Election '96: at stake for people and the planet

by Dibya Sarkar, edited and reprinted from The ZPG Reporter, Sept/Oct 1996.

he 1994 elections saw a strong shift with both houses of Congress dominated by reactionary forces. The outcome of this November's Presidential and Congressional races will help determine the nation's political direction into the 21st Century. All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and one-third in the US Senate are up for re-election, together with scores of state and local offices.

Environmental incorrectness

In the name of making government more efficient and lessening the burden of regulations on states and individuals, the 104th Congress has brandished numerous bills to weaken environmental protections and cut funding for federal agencies. The detrimental impacts on human health and threats to natural resources and endangered species have been largely ignored.

A 30 percent cutback of the Environmental Protection Agency's budget last October impaired the agency's ability to enforce regulations, conduct research and investigate cases of degradation. Funding cuts to the Department of the Interior proposed by the House of Representatives, but not yet passed by the Senate, would compromise the protection of wetlands, parks and national forests. And a pending appropriations bill aims to eliminate funding to improve energy efficiency.

Numerous bills have been proposed, and in some cases passed, that benefit oil, timber, mining, chemical and agricultural interests, for example by exempting industries from pollution standards and allowing resource extraction in fragile ecosystems.

Opposition from pro-environmental forces have stalled the legislative process in some areas. Landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Safe Drinking Water Acts, have fortunately been upheld, though sometimes by a narrow margin.

In the rush to pass legislation during the remaining weeks before the election, the fate of environmental protections has remained unsure.

Family affairs

Supporters of population-related policies have faced severe setbacks, at the same time that Americans have become aware of the connections among reproductive health, environmental stability and quality of life. "With the US population surpassing 265 million, the need to provide family planning, ensure reproductive rights and protect the environment has never been greater," says Peter Kostmayer, executive director of Zero Population Growth. "If the next Congress continues trends set by their predecessors, the results could be disastrous."

For the past several years, the radical right movement has wielded a powerful influence over lawmakers. Organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council have launched scathing attacks against advocates of family planning and reproductive rights, while providing political and financial backing to proponents of their own views.

The inauguration of the 104th Congress in January 1995 promised fulfillment of the "Contract with America," a political agenda influenced by the radical right. The "Contract" espouses a return to traditional "family values" as well as the limitation of the role of government in people's day-to-day lives. In reality, it abrogates individual freedom and threatens the health and well-being of families.

In the "Contract," environmental regulations, sexuality education and reproductive health services were targeted for decimation. While legislators failed to push through several of their goals, they have managed to severely cut family planning programs and to restrict abortion services. Congress recently reduced funding for international family planning programs by 87 percent. The reproductive rights of women in the United States have also been compromised. Abortion services are no longer covered in the health plans of federal employees, permitted on military bases overseas, or available to federal prison inmates (except in cases of rape or incest).

The American conscience

Many environmental organizations have assailed the current Congress, declaring it has done more damage to environmental protection than any prior Congress. Public opinion polls also express serious disappointment with the anti-environmental agenda. A 1995 Newsweek poll found that nearly three-quarters of respondents would be "very" or "somewhat" upset if environmental regulations were weakened or eliminated. And a 1994 national survey conducted by the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative found that 64 percent of American voters believe the United States should be involved in slowing global population growth. The same poll found that nearly 60 percent endorse US-sponsored voluntary family planning programs and 72 percent supported a women's right to choose abortion. But these numbers are not being represented.

With the US population growing by nearly 3 million people every year, changes will have to occur on a variety of levels. Individuals need to make sound choices regarding consumption and reproduction. Businesses can benefit from looking beyond immediate profit and towards sustainability. And the members of the next presidential administration and the 105th Congress will have a responsibility to consider the long-range interests of all sectors of society.

It's not just the economy, anymore. As candidates make their way down campaign trails nationwide, they confront prospective voters with a wide range of concerns. Much of the electorate is angry and disappointed with the actions - and inactions - of its government representatives, and skeptical of their ability to improve economic and social conditions.

The continuation of this onslaught in the future will depend in large part on the make-up and actions of the l05th Congress. "It's clear that unless Americans choose leaders who aim to secure environmental quality and reproductive rights, the lives of our children will most certainly deteriorate," says Kostmayer. "The next election offers an opportunity to guarantee that does not happen."

Zero Population Growth is a national nonprofit membership organization working to slow population growth and achieve a sustainable balance between the Earth's people and its resources. 1400 Sixteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 332-2200, www.zpg.org/zpg.