The State of the Union - an Opportunity Missed

GEORGE BUSH'S total silence on the environment in his State of the Union address not only undermines his claim to be the "environmental president," but also bodes ill for the nation. The issue is one of substance, not just that the president didn't tip his hat to the environmental agenda along with his list of national priorities.

Just as hard times and doubts about our international competitiveness are dominant, Mr. Bush missed his best chance to strike the key link that needs to be forged between the economy and the environment.

The linkage is efficiency. It is redirecting the research and development capacity of now redundant weapons labs into the technologies that produce better and cheaper goods by lowering the demand for resources. It is encouraging the development of alternatives to waste. It is understanding that sanctioning the extinction of species is an ethical squandering in the short run and an unraveling of our economic foundations in the long run. It is recognizing that taxpayer subsidies for grazing, mining, and ti mbering are a form of inefficiency. It is providing incentives for business innovations that produce wealth by lowering stress on the environment.

Our chief competitors are applying these lessons. A dollar's worth of Japanese goods is produced with half the energy needed by its American equivalent. That same unit of goods from Japan is made with one-fifth of the byproduct waste that adds to the cost of its American-made competitor.

Efficiency is the unavoidable name of the future for the economy and the environment. We can either play the game and retain a chance to win, or continue to avoid it and lose. To win, presidential leadership is essential.

The closest thing we heard from Bush on this score was a renewed call for Congress to enact his national energy strategy, a policy firmly rooted in the past. The president advocates an almost single-minded determination to pursue increased petroleum production, tapping dwindling reserves located in environmentally fragile areas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate has already answered that this is a non-starter. A necessary element in charting a course into the 21st century is a pol icy that begins to steer the economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

The president spoke glowingly of free trade. Free trade's market efficiencies offer potentially great benefits. Irretrievable environmental damage is virtually certain if future free-trade agreements continue past patterns of unrestricted drawdowns on natural resources. Based on his address, we may be sure of Bush's enthusiasm for free trade's market potential. But the address gives no assurance he sees the connection between open markets and environmentally sustainable development.

As a short-term measure to boost the economy, the president announced a moratorium on new regulations and a review of existing ones. We cannot yet see if this will become a formula for long-term damage to health, safety, and environmental protections.

His budget does contain some welcome requests. The president wants additional funds for parks, for ecological hot spots like the Everglades, for clean water, to deal with pollution along the United States-Mexico border, and to begin cleaning up nuclear contamination and other pollution that is part of the cold war's environmental legacy. It is the big picture, a vision, that is lacking.

Part of the reason we are in an era of unprecedented global environmental stress is that past leaders often convinced themselves that the environment and the economy were separate and divisible. They are not. The depletion and degradation of one to boost the other is at best shortsighted and at worst disastrous. The health of both are intertwined.

The international community has recognized this truth in preparing for the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development scheduled in Brazil this June. The conference's success relies on the US lending the full weight of its support through the president's leadership. Bush must show his commitment to the reality that environmental protection and the conservation of natural resources are integral to economic development.

By this measure, his State of the Union address was a disappointment. He missed an opportunity to deliver a State of the Environment address showing his commitment to an environmentally and economically sustainable future.

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