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Environmental connections to public health >>

Last Action Hero

Monday, April 16, 2007

Our governor, who was oiling his quads for the camera when Lois Gibbs was fighting a chemical catastrophe at Love Canal, is suddenly being hailed as an environmental hero.

He's the GOP’s Al Gore. He’s simultaneously on the covers of special green issues of Newsweek and Outside, with fawning articles and Q&As recounting how he gets policy tips from his cousin-in-law Bobby Kennedy Jr. and has one Hummer that runs on hydrogen, another on biodiesel. He’s a jet-setting green diplomat, signing global warming pacts with Canada and Britain. He’s the keynote speaker at prestigious international climate change conferences.

Fine. To a point.

Arnold Schwarzenegger does seem to understand that the planet is in trouble. As a green Republican, he is a welcome contrast to the know-nothing, do-less attitude of President Bush. His movie star persona is perfect for delivering lines like "Arnold to Detroit: Get off your butt.“

But when he says the problem with environmentalism is that it’s not hip or sexy – that the movement has been a failure because it’s based on guilt and sacrifice, not optimism and fun – I must respond with one of the more eloquent lines from his signature role as an android assassin:

Wrong.

Here's what the governor said last week at Georgetown University:

"Pumping Iron" changed the image of body-building dramatically. . . . The perception of body-building began to change and it became more and more hip and more and more attractive. . . . It became mainstream. It became sexy, attractive. And this is exactly what has to happen with the environmental movement.

Like body-builders, environmentalists were thought of as, kind of, weird and fanatics also. You know, they're, kind of, serious tree-huggers. Environmentalists were no fun. They were like Prohibitionists at the fraternity party.

For too long, the environmental movement has been powered by guilt. But I believe that this is about the switch-over from being powered by guilt to being powered by something much more positive, something much more dynamic, something much more capable of bringing about major change. . . . I don't think that any movement has ever made it and has ever made much progress based on guilt. Guilt is passive, guilt is inhibiting and guilt is defensive.

You remember the commercials a number of years ago, the commercials specifically of a Native American who sees what we have done to the environment and then a tear runs down his cheek? You all remember that?

Well, let me tell you something. That approach didn't work because successful movements are built on passion; they're not built on guilt. They're built on passion, they're built on confidence and they're built on critical mass. And, often, they're built on an element of alarm that galvanizes action. . . . [T]he tipping point will be occurring when the environmental movement is no longer seen as a nag or as a scold, but as a positive force in people's lives.

(Disclosure: Schwarzenegger’s chief speechwriter is a friend and former newspaper colleague of mine. Gary, I may have problems with your boss’ message, but the sound bites are working – check those approval ratings.)

Weird? Nags? Prohibitionists? Watch it, Governor, those are my people you’re talking about.

I know a lot of sexy, optimistic, fun environmentalists. Some of us are not as sexy as we used to be, and decades of sounding the alarm in the deaf ears of politicians and the business community have tempered our optimism with cynicism. But we’re still more fun than most people I’ve ever spent much time with. (Which includes politicians but not body builders and action-movie stars, so I don’t know for sure how we stack up to Arnold’s crowd. By all accounts, he was a real cut-up on the set.)

And passion? You haven't seen passion until you've seen kids, grownups and grandparents – even some movie stars – willingly go to jail for protesting nuclear weapons or toxic waste incinerators or clear-cutting.

Yes, environmentalists talk too much about poisons in our air, water and food, and the vanishing rainforest and radioactive waste and endangered species, and the criminal greed of polluting corporations and the cowardly refusal of governments to stop them. That’s because it‘s the truth. Yes, we should tell more success stories and talk more about innovative alternatives and give more credit to companies who are trying to do the right thing. That doesn't change the truth.

My problem with Schwarzenegger is that he’s encouraging a brand of warm and fuzzy, feel-good environmentalism that faces no inconvenient truths. Global warming is a concern, sure, but it doesn’t call for any fundamental changes in how we live our lives or do business. In fact, it’s a great way to make money. Environmentalism isn’t about curbing our reckless consumption of carbon and other consumer goods; it’s about having more cool choices – if you can afford them.

Now California, for instance, has already a car company that's called Tesla Motors. Tesla Motors has just designed and produced a car. It's called the Tesla Roadster. It's 100 percent electric. . . .

Now this car, let me tell you something, is a very sexy-looking car. It's really cool. I mean, I test-drove it. It goes from zero to 60 in four seconds, it drives 130 miles an hour, and it drives 250 miles on a charge, and then the recharging only takes three-and-a-half hours. Now that's what I call cool.

And the car costs $100,000 -- to be exact, $98,000 -- and it is so popular it sold out immediately, that now the second version is being produced. And that car, the cost will drop down to $50,000. So we see where this is heading.

It’s heading toward rich Californians paying $50,000 for a two-seat sportscar with zero emissions, while poor Californians deal with cutbacks in inner-city transit service. (Schwarzenegger's latest proposed budget includes moving $1 billion in gasoline tax revenues away from mass transit.)

At Georgetown, Schwarzenegger got laughs with the story of going on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and outfitting a ’65 Impala with

. . . an 800-horsepower engine that goes from zero to 60 in three seconds. Now, you know how fast that is -- in three seconds. But it is biofueled. And that means that it emits 50 percent less greenhouse gases and it goes twice as far.

Now that's what I call cool. You see, now we cut down on the greenhouse emissions. So we don't have to really go and take away the muscle cars. We don't have to take away the Hummers or the SUVs or anything like this, because that's a formula for failure. Instead, what we have to do is make those cars more environmentally muscular.

He’s not sounding an alarm; he’s reassuring us that everything will be all right. We can have hot rods and clean air! Relax, have a cigar. James Murray at Green Business News dissects the politics of this brand of environmentally positive thinking:

[W]hat Schwarzenegger and many other politicians seem to be saying is that environmentalists should stop behaving "like prohibitionists at the fraternity party" because technology will ensure everything will be alright without anyone having to make any major sacrifices or fundamental changes to their lifestyles and business models. According to Schwarzenegger, he doesn't need to get rid of his private jet after all.

But while this "technology will save us" message makes for great political oratory it is a recipe for long term climatic disaster. . . .

Under pressure from voters it is very hard for politicians to be honest about the scale of the challenge posed by reducing carbon emissions and in fairness to Schwarzenegger he has done more than most to begin the transition towards a low carbon economy . . .

But there is a danger inherent to this approach of reassuring people and businesses that they do not have to make fundamental changes, because failing to face up to the fact that certain products and behaviours are simply unsustainable will only make it harder for politicians to push through the necessary changes when they realise we are not reducing carbon emissions fast enough to stabilise the climate.

There’s another reason it bugs me to see Schwarzenegger treated as an environmental hero: Global warming is the only green issue he seems to get. His reputation rests chiefly on the fact that he signed landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. But AB 32 was a Democratic legislator’s idea, and Schwarzenegger refused to sign it until he could soften the blow on business with an emissions trading scheme. What else?

He vetoed a bill to make the shipping industry pay for cleanup of dangerous levels of air pollution coming from the ports of LA and Long Beach. He did sign the nation’s first law establishing a state program to track chemical pollution in people, but he also vetoed a bill to restore Californians’ access to information about toxic chemicals in their communities, after a federal rollback of the Toxics Release Inventory. He has done nothing to speed up long-overdue safety standards for perchlorate, a rocket fuel waste that contaminates hundreds of water supplies in California. As another drought looms, he has declined to speak out against the wasteful, unfair and environmentally harmful giveaway of California’s water to a handful of Central Valley agribusinesses.

None of these actions negates what he’s done on global warming. But together they make it clear that as an environmental hero he’s a few merit badges short of Eagle Scout.

Heroes take risks. They do things that may not be popular, that will cost them personally or politically. Schwarzenegger’s environmentalism lite, on the other hand, is a politically cunning embrace of an issue with no downside. Tapes of the governor’s private meetings show that he and his staff understand very well the political value of his green agenda: His communications director Adam Mendelsohn told him last year: "I do not believe it's smart politics here in California to not talk about your environmental stuff."

Duh. Keep talking, Governor, but rather than comforting us with visions of the fantastic green future, start making people uncomfortable. Remind your Malibu neighbors that California has the highest percentage of minority residents living near toxic waste facilities. Tell the chemical industry they have no right to pollute the bodies of babies still in the womb. Announce that you will no longer accept campaign contributions from the oil industry.

Now that’s what I call cool.

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