Earth in the Balance Sheet

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

John Bellamy Foster

RECENT HISTORY IS dotted with examples — among whom Margaret Thatcher and George Bush are undoubtedly the best known cases — of politicians who have sought to pass themselves off as environmentally concerned, while actually representing quite different interests. What distinguished the Clinton administration (if not Clinton himself) in its first days, however, was that its commitment to the environment appeared serious.

Suddenly leading enviros were elevated to high office in the executive branch. In addition to Vice President Al Gore, the author of Earth in the Balance, the new administration included Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former president of the League of Conservation Voters; Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner, a public-policy environmentalist; and Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, an environmentally aware public advocate.

Further, some two dozen individuals from national environmental organizations were given prominent positions — mostly of an advisory nature — in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Agriculture, Interior, State, the Office of Management and the Budget, and the National Security Council. For mainstream environmental lobbyists who celebrated at the “Environmental Ball” the day before Clinton’s Inauguration there was a sense that the environment had finally “arrived” as the central issue of government; that access to the chief executive was guaranteed; and that a new period of ecological change was at hand.

Such great expectations were bound to lead to major disappointments. The Clinton administration had been elected on the basis of a campaign in which the unofficial motto was “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” Under these circumstances there was little chance that the environment would constitute a top priority. Absent a much more massive radical environmental movement from below, there was simply no momentum for (and considerable resistance to) major environmental change.

It was not Gore’s “earth in the balance” but the capitalist class’ “earth in the balance sheet” that was destined to be the governing principle of environmental management in the new administration. As Clinton explained in no uncertain terms to his President’s Council on Sustainable Development, founded in June 1993 and including among its membership the CEOs of such corporations as Chevron, Dow, Georgia Pacific and Browning-Ferris Industries (the second largest U.S. waste management company), the overriding objective of his administration in the environmental arena was to promote “a national sustainable development action strategy that will foster economic vitality.”(1)

Still, the degree of capitulation to dominant economic interests on ecological issues, and the wide divergence between rhetoric and reality in this area, surprised even the most hardened critics. A degree of “ecological modernization” is feasible under capitalism, even if it is not possible to overcome the central ecological contradictions of the system, which can be traced to the imperatives of accumulation itself.(2)

Overtures toward ecological modernization might therefore have been made by the new administration. Indeed Gore, the chief liaison between the administration and the environmental community, insists that substantial progress toward environmental modernization is being made. In his introduction to a new 1994 printing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Gore wrote: “In spirit, Rachel Carson sits in on all the important environmental meetings of this administration. We may not do everything she would want, all at once, but we are moving in the direction she indicated.”(3)

The facts, however, belie this assessment — in arenas of environmental struggle as varied as preservation of the ancient forest of the Pacific Northwest, protection of the Everglades, combatting global warming, cutting back production of chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, and placing controls on dangerous pesticides.

After presiding over a Forest Summit in the Pacific Northwest and considering eight options to deal with the crisis of the ancient forest and the threat to the existence of such endangered species as the spotted owl and Pacific Coast salmon species, Clinton insisted on the development of an “option nine.” Ostensibly a proposal for protecting the old growth forest — one that would reduce historic logging levels — option nine was nonetheless so full of holes that it left more than forty percent of the remaining old growth completely unprotected, with much of the rest also opened up to aggressive thinning and salvage logging programs.

As many as 200 different species of plants and animals remain in danger of extinction. Meanwhile, the administration refused to move against log exports — the measure that would have done most to expand employment opportunities in the industry.(4)

Meanwhile, Bruce Babbitt made a deal with sugar growing corporations in Florida that will allow the continued pollution of the Everglades. The plan, which involves the construction of artificial “filtering marshes,” is designed to absorb phosphorous runoff from sugar cane fields rather than controlling the runoff at the source. It will cost taxpayers around $22 million a year, while sugar growers (the source of the pollution) will only have to provide between $12 million and $18 million annually for the project (and will retain their federal sugar subsidies). Some environmentalists argue that the plan will not work as claimed in absorbing the pollution, and the threat to the Everglades will continue.(5)

Even more indicative of the Clinton administration’s environmental failures is the lack of a strong stand in areas of atmospheric pollution — at a time when the United States stands out as the greatest single threat to the atmosphere of the entire planet.

DuPont, the world’s leading producer of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals most destructive of the earth’s ozone layer, had pledged to end its production of CFCs in 1994, ahead of the 1996 deadline established by the Montreal Protocol. U.S. automakers and other companies saw this as an economic threat, however, since they wanted additional production of these chemicals to service existing air conditioning and refrigeration equipment (despite the fact that these wants could have been easily met by recycling).

Under pressure from the auto industry, the Clinton administration therefore directed the Environmental Protection Agency to draft a letter to Dupont, stating that “In order to provide adequate supplies to a CFC `bank,’ EPA has determined that the full twenty-five percent of production permitted in 1995 under EPA regulations is needed . . .Therefore, EPA is requesting that DuPont take steps to produce and make available its share of 1995 production.”(6)

Thus under the Clinton administration the EPA, the main environmental arm of the federal government, was assigned the dirty job of requesting that DuPont continue to produce chemicals that will add to the destruction of earth’s protective ozone layer!

No less significant was the administration’s capitulation to dominant economic interests on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. After his Earth Day promise to reduce U.S. automobile and industrial emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, Clinton introduced a policy of voluntary compliance to air quality guidelines.

The Clinton EPA also enraged anti-incinerator activists when it allowed the WTI incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio to begin operations soon after failing its March 1993 test burn (an unprecedented decision in this area). The WTI facility had an efficiency rating for burning mercury of only seven percent, rather than the required 99.99 percent, among other failures.

With a rated capacity of 60,000 tons/year, and permission to triple that capacity with new construction, the WTI burner will be the largest incinerator in the world. Environmental activists protested by sending back copies of Earth in the Balance to Gore, with the message: “Al, read your book!”(7)

In the West, Clinton, Gore and Babbitt abandoned the administration’s proposal to raise fees for cattle grazing on federal lands. The administration also retreated on mining reform, despite the fact that under the 1872 mining law the U.S. government was recently forced to sell 1800 acres of public land containing an estimated thirty million ounces of gold to a Canadian-based company for about $5 an acre ($9,765 in all).(8)

On September 10, 1993 Clinton signed Executive Order 12866 establishing risk assessment as the key to federal “regulatory philosophy.” An integral part of this strategy is an attempt to remove the Delaney clause in Section 401 of the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1958, which establishes zero tolerance for any additives in processed foods that are found to cause cancers in animals or humans.

Instead the Clinton administration would like to see a policy of “acceptable risk” applied, which would mean the official acceptance of tens of thousands of deaths per year from pesticide residues in food. One of the most prominent advocates of such risk assessment in environmental regulation is Stephen Breyer, who was appointed by Clinton to the U.S. Supreme Court.(9)

Another leading Clinton appointee was Lawrence Summers who as chief economist of the World Bank wrote (in December 1991) that, “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable.”(10) Summers was appointed Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Economic Affairs in the Clinton administration, underscoring the administration’s interest in promoting economic interests, even at the expense of the world environment and the world’s people.

Of all the legislation pertinent to environmental issues promoted by the Clinton administration, the most important by far was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which, along with the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) regulations (also backed by the administration), will do more than anything else to undermine national environmental regulations, pulling all countries down to the lowest common denominator in this regard.

Particularly significant was the administration’s success at getting part of the environmental movement to come to its aid in the attempt to pass NAFTA. Thus the National Wildlife Federation’s John Adams was to declare after the passage of NAFTA that, “We [the enviros] were one of the two big prongs the Administration had to fight. The other was labor. We broke the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA. After we established our position Clinton had only labor to fight. We did him a big favor.”(11)

The Clinton administration, able to get mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society, with their upper-middle class white constituencies, large corporate funding and lobbying orientation, to abandon much of their previous oppositional stance. As a result, this administration has succeeded in doing more long-term damage to the environment in two years than the Bush administration — blocked by Congress, the courts and the people — was able to accomplish over its entire term.

Yet the mainstream environmental organizations seem unable or unwilling to absorb the hard political lesson being taught to them, and continue to hope that Clinton will live up to his promise by 1996. Such hopes are bound to be disappointed. It is time to stop “waiting for an environmental president” to appear, and to work instead at regenerating the environmental movement through radical grassroots activism.

Such activism has increasingly taken the form of an environmental justice movement, led by people of color, women and workers, which has sought to build on the connections between social justice and environmental sustainability. Already this movement has won a small victory in getting the president to sign an Executive Order on Environmental Justice, demanding that federal agencies take into account environmental justice issues under existing laws that prohibit use of federal funds in ways that have discriminatory effects.

If any more progress is to be made on this front, however, it will not come from the Clinton administration, but only through the emergence of a much larger revolt from below.


  1. Clinton quoted in Mark Dowie, “The Selling (Out) of the Greens,” The Nation, April 18, 1994; 515.
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  2. On ecological modernization see Albert Weale, The New Politics of Pollution (New York: Manchester University Press, 1992).
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  3. Al Gore, “Introduction,“ in Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), xxv.
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  4. Jeffrey St. Clair, “Any Way You Cut It,” Wild Forest Review, vol. 1, no. 4 (March 1994), 14; and “Clinton and the Ancient Forests: Year One,” Lies of Our Times, vol. 5, no. 3 (March 1994), 14.
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  5. Tom Wicker, “Waiting for an Environmental President,” Audubon, vol. 96, no. 5 (September-October 1994), 50.
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  6. Robert Sussman, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to Edward S. Wollard, Jr., Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, E.I. duPont and Nemours and Company, December 13, 1993; Chris Carrel, “Clinton’s Climate Inaction Plan,” No Sweat News, vol. 2, no. 2 (Winter 1993-1994), 13.
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  7. Michael Worsham, “Al Gore’s Book Recalled,” No Sweat News, vol. 2, no. 2 (Winter 1993-1994), 19; Dowie, “The Selling (Out) of the Greens,” op. cit., 515.
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  8. Wicker, “Waiting for an Environmental President,” op. cit., 54.
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  9. Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil,” The Nation, June 6, 1994, 776-77; Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, no. 394 (June 16, 1994).
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  10. John Bellamy Foster, “’Let Them Eat Pollution’: Capitalism and the World Environment,” Monthly Review, vol. 44, no. 8 (January 1993), 10.
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  11. Adams quoted in Mark Dowie, “NAFTA Friends,” The Nation, April 18, 1994; 516.
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ATC 54, January-February 1995