How the EPA’s reversal of a ban on a harmful pesticide will mess with you — and your wallet.
In 1962, a marine biologist named Rachel Carson published a little book called “Silent Spring.” In it, she analyzed a staggering amount of data to advance a simple thesis: The chemicals we’re using to tame the world around us are having a deep and unpleasant effect on our lives.
One of the most notable examples in the book was the pesticide DDT. The colorless, tasteless spray was invented in the years following World War II and came to be used extensively on crops all over the world. Unfortunately, it also brought with it serious health issues: Women exposed to it at any time, even in the womb, were five times as likely to develop breast cancer. And it wasn’t just being in the direct spray that was dangerous — DDT was transferred from crops to animals who ate it, and on to the milk from those animals, and the people who drank that milk. And DDT stayed in their bodies pretty much forever.
Carson’s book inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a new branch of the federal government tasked with keeping our country — and our world — inhabitable for future generations. One of the EPA’s first actions was banning DDT usage on US soil.
And now President Trump, in a move that can only be seen as symbolic, has made one of his Environmental Protection Agency’s first actions the exact opposite.
EPA head Scott Pruitt just signed an order that lets farmers keep using a pesticide called chlorpyrifos on a dozen different crops, despite a wealth of science that shows it negatively affects the brain development of children in the womb and increases the risk of neurological disorders. Chlorpyrifos has been banned from consumer products and residential use for more than 15 years.
It seems shocking that our government is OK with this, but it shouldn’t be. Corporations have been working against public safety ever since the EPA was established. The chemical industry attacked Rachel Carson as a Communist and tried to use her gender to tear down her bonafides as a scientist. For every move the government has taken to protect the health of its citizens — which is, let’s be clear, its job — there has been pushback and protest from big business.
Corporations have been working against public safety ever since the EPA was established.
But now we have a big business President, and the tables have turned.
Failing to ban a pesticide that has been proven to cause brain damage sets a chilling precedent for the next four years, but it’s not one that should surprise anyone. It’s exactly what Trump promised, and he’s just getting started.
The rallying cry of pretty much every Republican politician of the last four decades has been “smaller government.” They see a system in desperate overreach, spending too much money providing services that the states — or the citizens — should be doing themselves. Trump’s campaign hit the same sour notes, and once he took office, he followed through.
The 2017 budget cuts funding for pretty much every federal agency except the Department of Defense, and the EPA is the biggest victim. In fact, the man Trump appointed to head the department has been trying to undo it for years. Scott Pruitt used to describe himself as “the leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” so it’s a little ironic that he’s now running the show.
But the Republican quest to shut down the EPA betrays a pretty significant level of ignorance regarding how the agency — and the government — actually works. The agency didn’t create any of those onerous rules that Trump and his cronies rail against. Those are laws, passed by Congress. All stripping their funding does is take away our ability to enforce them.
The Republican quest to shut down the EPA betrays a pretty significant level of ignorance regarding how the agency — and the government — actually works.
To use a labored metaphor, what’s happening here is the creation of a police department that can’t arrest you if you break a law, and can’t do anything to help your victim, either. Existing EPA projects like the Great Lakes cleanup will die on the vine for lack of funding, and no new initiatives will be born. Research into the environment is already being deleted from government servers. Without a mandate to punish offenders, the government is powerless to stop anything a corporation wants to do in pursuit of profit.
And that’s exactly how they like it.
One of Trump’s first executive orders proclaimed that for every new regulation the federal government passes, they must repeal two existing ones. This is a toddler’s view of how the regulatory process works, but it’s raw meat to the Republican business base, who view any governmental interference in business (beyond subsidies for themselves, which they love) as a personal attack.
The history of business in America can’t be told without looking at the costs it passes to the American people. Ronald Reagan famously ran on a platform of “trickle-down economics,” which held that by cutting taxes to the rich, it would leave more money in the economy for the poor. Pretty much every Republican candidate since has championed that strategy, despite monumental proof that it doesn’t work.
The lesson of global capitalism in the industrial age is that the real trickle downwards isn’t wealth. It’s cost. By stripping environmental regulations, the cost for things like pesticide damage gets passed into the medical system, to care for brain-damaged babies. It’s passed into the educational system, for special needs programs. And most of all, it’s passed down to the afflicted, who are the least capable of bearing it. The rich get richer. The poor get punished.
The lesson of global capitalism in the industrial age is that the real trickle downwards isn’t wealth. It’s cost.
What’s likely to happen as federal regulations go unenforced is that the burden will pass downwards to the states, who will respond in one of two ways. States like Washington and California, with economies that don’t depend on resource extraction and manufacturing, will protect their environments, understanding that a clean world is a net gain for its citizens. Other states — most notably those in the Rust Belt, where Trump’s surprising win shocked the world — will start a sort of “race to the bottom,” competing with each other to lure businesses by offering them the most lenient regulations on pollution.
Sure, the people living there might be able to get a job at a coal mine re-opened because they can now dump solid waste in rivers again, but day after day, they’re going to pay the cost. Their water will darken and thicken with lead, their skies will fill with choking smog, their children will be born afflicted.
But water, and sky, and people don’t stop at state lines. It’s foolish to think that any place will be safe from Trump’s safety-last America. Even the states who work to protect themselves will eventually be brought low, as recent NASA research into the effects of pollution in China on weather around the globe shows.
The EPA was founded as a response to a very real threat to the health of the American people. It was chartered to protect us and our world from those who would do them harm. Now those who would do us harm are in the highest seats of power, and they’ve been very clear about their priorities.