Last Tuesday, as the world was gathering to hear what President Bush was going to say about war with Iraq, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) rose in the Senate to note that the commander in chief had already gone to war against the environment.
She mentioned incursions against clean air and clean water, all announced in after-hours, Friday-night releases that proclaimed that in pursuit of cleaner air and water, present air and water standards had to be rolled back, while trees had to be chopped down to save forests. Most important, she pointed out a new and unforgivable target of the president's assault on the world of nature: the dolphin. Bush may rue the day. He is messing with one of the most undeniably delightful of God's creations, one loved by humans since the time of the Greeks. He might as well declare open season on golden retrievers.
Bush has put dolphins in harm's way from Mexican fishermen, and he better expect to hear from the schoolchildren of America. Fourteen years ago, they were roused to action when Boxer, then a House member, wrote a bill with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) to save dolphins from the fishermen's nets, which were a death trap for hundreds of thousands of them.
The schoolchildren's teachers, who may also have been fans of TV's "Flipper," encouraged them, and environmental groups provided postcards of protest. The little lobbyists flooded the White House and Congress with mercy pleas for the dolphins. The small scribes carried a big stick: a boycott. They wanted a law protecting dolphins, or there would be no tuna sandwiches in their lunchboxes.
Congress gave way and passed a law permitting canners who pledged not to use nets in waters frequented by dolphins to put a "dolphin safe" label on tuna cans.
For some reason -- as mysterious as those perfect wedge formations of flying geese -- some tuna like to swim under dolphins. Fishermen went to violent lengths to scare off the dolphins, using helicopters, speedboats and explosives to get at their prey. Dolphins reacted badly. They had heart attacks, they drowned. Mothers were separated from their calves, and the babies were eaten by sharks.
Since the "dolphin safe" bill passed, dolphin deaths have declined dramatically, from about 100,000 a year to 10,000, although some scientists think the deaths are underreported.
Now Bush again wants to repair what is not broken. He has changed the rules. Under pressure from Mexico, whose fishermen have been shut out of U.S. markets because of their anti-dolphin practices, the U.S. Commerce Department, despite disputed findings by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, loosened the rules so that Mexican fishermen will be eligible for the "dolphin safe" labels. They just have to say they didn't kill dolphins to get their catch. U.S. tuna companies, such as StarKist and Bumble Bee, which had made their peace in 1990 with the environmentalists, complain that the label now has lost all its meaning.
A California environmental group called Earth Island Institute has filed suit calling for a stay on the issuance of the new labels. "It's a huge affront," says David Phillips of the institute. Rep. Miller says: "This is a fight we should not have to fight again."
The president's sole nod to the environmentalists in his State of the Union address was a pledge to develop a hydrogen-powered car in time for the next generation. Boxer thinks conservation now would be better, as we prepare to attack one of the big sources of oil. Conservation is a bad word in this oilman-president's White House. Boxer proposes that the president "order immediate conversion of the federal fleet to hybrid and electrical cars, which are ready for use."
The environmental groups dismiss the hydrogen-powered car as a pie-in-the sky proposal that, like all other Bush initiatives, is market-driven. He's doing it for Detroit, they say, so automakers don't have to produce higher SUV fuel standards.
Anna Aurelio of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says that PIRG applauds the hydrogen car, "but not as a substitute for near-term oil reduction policies."
In the curious lexicon of Bush environmental philosophy, dolphins are not discriminated against. Bush has no more compassion for the elephant, the mascot of his party. For trade's sake, at a recent U.N. convention, the United States voted against a 13-year-old ban on trade in elephant ivory, delivering them to murderous poachers.
The dolphins' fate is once again in the hands of American schoolchildren. We must look to grades 1 through 6 to instruct their president in the basic lesson of reverence for "all creatures great and small."