Point Austin: Green Is as Green Does

Saving the planet begins at the grassroots

Point Austin
One handy indicator of the state of environmental politics in Texas is the news that Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chair of the House Environmental Regulation Committee (motto: "Business as Usual") has promised a "comprehensive" package of clean-air legislation – in 2009. That was Bonnen's reflexive response to the flurry of statewide interest in reducing air pollution in the wake of the proposed TXU coal plants and sale, as well as the increasing national concern over global warming.

Like his committee predecessor, Pampa's finest, Warren Chisum, Bonnen increasingly calls up fond memories of the Roman Emperor Nero (see: fiddling while the planet burns), although I don't remember Chisum ever employing the "I'm just a dumbass" defense, as Bonnen did when asked by the Statesman's Asher Price why so many global warming bills did not receive even a committee hearing. "People smarter than me argue about whether [humans affect climate change]," he told Price. "If you put regulations on an industrial facility, it doesn't mean it won't be built. It'll be built in another state or country with less regulations. You'd be forcing business from the state." There you have the Texas legislative standard in a (too literal) nutshell: If we don't do something stupid, somebody else will.

As I write, there are several major (and inevitably ambiguous) environmental initiatives – water conservation, parks funding, energy efficiency, clean air – still pending, so it remains too soon to tell whether the session will be described as a good one for the environment. Waist-deep in accumulating amendments, the Sierra Club's Ken Kramer told me tentatively that "things are a little bit better" because of changes in legislative "personalities" and an increasing political acceptance of environmental protection, although he added wryly, "A lot of the bad shit has already been passed long ago." He said that he and other environmental lobbyists at least seem to be spending more time advocating for good bills instead of trying to stop bad ones. "That might not seem like much," Kramer concluded, "but it can make a big difference in what you can get done."

The Weather Shifts

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen is working some of the same legislative veins, and he's similarly cautious about the eventual outcome. But he believes the atmosphere has changed in significant ways, with the cool breeze blowing from some unexpected corners. "When somebody like Trammell Crow Jr. [Trammell S. Crow, scion of the Dallas-based real estate empire] is making calls to legislators on environmental issues, those calls are being taken respectfully by people who used to ignore them." Crow is a board member of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which, among other things, is running blistering TV ads across the state promoting action against global warming. That should at least make it a little more difficult for recalcitrant reps to pretend it just isn't happening.

"Dallas-area Republicans are beginning to speak out on these issues," said Smith, "and even the major energy corporations – BP, Shell, even ExxonMobil – are beginning to acknowledge that something must be done about global warming, if for no other reason than it's going be terribly expensive, and they need to get out in front of it."

Of course, there's more than one way to look at that change in the wind; the shift could just as readily mean a nascent corporate takeover of a public movement that has reached critical mass. But Smith points as well to the Texas cities, including the major regional ones, steadily joining the "cool cities" campaign as a sign of effective change rising from the grassroots. "If I can mangle your metaphor even more, as the wind shifts, we're going to need all hands on deck to get the [environmental] ship turned," Smith said, "because we're trying to change the direction of a ship the size of Texas."

Work to Be Done

Those of us familiar with Texas politics are also used to small hopes and large disappointments, e.g., one of the "green bills" on failing life support this week would enable a two-year study of cost-free ways businesses can combat global warming, sometime, somehow. One just can't be too careful. And while Texas Republicans might be finally and grudgingly returning to a conservation movement they abandoned a generation ago, watching "progressive" Dems pander furiously to cut gas taxes just when rising prices might have some effect on consumption – and therefore waste and pollution – does not encourage hope that the public at large will ever begin to realize what it might cost to make things right with nature.

In that skeptical mood, I asked environmental author (Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me) and CounterPunch Co-Editor Jeffrey St. Clair his thoughts on the current state of environmental politics and if he believes there might be hopeful signs. Last week, in CounterPunch, he'd suggested we take bitter comfort in recalling that the Earth had lost 98% of species during the Permian geologic era and recovered, so I hardly expected optimism. He didn't disappoint.

"American environmentalism may be the only movement with more cause and less life than the moribund anti-war movement. The fire has gone out, and a kind of icy political entropy has set in. There is, of course, resistance across many fronts, from Cancer Alley [in Louisiana] to the Everglades, the Colorado River to Greater Yellowstone. But these are frontline fights. The movement itself is inchoate, shackled at the hip to an equally visionless Democratic Party and increasingly dependent on annual disbursements from big foundations who frown on militancy and political independence. The movement is dead at the top. This is one reason why we've seen the younger generation of environmental activists turn to self-defeating actions of last resort, such as arson. There's no place for them in the corroded institutions of American environmental groups and no mass movement for them to join on the streets."

However you judge St. Clair's glum prognosis, he is undoubtedly right that there is no substantive political change, environmental or otherwise, without a broadly based, grassroots movement to force and enforce the public officials responsible for enacting and institutionalizing that change. In this moment of growing "green" consciousness, it's a lesson worth committing to principle. end story

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Texas Legislatureenvironment, Dennis Bonnen, Ken Kramer, Tom Smitty Smith, Trammel Crow, Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch

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