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Alliance for the Great Lakes as absolutists

Dennis Byrne 24 September 2007 One Comment

“Which would be harder for you to survive without for three days, oil or clean water?” —Cameron Davis, President of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Davis has managed in one sentence to capture the essence of the debate over whether BP should be allowed to slightly increase discharges of ammonia and suspended particulate matter into Lake Michigan as part of a $3.8 billion expansion of its northwestern Indiana refinery.

For Davis, and so many others, the issue is one of absolutes: Do you want clean water or oil?

In real life, that’s not the choice we face. Choices are not so absolute, but the opponents who have bashed BP, the state of Indiana and the U.S. EPA for approving the expansion plans would have it so. Either or. Black or white. Good or evil.

With a single question, which he posed in his response to the Chicago Daily Observer’s comments on the BP issue, Davis has illuminated in the brightest light the rigidity, and hence the failing, of BP’s opposition.

With biblical certainty, opponents insist: There shall not be any increase, no matter how tiny, how legal, how inconsequential or how safe, of any discharge into the lake. With such moral and ideological certainty, it takes only a small step to demonize BP and their “ilk.”

Never mind that no one has proven that the slight additions to the lake endanger health or safety. Never mind that the permit was issued within the strictures of the law and regulation. Never mind that opponents allowed an ignorant or malevolent description of the new discharges as “sludge” to go uncorrected as political demagogues whipped up the public into a state of near hysteria.

What we have here is not just a failure to communicate, but also the intentional twisting by some of the content and the meaning of the law for ideological and self-serving purposes. It is the cultivation of the kind of emotional, anti-scientific and anti-factual discourse that ill serves democracy.

Yes, we can argue over the specifics of BP’s plans, such as what alternate water treatment technologies, if any, are available that will allow BP to “expand its refinery without increasing its pollution to Lake Michigan,” as Davis states. BP says there aren’t any; its opponents say there are. Maybe there are, but I doubt that there are any that will reduce pollutants to absolute zero.

Which is to say, the way we live has social costs—some huge, some tiny—in this case damage (potential or real) to the environment. The making of public policy in a democratic society requires the elimination of the worst and greatest of those costs. And significant progress has been made in that direction since the dawning of the green age 30 years ago. Always, we can do better. But as we move toward a greener society, the amelioration or, if you will, the “elimination” of smaller amounts of less consequential or, if you will, inconsequential levels of pollution, becomes technologically more difficult and costly.

At some point, we need to ask ourselves: Is it worth it? Is it attainable? As worthy as the goal of not a smidgeon more pollution in pursuit of the lofty goal of “elimination” of pollution, is it reasonable and practicable?

Indeed, the BP issue is of national importance. It raises in starkest terms whether there is room for compromise and rational discourse.

We get the answer, in so far as he is speaking for environmentalists, from Davis. In posing the questions as either/or, one or the other, Davis represents an environmental movement that has aligned itself with other absolutists: gun advocates who demand no restrictions on the right to bear arms and pro-choice advocates who demand no restrictions on the right to have an abortion. I hope environmentalists feel comfortable there with their new friends.

One Comment »

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    How much solid waste did horse create on the city streets? How much smoke did coal and diesel burning trains create?

    How far can one go with such absolutists?

    Maybe if we eliminate the population of Chicago, we might eliminate all pollution. Then the water could be pure again.

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