Every few months I visit the Massachusetts town my mother’s immigrant family came to a hundred years ago in search of work at the textile mills which dotted the New England coast. Like many municipalities near Boston, Plymouth is a fairly cosmopolitan place where people listen to National Public Radio and usually vote for Democrats. But recently I’ve begun to notice one issue typically associated with progressive voters falling out of favor — environmentalism. That’s surprising, because Plymouth residents used to be so environmentally conscious that they drove Ocean Spray’s headquarters out of town rather than let the company fill in a small portion of the bay.
But something has changed in their opinions about the environment, or at least about environmentalists, and I know what it is. Several years ago, a wealthy woman from California bought a house on the beach and tried to limit vehicles going by her land. Plymouth Beach is a peninsula, so if you can’t get by her house, half of the beach is beyond reach. The dispute has grown quite arcane, but part of her reasoning is that nesting migratory birds in the area might be adversely affected by vehicles, even if the vehicles stay in carefully demarcated routes. The case is still in litigation, but Plymouth Beach now has multiple checkpoints manned by the local equivalent of park rangers, and vehicle access to the upper beach is carefully controlled. This angers residents who have been driving up the beach their whole lives, but who now face the prospect of having their vehicles permanently banned.
The reason you should care about this little vignette from a place that likes to call itself “America’s hometown” is that similar stories are playing out all over America. In North Carolina, environmentalists want to block a foreign company’s effort to build one of the biggest cement plants in the U.S., because they say it has not conducted sufficient studies of the plant’s environmental impact. The company says the requested studies are redundant and unnecessary. In Idaho, environmentalists are challenging a Canadian oil company’s plan to move giant Korean mining rigs from the coast inland over the one local road that doesn’t have tunnels or overpasses. They say the company isn’t prepared to deal with accidents on the remote road. In California, environmentalists want even tighter controls on the presence of a rocket-fuel ingredient called perchlorate in ground water. The company responsible for the cleanup says it has already reduced levels of the chemical to a few parts per billion — far below the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general says human effects disappear.
All over America, people who once enthusiastically supported the environmental movement are beginning to have doubts. They see that in many cases, there is no limit to the demands environmentalists are willing to make on industry, and that as a result they are strangling the ability of local economies to prosper. They also notice that the people backing heavy environmental regulation often are college-educated, affluent folks who won’t really be affected by the rules, whereas the people whose livelihoods are on the line are less educated and less affluent. Consequently, environmentalism is gradually losing the hold it once had on many voters.
It’s no secret that whole industries have been driven out of America by tougher environmental rules. China and other countries with less onerous regulations have benefited handsomely from this migration. For instance, a single mine in California once met most of the world’s needs for vital rare earths used in everything from radars to mobile phones, but just about the time it started to encounter low-cost Chinese competition, it also ran afoul of environmental agencies. End result: the mine closed in 2002, and China now has a global monopoly in the production of rare earths. Such stories suggest that like many other revolutions in history, environmentalism has entered the stage of excess and extremism where it destroys its own success. If environmentalists can’t find some way of curbing their propensity for endless litigation and rule-making, they eventually will be overwhelmed by popular revolt against their self-righteous obstructionism.
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