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Blueprint for a New Environmentalism
By Allen Hershkowitz
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2002 Allen Hershkowitz
All rights reserved.
A New Blueprint: The Practical Side of Idealism
Those who serve life adapt to changes as they act.
Changes arise from the times, those who know
the times do not behave in fixed ways.
COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY are global, but every factory exists in some species' backyard. Thus, at the same time that global problems have become more complicated, transnational, and severe, the need to invest in and build local industrial corrections has taken on a greater ecological urgency. As the National Research Council's Board on Sustainable Development has observed, "Developing an integrated and place-based understanding of ... [ecological] threats and the options for dealing with them is a central challenge for promoting a transition toward sustainability." It should be nothing less than an international "priority."
Climate change, the destabilization of atmospheric chemistry, the proliferation of hazardous and nonhazardous wastes, contamination of freshwater resources, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, fisheries depletion, and deforestation are occurring on a global scale. These problems now plague communities in ever more remote regions and have become more technically and socially complex to remedy. But the strategies traditionally used by environmental advocates to encourage more sustainable industrial practices—legislation, regulation, land purchases, and consumer action—while still critical to intensify and while effective in some (generally more affluent) regions and for some problems, are now inadequate to the more severe, complex, trans-boundary task of protecting the environment on a global scale. The task is complicated by the fact that the global environmental problems we face are themselves a consequence of local, fragmented, and industry-specific "rational" business decisions.
There are those within the environmental community who take this to mean that advocates must constructively engage with industry in order to reform it. Yet, in practice, despite its open-minded, progressive veneer, the environmental movement has been quite rigid and adversarial when it comes to relations with the captains of industry. Given the severe and sometimes deadly public-health threats and habitat destruction that industry has historically caused—so much of it affecting humanity's most sensitive and vulnerable population subgroups, children and the poor, and so much of it based on nothing more than pure greed—the antipollution, preservationist focus of environmentalists has understandably morphed into a general and disdainful anti-industrial worldview. But the focus on stopping or merely regulating bad practices, however essential it remains, has practical limits. Stopping a bad industrial practice, however infrequently successful that important act is, does not ipso facto result in a good remedy taking its place. Aside from the political challenges of enacting effective and timely legislation and maintaining a vigilant environmental-enforcement regime, it is not clear that government has the managerial or technical tools, or the political will, to redirect the global economy—currently on a path that will soon overrun much of the Earth's remaining natural ecosystems—toward more sustainable practices.
If the sustainable economy does not yet exist, it needs to be built, and—unless our governing ideology takes an unlikely shift to the left—it will ultimately have to be built and owned not by the government but by the private sector, primarily transnational industries. Whether we like it or not, these industries will continue to determine the course of the global economy. If we authentically want to reshape industrial practices, we should openly acknowledge that without influencing industry more directly, we cannot realize the potential of promising new approaches such as industrial ecology. Likewise, without cultivating capital—through collaboration with investment bankers and other sectors in the global financial community—we will not be able to meaningfully develop industrial alternatives to the destructive status quo.
More than a change in the worldview of environmentalists will be required. Businesses, too, must change and come to recognize that a rich, resilient environment provides the basis for all of life's activities, including commerce. Neither commerce nor culture is possible without a chemically stable atmosphere, biologically productive oceans, living forests, a healthy food web, fertile land, naturally replenishing clean-water cycles, and the processing of wastes by microorganisms in our soil, water, and air. Ultimately, natural systems and natural resources provide the basis for all economic value. Besides its dire effect on public health, resident species, and our spiritual life, undermining our planet's environmental health also tends to make it more difficult for many businesses to profit or plan for the future.
Although environmentalists may tend to be idealists, there is, as Emerson suggested, a practical side to idealism that is often ignored by progressive reformers. This strain within the movement is often called market-based environmentalism. Under its aegis, a number of strategies and initiatives have been pursued. Until now, however, unfortunately, with very few exceptions, market-based approaches to environmental advocacy have positioned the environmental community as a supplicant, begging for scraps of progress at the industrial table. Working with McDonald's to modify the disposable styrene packaging for its hamburgers or with Starbucks to redesign its disposable coffee cups provided useful but narrow ecological benefits. More fundamental ecological and social impacts of the products' use or manufacture are left unresolved. For example, the impacts of industrial farming; the marketing of nutritionally derelict foods to children; habitat destruction; conversion of tropical forests; highway-dependent, sprawl-inducing marketing strategies; the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on natural habitat; the depletion of freshwater resources and nonrenewable resources; and the dangerous disparity in well-being between rich and poor have, with very rare exceptions, been left largely untouched by most market-based collaborations initiated to date. New means of addressing these critically important issues must be found.
WHY GOVERNMENT-DEPENDENT ADVOCACY IS INADEQUATE
Government regulations can't keep up with the pace of the economy's evolution or its damages to our ecosystems. There are many reasons for this, beginning with the fact that, in legislative as well as in regulators' offices, environmentalists have assumed the position of supplicant, begging an invariably small group of potentially receptive government officials to mobilize other potential supporters in government—and there are always only a few of them—to pass a law or draft a regulation that will stop bad commercial practices or, much less frequently, promote good investments. Yes, it is indisputably true that, in the most industrially advanced nations, this approach has, after thirty years, achieved some meaningful successes in reducing gross pollution impacts. As the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has confirmed, since the 1970s government "regulations and restrictions have been particularly successful in reducing industrial pollution, cleaning up the worst polluted surface waters, and reducing the levels of some air pollutants...."
But the pace of legislative and regulatory action and the demands of ecological sustainability do not proceed in tandem. While regulations have attended to many of the "low-hanging fruit" pollution impacts (i.e., those most easy to correct), dealing with the worsening pace of global deforestation, climate change, loss of biodiversity, urban air quality, and the growing burdens of municipal-waste generation have become less amenable to resolution by government regulations. I estimate that between 30 billion and 50 billion tons of wastes from all sources are generated annually worldwide, and the amount generated each year is steadily increasing. The United States alone generates between 12 billion and 14 billion tons. That means that during the next decade the world will have to manage approximately 300 billion to 500 billion tons of wastes, a situation an EPA advisory board anticipates will be "environmentally disastrous." Can we really expect any one state's regulations—or even trans-boundary regulations collaboratively enacted by an international agency or a regional group of states, which is of course very unlikely to happen—to effectively address this problem in a timely, economically equitable, and ecologically beneficial way? To quote again from the OECD: "The problems of the future are likely to be more complex, and their resolution will require more difficult trade-offs and greater international cooperation" beyond the reach of traditional regulatory approaches. Obviously, there is no natural—or man-made—law that says the United Nations or the U.S. Congress (or the EPA or another body) must respond promptly and effectively as global biodiversity is undermined, forests are destroyed, and fisheries are depleted, or as the chemistry and temperature of the atmosphere is altered.
Government action is limited by technical compromises and constrained and shaped by ecologically and economically arbitrary political jurisdictions. For example, the nesting and migration route of the endangered scarlet macaw traverses the political boundaries of Belize and Guatemala, two biologically diverse Central American rain-forest countries that are often on the verge of war with each other. These countries do not cooperate to protect their vast trove of biological treasures (including human settlements near their borders). While the macaw's habitat is protected in Guatemala, in Belize its nesting region is under assault from a hydroelectric-dam project being vigorously—and, some have argued, illegally—pushed by a Canadian energy company, Fortis, Inc., with the support of the Belizean government. The troubling political and economic boundaries that frame this threatening ecological situation are, from the perspective of the macaw's survival, irrelevant. The astoundingly beautiful, spiritually revered, and biologically valuable bird, which has existed and been worshiped by indigenous cultures for millennia, will soon become another of the many casualties caused by politically and environmentally uncooperative—in this case, unstable—relationships between states.
Sometimes a balkanized approach to policy making is in fact a good thing, since it tends to prevent a centralized, remote, and one-size-fits-all government bureaucracy from omnipotently deciding what is best for each and every region on Earth. But the fact remains that resolving the most serious ecological problems requires adherence to sound scientific, financial, and engineering truths that aren't limited by fragmented political maps and politically driven scientific compromises. Quite the contrary, advancing sustainability is thoroughly dependent on a respect for the facts. On the other hand, the legislative arena—or international political forums, a prince's palace, or a dictator's residence—is not a place where determining the truth is the principal objective, whether defined as good engineering, sound economics, or honest biological assessments based on the latest life-sciences data. Hundreds of examples can be cited to support this unpleasant fact. Here are two of the more obvious ones: (1) While scientists would classify CO2 as a pollutant contributing to global climate-change problems and the destabilization of atmospheric chemistry, politicians in the United States and elsewhere feel free to ignore the science at hand and have consistently resisted classifying CO2 as a pollutant; and (2) during a debate in the U.S. Senate about the technological options available to car manufacturers to very modestly enhance fuel efficiency, Senator Christopher S. Bond (R-Missouri) said—idiotically, from the perspective of transportation engineers—that "stiffer mileage requirements would make golf carts the dominant means of transportation." This nonsensical argument won the day, buttressed with hefty financial payments from the auto industry, and the Senate refused to enact an increase in fuel efficiency standards.
Rejection of biological, technical, and economic facts in favor of political expediency has been standard operating procedure in Congress and other legislative assemblies for decades—indeed, for centuries. Alas, even before a member of Congress introduces a bill for consideration by a subcommittee, it has already been compromised by anticipated considerations of what might be politically acceptable to the legislative body as a whole. Whether or not advancing a piecemeal compromise is scientifically adequate to resolve the environmental problem under consideration is always secondary to the political realities underlying the legislative process. As a result, tobacco remains an unregulated drug, hazardous oil and gas wastes have not been regulated as the hazardous wastes they actually are, and arsenic in water systems throughout the United States has been deemed "acceptable" by the government at concentrations that scientists know to be unhealthy.
What's more, the international nature of ecological problems, as well as the international nature of investments, absent international environmental laws and democratically organized administrative structures, further compromises the effectiveness of environmental strategies based on litigation or regulations within any particular nation-state.
Of course, getting the science right is only half the battle. Equally critical are the social and economic issues. And while government can theoretically integrate policies designed to alleviate social as well as ecological problems, it almost never has. More often than not, legislation—pushed by single-issue advocates—focuses on one fragmented environmental issue at a time, ignoring integrated social values like creating jobs in poor communities to build the kind of social capital needed to sustain environmental remedies. Consequently, even when government regulations incorporate accurate and seemingly comprehensive information for a single environmental issue, this still results in ecologically and socially fragmented—and usually inadequate—policies. By contrast, environmentalist-led efforts to help coffee growers in Central America earn livable wages and operate more ecologically—to cite one of the better-known examples of market-based environmental advocacy that integrates livable-wages issues into its objectives—reduces the fragmentation of social and environmental issues. So do the non-government-dependent efforts of environmentalists to save the fisheries industry, to promote jobs in waste-recycling businesses, and promote sustainable agriculture, which all try to integrate considerations of sustainable livelihoods with ecological issues.
But even in a perfect world, in which legislators would take both scientific and social issues seriously and recognize the need to manage them in tandem, the limits of the legislative process would remain inherent and abundant. By the time a bill gets through a subcommittee—for environmental laws this small step itself usually takes years, if it happens at all—it is substantially changed from what it was when it was introduced. I learned this quite clearly during markup of the National Recycling Act. By the time it gets through full committee, if it ever does, and full-chamber debate, which is even less likely to occur, any environmental bill is compromised again and again and again. If politics permit it, the same compromising process must then get repeated in the other legislative chamber, where a different version of the original bill ultimately emerges, if it emerges at all. The two versions of the bill must then get reconciled in a bicameral conference-committee meeting. During negotiations in conference-committee, the president's and vice president's offices also weigh in. Before the president is advised to sign it, of course, the bill can be—and usually is—subjected to more technical compromises for political reasons at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other more obscure White House agencies like the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the National Economic Council (NEC), the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), and the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), not to mention the vice president's office, all of which, like the House and the Senate, are also heavily influenced by lobbyists for industrial polluters.
Even when a bill is signed and enacted as law, the governmental process of compromising the science related to public health and ecology is far from over. Before a newly enacted law can be implemented by the affected industry, it must still go through regulatory rule making, itself a multiyear process, where its provisions are further compromised by industry lobbyists or other representatives of the business interests that the evolving legislation would impact. Often these lobbyists have no engineering or scientific training related to environmental sciences, and they certainly have little sympathy for the social issues related to promoting sustainable communities. After all, how can people who are ruthlessly focused on performing one task—influencing government to benefit industrial clients—develop a concern for all of life's diverse necessities, including the needs of other species? A lobbyist's only expertise is in being a paid spokesperson able to slow down or otherwise derail regulatory implementation of federal—or state—environmental laws. They also have the power of the purse, and through the bevy of money-channeling vehicles available to large financial contributors, they can and do make our elected representatives dependent on their largesse.
Excerpted from Bronx Ecology by Allen Hershkowitz. Copyright © 2002 Allen Hershkowitz. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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