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U.S. ecology: Bad to better to a disaster

It took futuristic technology to achieve one of the worst ecological disasters on record. Without such technology, after all, BP couldn't have drilled the Deepwater Horizon well in the first place. Yet for those who remember their environmental history, the catastrophe in the gulf has a strangely old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of the events that led to the first Earth Day, four decades ago.

And maybe, just maybe, the disaster will help reverse environmentalism's long political slide -- a slide largely caused by our very success in alleviating highly visible pollution. If so, there may be a small silver lining to a very dark cloud.

Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared "dead," its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities were often cloaked in acrid smog.

It wasn't that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems. Air quality improve. Rivers stopped burning, and some became swimmable again. And Lake Erie has come back to life.

Yet there was a downside.

For one, as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, "Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years."

This decline in concern would be fine if visible pollution were all that mattered -- but it isn't. Greenhouse gases pose a greater threat than smog or burning rivers ever did. But it's hard to get the public focused on a form of pollution that's invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days.

Nor was a loss of public interest the only negative consequence of the decline in visible pollution. As the photogenic crises of the 1960s and 1970s faded from memory, conservatives began pushing back against environmental regulation.

Much of the pushback took the form of demands that environmental restrictions be weakened. But there was also an attempt to construct a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists -- "eco-Nazis," according to Rush Limbaugh -- or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans. By and large, anti-environmentalists have been winning the argument, at least in public opinion.

Then came the gulf disaster. Suddenly, environmental destruction was photogenic again.

For the most part, anti-environmentalists have been silent about the catastrophe. True, Rush Limbaugh promptly suggested that environmentalists might have blown up the rig to head off further offshore drilling. But that remark probably reflected desperation.

For the gulf blowout is a pointed reminder that the environment won't take care of itself, that unless carefully watched and regulated, modern technology and industry can all too easily inflict horrific damage on the planet.

Will America take heed? It depends a lot on leadership. In particular, President Barack Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil is a terrible bargain.

It's true that Obama isn't as well positioned to make this a teachable moment as he should be: Just a month ago he announced a plan to open much of the Atlantic coast to oil exploration.

But he needs to get beyond that. The catastrophe in the gulf offers an opportunity, a chance to recapture some of the spirit of the original Earth Day. And if that happens, some good may yet come of this ecological nightmare.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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