dubos, referred to himself as “a despairing optimist.” It was time to re-examine the old ways, to realize “how the bane of balance can destroy any sense of what we understand about this world.” Schliefstein urged everyone, “When you don’t like what you see, call the publisher and tell them.” Harris spoke of how American history is replete with examples of how our democracy “can be reclaimed by sustained public pressure.”
It was good to hear a few journalists willing to speak up, at a time when things have rarely looked bleaker for our watchdog “fourth branch” of government.
I decided to attend a “Global Warming Reality Check” panel that Revkin was moderating. He began by talking about how we must somehow triple our amount of energy by 2050 – without increasing fossil fuel emissions. Yet the public is not all that agitated about global warming, and science has no idea how to solve the problem.
In the name of “fair and balanced,” I guess, the first panelist to speak was William O’Keefe, a crafty old fox who’d been an executive vice-president for 25 years with the American Petroleum Institute and is now CEO of the Marshall Institute. Well, we just don’t know yet how serious a problem climate change is going to be, O’Keefe said, because we don’t really understand climate sensitivity and natural variability. And the European Union can’t will a 60 percent cut in emissions below 1990 levels to happen anytime soon; even Britain’s Tony Blair has admitted that the Kyoto Protocol isn’t workable. The majority of our energy must come from fossil fuels, and that’s that. Skepticism has long been seen as a virtue of good journalism, O’Keefe added, but today one (apparently referring to himself) gets demonized for questioning “the orthodoxy on environmental apocalypse.”
John Howard, now a lawyer and formerly an environmental adviser to Bush, recalled how someone once described the President to him: “He’s not a pencil with an eraser kind of guy, but a Sharpie pen kind of guy.” Howard also recalled Bush saying, at a press conference on drought and wildfires when he was Texas’ governor in 1998: “I believe there is global warming.” Now, political realities dictated otherwise. Howard figured that would change eventually, especially should the 2008 presidential race feature John McCain and Hilary Clinton.
When O’Keefe countered that we need to find another model than the current one on climate, Peter Gleick, a well-respected scientist at the Pacific Institute, couldn’t take it anymore. “That is garbage!” he called out from the audience. “The climate scientific debate is effectively over. What are we going to do, to deal with the unavoidable impacts, is the reality.”
PART III: BREAKFAST WITH BIG OIL
It’s not every day you get to see, up-close-and-personal, how the big oil companies are planning for our future. “Covering Energy: Boom or Bust?” was the name of the Saturday morning session. First up was Shell Downstream’s Lynn Elsenhans, its Executive Vice-President of Global Manufacturing. She offered a few statistics. The world’s strong appetite for energy was growing, at about 80 million barrels of oil a day. By 2050, sixty per cent of our energy will still be hydrocarbon-based. And not as easy to access, so we may see it being mined instead of drilled. “We acknowledge these projects pose an environmental and social challenge.” According to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry had spent $90 billion since 1993 on improving environmental performance.
Next up was Rich Marcogliese, senior v-p of refining operations for Valero Energy, which spun off its natural gas interests to grow their refinery capacity back in ’96 (“we bought refineries other people did not want”) and is today the largest independent refiner in North America, its 18 factories and $70 billion in annual revenues ranking them 15th on the Fortune 500 list. They went from cranking out 170,000 barrels a day to more than 3 million today. Not to mention receiving United Way’s “Spirit of America” award for their charitable giving, and their involvement in the “Global Movement to Cleaner Burning Fuels.” The caveat being, refinery capacity will be a real challenge to the U.S.
Then came Sherri Stuewer, v-p for Safety, Health and Environment for ExxonMobil. There would be big challenges ahead, she began – “the expected growth in energy demand, AND the expected growth in greenhouse gas emissions.” Wow, was she really going to raise the dreaded specter? “We believe energy efficiency, with the technological tools available, can make a big impact” on that problem, along with more research into energy sources with low carbon dioxide emissions. However, most of the 60 percent growth coming would be in the developing world: biofuels could supply about 5 percent, wind and solar 10 percent a year in growth, but those would supply only 2 percent of the total energy demand. Indeed, a $16 trillion investment by 2030 will be necessary in energy, or about $500 billion a year.
“We expect to see a rise in greenhouse gas emissions,” Sherri added calmly. “Now these are at 6 billion tons of carbon a year. These are anticipated to rise to 11 billion tons of carbon a year by 2030.” A brief pause while my stomach churned. “We believe there is a risk that greenhouse gases are affecting the climate. So what do we do to address that risk now?”
Well, Shell continued, there were just plenty of tough questions. For example, all this subsidized energy, which undercuts investment in more efficient capacity. (She didn’t elaborate on those millions in federal subsidies that ExxonMobil receives). Fossil fuels are finite, and we might need a whole lot more reduction in emissions than energy efficiency can deliver. As for research, we had to realize that “if we found a new technology today, it would take decades” before this could enter society in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, ExxonMobil was forging ahead – working with Toyota, for example, on new engine fuel technology, and involved with Stanford University in a $225 million Global Climate and Energy Project looking at hydrogen, solar, “and my personal favorite – using bacteria to generate hydrogen. We are really out on the edge.”
Privately wishing they were indeed on somebody’s cutting edge, I’d made it a point to sit near the microphone when it came time for journalist’s questions. I noted that, since hurricane Katrina struck, oil refinery profits had doubled – refineries getting about 99 cents on each gallon of gas sold when it hit $3.07, according to the Washington Post. Valero’s stock had split on a 2-1 basis two weeks after the hurricane. ExxonMobil had seen $89 billion in profits since 2001, Shell ranking second at $60.7 billion.
So how come, I wondered, we are all paying more for gasoline?
The fella from Valero said they couldn’t help it that the price of crude oil went up and that got passed on to the consumer. “At the retail level, we are restraining prices as much as we can but it is a tight supply-and-demand situation.” Exxon’s representative responded that “no individual company can control crude oil prices, these are set on futures markets and expectations.” She did admit, however, that “we are not having trouble buying crude,” though the only spare capacity is in the hands of the Saudis.
A little while later, Shell said we were just about out of something called “capacity creep.” I was about up to capacity with creeps myself.
How come, someone asked, they are pushing to build more rigs offshore in the outer continental shelf? “Unfortunately you’ve got to go where the oil is,” said ExxonMobil. “Development is in increasingly difficult places to go – deep water, the Arctic. Our platforms weathered the storms, though, we had no spills.”
How about renewables? someone else asked. ExxonMobil had looked long and hard at solar photovoltaics, and determined that it costs 5 times more to produce electricity, and “we do not think the current technology is a viable business.” A real breakthrough was needed, and Stanford is “looking to organize at the molecular level to capture solar.”
And biofuels? Well, ethanol or biodiesel’s yield per acre was very low, so again you needed a technological breakthrough. Maybe something like fast-growing switch-grasses, which could be gasified and synthesized to a liquid: “We are at the prototype stage.” However, lest we forget, “water is to become an increasingly important commodity in the developing world particularly. So how much can we afford to put into watering crops like corn, for ethanol?
Somebody asked when oil production might be expected to peak. ExxonMobil said that non-OPEC production would flatten out between 2010 and 2020. “But we see the Middle East’s capacity continuing to grow for decades.” That statement seemed to make Shell uncomfortable. They countered that oil sands and shale would come at a higher cost, but one of the largest of such reserves of hydrocarbons in the world was right here in North America, in Alberta, Canada. “It is NOT all in the Middle East,” Shell insisted.
The matter of carbon sequestration was raised. Turns out the U.S. oil industry has been pumping CO2 into the ground and then using it again for tertiary recovery, with a lot of that adding to the levels of greenhouse gases. Shell said it’s looking at technology “to improve the carbon capture economy.” But remember, as we produce heavier oils, that is more energy-intensive and thus creates more CO2 emissions.
I have rarely had a more dyspeptic breakfast.
PART IV: MERCURY RISING
A couple of years back, Eric Schaefer resigned from the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement and is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project. He could speak more freely now. Power plants, he began, account for about 35 percent of mercury emissions in the U.S., virtually all of these being coal-fired utilities built before the Clean Air Act got passed in 1977 and their pollution allowances were thus “grandfathered” in. Now there’s been a boom in permit applications for new coal-burning plants throughout Texas and across the U.S. The coal industry is very bullish, because the high price of natural gas has created an opening for them. Given that Texas mines that mercury-intensive lignite variety, one coal plant proposed for erection not far from Austin would emit an estimated 2,200 pounds of mercury a year – highest in the U.S., and that’s a NEW plant.
Back in 2000, the Clinton era, the EPA said it would definitely regulate those 48 tons a year of mercury being pumped out by power plants. Under Bush, this position has been reversed. Sure, they say, mercury is toxic but other tools exist to regulate it under the Clean Air Act, for example an emissions trading program with “more predictability and certainty.” Schaefer pointed out that, if you applied maximum pollution control technologies, you could get a 90 percent reduction of mercury in 3 to 5 years. Instead, EPA has proposed a state-run cap-and-trade program that allows companies to “bank their emissions.” In other words, if you reduce 10 to 20 percent below what the law says you have to, you can cash those chips in later and emit more. The new regulatory scheme will result in about a 50 percent reduction in 15 years.
It’s really “a battle about time,” as Schaefer put it. “You can get industry to agree to anything if it’s far enough away.” EPA and the coal execs have cast mercury as a global problem, “to shrink the contribution of U.S. industry.” The reality is, it’s substantially a LOCAL problem because mercury precipitates relatively near the stack. Half of the mercury deposits in Lake Michigan, for example, come from within 60 miles.
The National Wildlife Federation did an extensive study of the costs of controlling mercury. It would mean an increase of between $1 and $2 a month in the utility bills of a residential household. Less than you pay for a single cup of Starbucks coffee.
Jane Hightower, a physician from San Francisco, followed Schaefer with the story of how she came to equate high mercury levels with people who eat a lot of fish. That’s where the mercury concentrates, in large predators like sea bass, tuna, and swordfish. Dr. Hightower was baffled by all these patients complaining of headaches, fatigue, hair loss, and nausea. Serendipitously, she sent one patient to a hair-loss specialist who asked, did she eat fish? Which eventually led to Dr. Hightower’s screening her entire practice of 720 patients for a year and finding a direct correlation. In fact, mercury blood levels were highest in people who lived along the coast and above the poverty line. When most of her patients stopped eating as much fish, those levels were reduced.
Mercury cannot be cooked out of fish, and attacks your weaknesses. Cardiovascular disease is another result. What Dr. Hightower wants is a booklet in grocery stores, letting consumers at least know enough to make informed choices. Of our food, she added, “We’ve genetically altered it, we’ve put chemicals in it, we’ve wrapped it in plastic, and put it in microwaves. I tell my patients: Rotate your poisons.”
We all laughed, but ruefully. At the moment, a big fight is happening in California. The state’s Attorney General started out by sueing five supermarket chains, then restaurants, asking them to put up mercury warnings based on California’s Proposition 65 law. Then, in 2004, he sued the top three canned tuna manufacturers- Starkist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea – who in turn went to the federal FDA with their complaints. The Bush FDA complied by sending a letter to the Attorney General, claiming that federal law pre-empts the state and “you can’t interfere with our advisory program,” and they’d already put out a warning that light tuna contained low levels of mercury. Well, California responded, all that was being sought is warnings on the grocery store shelves, not labeling on the cans. A decision is pending in court.
PART V: “CLEAR SKIES” AND “HEALTHY FORESTS”
A large room was packed for a panel on the Bush Administration’s environmental policies, one that included Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Representative Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Pombo’s bill to eliminate many of the time-honored stipulations of the Endangered Species Act had just passed the full House. He’s in his early forties, with short-cropped dark hair, a mustache and goatee, and wearing blue jeans. He and Pope sat next to one another.
Pombo had the first word. He talked about what’s been learned, concerning the use of language when it comes to discussing the environment. “If we call it the ‘Clear Skies’ plan, you at least have to refer to it by that name,” he said, in quite a blatant admission. Pope countered that “the function of Orwellian language is to muddy public dialogue…to confuse people.” He called on environmental journalists to “raise the bar,” and fight this name-game b-s.
Pat Parenteau, who runs an environmental law clinic at Vermont Law School, weighed in with a list of ten ways that – “under the radar” – the Bush Administration is dismantling environmental law and privatizing public resources. For example, cutting all the money out of the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program, getting rid of enforcement, rewriting the rules at their discretion, “allowing 50 aging power plants that kill 60,000 people prematurely each year to continue without controls.”
But good old Bill O’Keefe was on-hand again to help deaden the room. Back in ’97, he intoned, Al Gore had engineered a Kyoto Treaty that he KNEW could not be ratified by the Senate, because the Senate had recently passed a rule that America would abide by no treaty that could inflict economic harm or exempted developing countries.
Question time. I was near the microphone again. My question was for Pombo. “I won’t bring up the Endangered Species Act, because that’s a done deal, at least in the House,” I began. Instead I brought up his new bill, the National Energy Supply Diversification and Disruption Prevention Act, which proposes opening the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling along with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also contains a little-noticed provision to allow oil and gas rigs to be converted into offshore fish farms, thus exempting them from paying any costs when they shut down their operations.
“So, Representative Pombo, how do you respond to the accusation that you are capitalizing on the devastating human tragedy of these recent hurricanes to advance your own political agenda?” I thought I heard a collective breath wash through the room.
The Congressman glared hard at me – and, surprise surprise, dodged the question. He replied that all these provisions had been introduced in the past. After the hurricanes and the refinery shutdowns, he was simply responding to the opinion of a number of senators that “we need to adopt some bill about where we can get our energy from….Obviously the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in the bill, but we will probably be arguing about that for awhile longer.” As for the offshore oil drilling, states that don’t want to open their waters – like California and Florida – have an “opt out” that would “extend their control to 125 miles offshore.” States that do want to go for drilling, however, would receive part of the oil revenues. “It was a way to put ideas on the table,” Pombo shrugged about his bill.
Pope asked, did he personally favor oil and gas drilling off the northern California coast, which happens to be Pombo’s own district? “No, I never have,” Pombo said. “I always said it should be a state decision.” So he wouldn’t support it then? Pope pressed. “No, I wouldn’t.” On the record, Congressman.
O’Keefe felt the need to chime in, to the effect that our environment has been improving since 1970 and that includes increasing our forest land. Parenteau suggested humility in the faith we place in technology, adding: “In 30 years, I can’t think of anything we’ve fixed. 80 to 90 percent of the ozone depleters are out of production, yet the hole is getting larger, and there’s been a massive amphibian die-off. The cap-and-trade acid rain program is in place but it’s the same as ever, no measurable recovery in the Adirondacks – in part because NOX [nitrous oxide] was never regulated, but the cap is wrong….With the idea that we can fix things, the utmost humility is needed.”
Schliefstein of the New Orleans paper noted that, pre-Katrina, a coastal restoration bill in Louisiana would have required scientists to keep tabs on what was going on. Now a huge quantity of money is going to levees and restoration, but how could you keep the same checks and balances? Pombo hopped right in. “I agree we need a flood policy that actually makes sense. On some things, Carl [Pope] is absolutely right. Congress subsidizes stupid things, a lot of times because it’s politically easy to do. We have existing levee systems that need to be fixed. It’s a balance. Are we gonna tear down the levees and go back to where we were? Politically that will never happen.”
A brief pause, then Pope said: “I think I agree with everything you said.” He warned, however, that we can’t afford to get it wrong again. The media needs to ask basic questions: will this prevent problems in the future?
Pombo gave a hint of things to come. “Specific wilderness areas is one of the great debates we’ve not yet had in the Congress.” Some areas should stay wild, others should have multiple use, and things should be established “so timber companies or environmental groups can’t sue.”
Old O’Keefe complained about those who would “put sand in the wheels of progress,” and had the gall to quote John F. Kennedy on moving toward what unites us, not what divides us.
The whole question of property rights came up. Pombo said that, the way the new Endangered Species Act is framed, it’s no different than federal highway plans or expanding national parks when people received compensation for giving up parts of their property – “and nobody screamed and hollered.” Pope countered again: “With land that produces public values, there is no constitutional right to be compensated.” He did note that the Pombo bill – “which I oppose” – contains a provision to survey public lands for new national wildlife refuges. “We [the Sierra Club] originally wrote it, which you are probably not aware of,” Pope added. “Actually I was,” Pombo said, “and I accepted it anyway.”
A lot of people laughed. There were no more tough questions.
PART VI: BILL MOYERS: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
I’ve watched his programs for years, from exposing the CIA to exploring myth with Joseph Campbell, and I’ve read many of his recent speeches. I hope this one will make it in full transcription onto the web. Until it does, let me recount what I wrote down of Moyers’ keynote address.
Moyers began by looking back on the first environmental story he did 32 years ago. “Those were optimistic days.” He’d thought we were on our way to the third American revolution, “a green revolution.” Sometimes he still goes into a reverie and imagines it happened. Clean energy, sustainable fisheries, and more. Then the reverie ends abruptly. Rather than leading the world, the United States has become “a recalcitrant naysayer, setting out to eviscerate every significant gain…and to blame the environmental movement itself.”
“I didn’t anticipate the backlash,” Moyers continued. “The corporate political and religious right ganged up on it [the movement] in the back alleys of power.” Today, we had our “homegrown Ayatollahs.” He recalled the Frontline special that he did on pesticides in our food, the first time an industry plotted against him and sent out a flood of disinformation. A day before the broadcast, the American Cancer Society sent to 3,000 of its chapters a critique claiming the program was exaggerated. It was discovered by Legal Times that a P.R. firm with chemical clients also did pro bono work for the Cancer Society, and had persuaded them to distribute erroneous talking points.
Later, Moyers did a show called “Trade Secrets,” a look at how for 40 years the big chemical companies withheld information about their poisonous products. “A shameless immoral industry…[and] a regulatory system designed by the chemical industry itself.” Another P.R. firm, one staffed by private detectives and former employees of the FBI, CIA and drug enforcement, set out to smear the documentary and Moyers, putting incredible pressure on PBS. The show aired, and won an Emmy.
“But this crowd never gives up.” A recent coup had been orchestrated at PBS. That was why he’d left the network. The board was now dominated by corporate cronies and right-wing zealots. “They penalize journalists if they step out of line….PBS intends no challenging journalism…no reporting at all on the conflict between business and the environment…The lethal threat to the environment comes from the predatory power of money and a homicidal right-wing ideology.”
Moyers quoted Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, then spoke of how “Bush Incorporated” is owned by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Business Roundtable who meet in this very same inner sanctum [at the University of Texas]. He spoke of the White House’s “extraordinary secret campaign against the British on climate change.” He called Bush “the Herbert Hoover of the environment.”
“We have condemned ourselves and generations to come to a warmer climate.” The Arctic ice was at its lowest point on record, and scientists were talking of having reached a critical threshold “beyond which the climate will not recover.” And yet, Moyers continued, half of all Americans polled worry little or not at all about climate change, and 66 percent do not think global warming will affect their lives.
He asked how many in the audience had seen the movie, “March of the Pilgrims.” Laughter at a Freudian slip. “Well, that’s the old Baptist talking!” Moyers said. “I’m afraid the Pilgrims lost out to the Puritans, who have lost out to the Fundamentalists.” Then he described how religious conservatives have invoked “March of the Penguins,” praising the animals for their monogamy and heterosexuality, even as an example of “intelligent design.” (Check out LionsOfGod.com, he suggested). The penguins were the new “mascots in the culture wars.”
Yet the film has no reference to global warming, even though the penguins must reproduce on the thickest part of the ice – or not at all. The film’s director said he “didn’t want to go there because the public is not sensitized to global warming.” Often, Moyers said, he wishes he were a film-maker.
“What we don’t know CAN kill us,” he said, and proceeded to tell the very personal story of his son, a former alcoholic and drug addict who is today a leading public advocate for treatment. “We almost lost him more than once….for a long time, he was in denial, and so were we.” That denial “is the governing policy of Washington, D.C., and our president is in DEEP denial….And his contempt for science is mind-boggling, costly and dangerous.”
Without the support of Christian conservatives, Moyers said, the current corrupt corporate climate couldn’t exist. “They have turned their faith into a weapon of political combat.” Millions of evangelical Christians, however, still believe in a moral obligation. But the only news they get comes from the Christian right’s “own separate universe of media,” as outlined last fall in the Columbia Journalism Review. The dilemma is, “they are being forced to choose between unborn babies and endangered species.” But didn’t being pro-life mean that you can’t abandon the future of the child? Indeed, there is a “creation caring” branch of the National association of Evangelists, which looks to renew the earth and supports strong environmental protections.
Moyers went on, “Environmental journalism has always spoken in terms of science, not the poetic and metaphoric language of the evangelicals.” Moyers recalled what Joseph Campbell said to him years ago: “If you want to change the world, you must change the metaphors…from the prose to the poetry of life.” Given an estimated 50 million conservative Christians in today’s America, and when more than 40 percent of Americans hold a creational view of the world that accepts Genesis literally, this means they will deny and distrust a lot of science. It is either irrelevant, or what’s happening is an inevitable playing out of the “end times.” “Our reporting is viewed as a direct attack on ‘be fruitful and multiply,'” seen as “mechanistic, cold and godless.”
So perhaps it was time to rethink. “You have to learn to speak in the language people live and imagine their futures. Bush has had success using the symbolic language of the Bible. A million species are endangered by global warming – so how do you appeal to fundamentalists who doubt the reality of evolution?”
The example Moyers gave was that of Noah and the flood. Both Noah and today’s scientists have knowledge of an impending catastrophe. Both try to spread the word, but nobody will listen (“Noah could even be seen as a gloom-and-doom Moyers environmentalist.”) Noah listens to God anyway, and takes action, “rescuing all the biodiversity of the earth. Noah can be seen as the first great preservationist, preventing the first great extinction.” And then what did Noah do? “What any good journalist does – he gets drunk!”
In a situation where we face “a flood of consumerism and indifference, in a material world ruled by princes in denial…we will fail unless we realize the other world view.”
He recalled the first Gilded Age of America, which then became the Golden Age of muckracking journalism – the Upton Sinclairs and Ida Tarbells. Now, with America again having fallen victim to sleaze and arrogance, “You may be the last who take the public interest as a calling,” he told the environmental journalist assembly, “and we won’t survive without you.”
As Moyers told the story of doing a NOW program on Robert Nixon’s Environmental Conservation Corps – which enlisted black teenagers in Anacostia, the roughest, most dangerous section of Washington – told of the 19-year-old leader named Diamond Teague who ended up being blown away on his front porch – read aloud a cold obituary from the Washington Post – recalled one of the young man’s friends telling him, “All great things have to start in roughness” – as Moyers told of this, his voice choked, and tears welled in my eyes.
“Who is left to tell America what’s happened? There is no one left. No one but all of you.”
The Society of Environmental Journalists gave him a standing ovation.
During a period for questions, the first concerned the future of public broadcasting. Moyers said he remained very optimistic about National Public Radio, because it still has a news operation, whereas public TV broadcasting “is a confederation of stations driven mostly by producers who are also raising the money. Which is tough to get even from foundations,” which are often afraid of funding anything controversial. “The right wing is determined to silence any dissenting voice, so I am not optimistic about PBS. Even if the Bush White House falls apart, as I think it is, the corporate right will have a monopoly of power.”
He told the journalists how he feels for them, in an era when news budgets are slashed and there is less time and space than ever for stories. And yet, as has been proven historically, “You can’t save American democracy without a fight…The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up and challenge him.” Though today we have a “minority government” that serves a corporate and political elite, “You must stand up or you have nothing left to live for. There is a juggernaut coming down on us. Compromise and appease, you are not going to survive anyway. Democracy – and journalism – is a public fight. We need some fighting spirit. We may go down, but in the right way.”