In a sense, there was only one story in 2008, and what a story it was: extraordinary promise, shattered illusions, and ultimately triumph. We’re talking, of course, about Britney’s recovery.
And then there was that election. What a ride, eh? Packed with more drama than a telenovela, chock-full of rhetoric on energy and the environment, and long enough for all of us to lose our minds a little. Remember the gas-tax-holiday fight? Drill, baby, drill? Or when McCain scoffed over concerns that nuclear power should be “safe or disposable or something like that”? Remember Sarah Palin?
The Bush administration’s recent midnight-regulation bonanza seems the preposterously perfect way to cap eight years of doom and gloom with a sense of … gloom. If it hadn’t been for Stephen Johnson (the headlines! my God the headlines) we might not have made it.
But as we look back at the year’s top stories, and ahead to next year, we get a weird little tickle in our guts. People tell us it’s called “hope.” Is that contagious? Maybe we should get it looked at.
10. A for effort
Bisphenol A finally gets the bad rep it deserves
It’s in your kitchen, and it’s also in the doghouse: This year saw increased scrutiny of plastic hardener bisphenol A, which is found in products ranging from baby bottles to soup cans and has been fingered for messing with reproduction, interfering with chemo, and contributing to heart disease and diabetes. In the spring, Canada’s health department said it would declare BPA a toxic substance, while U.S. regulators went back and forth on it all year (and continue to do so). Meanwhile, Nalgene pledged to stop using the stuff, while major retailers including Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us said they’d quit putting BPA-filled baby bottles on their shelves.
9. Who you calling chicken?
Californians vote for more-humane farming
After both sides spent big bucks egging voters on, California made history by passing Prop. 2 and thereby giving farm animals the right to … turn around and lie down in their cages. What’s next, hippies hand-feeding them arugula? The new guidelines, which apply to “egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal, and pregnant pigs,” inspired pre-election support from the likes of Oprah, The New York Times, and others who hoped a win might provide a national model for more-humane farming. The landslide victory, on the other hand, inspired squawky protests from Big Ag. The rules take effect in 2015.
8. Worth the price of admission
Student eco-activism takes off
As we reported in a special series this fall, the green-campus movement took off across the country in 2008. From January’s Focus the Nation climate teach-in to December’s Poznan climate conference, not to mention the powerful role of da yoots in November’s election, students are creating — as USA Today put it — a “youthquake” of climate activism. They’re cramming for eco in less wonky ways, too, through endeavors like green frats and bike-share programs. As one Yale student we interviewed said, “the energy and the passion and the copious amounts of free time … can all really help.”
7. Oh, for PETE’s slake
Bottled water loses its luster
This was the year that America’s love for bottled water finally began to dry up. Tests conducted by the Environmental Working Group and others found chemicals and other contaminants in leading brands. Thanks in large part to a campaign launched in late 2007 called Think Outside the Bottle, the U.S. Conference of Mayors resolved in June to phase out bottled-water spending. Calls for bottle bans came from college campuses, touring bands, and London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Restaurants organized a tap-instead week to benefit Unicef. And amidst all the H2O-pla, the growth in bottled-water sales dribbled to a fraction of its former self.
6. Is nothing seacred?
Offshore drilling ban lifted
In a move that one environmental consultant called “the biggest reversal of conservation and protection in the history of this country,” Congress allowed a 27-year-old ban on offshore drilling to expire in October. The action — or inaction, to be more accurate — opened more than 600 million acres of coastal waters to leasing and could allow drilling as close as three miles to shore. In order to fully untake uneffect, the unban had to be accompanied by the repeal of an executive ban first signed by George H. W. Bush, a step George W. Bush was only too happy to take. In the face of high gas prices, intense oil-industry lobbying, and public pressure from John McCain and Newt Gingrich, the traditionally bipartisan ban stood little chance of surviving. However, fans of slick-free seas take some small hope that the ban might be re-un-lifted; President-elect Barack Obama recently said he was “not thrilled with it simply lapsing without … thought to what we need to do to achieve energy independence.”
5. Greenliness is next to jobliness
Everyone talks green jobs
You couldn’t spit this year without hitting a green-jobs advocate (which is better than hitting a green-jobs applicant — that would just be cruel). The ubiquitous Van Jones talked up the topic all year, motivating listeners at events like Good Jobs, Green Jobs, The Dream Reborn, and Netroots Nation. Presidential contenders tossed out jobby soundbites while more and more pols (and enviro groups) discussed a green-leaning economic stimulus package — which will be, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “the first order of business” in January when Congress reconvenes. And, last but not least, the House’s most energetic advocate for green jobs and environmental justice, Rep. Hilda Solis, was nominated by Obama to be secretary of labor.
4. Transit highs and lows
Gas prices seesaw and Americans drive less
The rise and fall of gas prices was more than a news story this year, it was a national rollercoaster ride. Thanks to record-high prices — at one point, oil hit $147 a barrel and prices at the pump topped $4 a gallon — Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008, compared to the previous year. Traffic deaths were down 10 percent. Public transit ridership hit record highs. SUV sales plummeted, and automakers sped toward smaller cars — while their execs sped to Congress to beg for a bailout. Dramatically lower gas prices in the fourth quarter weren’t even enough to get American drivers on the road again. But hey, give ’em time.
3. Did we mention that Nancy Pelosi will cut you?
With Waxman as wingman, House Speaker Pelosi takes climate from John Dingell
As the 110th Congress was getting started, John Dingell (D-Auto) — then chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — sounded tepid about pursuing climate-change legislation. The new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), noticed. First she created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, with Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at the helm. Dingell scoffed that without subpoena power or legislative jurisdiction, the committee was as useful as “feathers on a fish.” Mm hmm. Said committee spent the next two years putting the nation’s experts on record, publicizing climate change impacts and solutions, and building consensus for serious action in the House. That consensus propelled climate champion and Pelosi ally Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to victory in his November coup to replace Dingell as chair. Final score: Pelosi, two committees; Dingell, zero. (Coda: As a grace note, Waxman subsequently offered Dingell leadership on all health-care initiatives before the committee.)
2. When the clock strikes 12, they turn into … even bigger dicks
Bush administration pushes through last-minute anti-enviro measures
Apparently eight years of kicking the planet in the tender bits wasn’t enough for the Bush administration, so they’re using their last month in office to punch it in the face. How? Regulations in the dead of night! [Evil Cheney cackle.] Fun stuff like removing independent scientific reviews from the Endangered Species Act, easing restrictions on mountaintop-removal mining, pushing to weaken clean-air rules near national parks (though they gave up on that one), opening public lands in Utah to drilling, allowing guns in national parks, exempting factory farms from air-pollution rules, recommending an expansion of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, and pardoning a guy who killed three bald eagles (hey, what the hell) — and that’s just the stuff we know about. In his capacity as head of the
Parody Defense Department Environmental Protection Agency, Stephen Johnson recently issued a press release hailing the outgoing chief’s “constructive steps” on energy and climate.
Obama talks green and takes over
Did Obama mean all that pretty stuff he said about clean energy and climate change in the campaign — and reiterated since winning the election? The year to come will tell the tale. He has already assembled a seasoned green team, with Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner in a new executive office to coordinate energy and climate efforts. Three key positions — energy secretary, White House science adviser, and NOAA administrator — will be occupied by highly regarded professional scientists who have raised alarms about climate change — respectively, Steven Chu, John Holdren, and Jane Lubchenco. There will be a champion of environment justice and green jobs, Rep. Hilda Solis, as labor secretary, and a new White House Office of Urban Policy. Two close allies, Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman, are in key environmental positions in the House of Representatives, and Dems have 58 or 59 seats in the Senate, where most green legislation has gone to die. All is not ponies — Obama’s choices for Agriculture and Transportation are uninspiring at best — but the big pieces are in place. There may be no magic, but there is sure to be plenty of action. And if we fall prey to that tickling sensation, we might even venture some hope for science, common sense, and competence at the helm of a ship that’s been drifting blind for far too long.