By Donella Meadows
–February 24, 1994–
A few weeks ago a bill giving the Environmental Protection Agency cabinet-level status came before Congress. The House, in a fit of pique, refused to consider it unless amendments could be added weakening the EPA’s powers.
In a similar rambunctious mood, Republicans in Vermont’s Senate have blocked appointments to the Environmental Board that administers the state’s land-use law. They say the Environmental Board is populated by too many (heaven forbid) environmentalists.
These are small, stupid tantrums, but they show the gathering anger of industries, farmers, and property-rights advocates willing to swing out in any direction, at any time, with any force, to knock down environmental laws. These folks are warming up for serious battles later this year, when the Superfund, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws come up for renewal.
They have five complaints:
1. Maddening bureaucracy. The EPA’s forms and processes are typical government overkill. Act 250 places big hurdles in front of any major development in Vermont. Shifting regulations can make businesses feel that they are operating on quicksand.
Anyone can sympathize with this problem. The unworkability, the expense, the delay of environmental regulations need to be fixed. BUT — some regulatory tangles arise from the resistance of the regulatees. Most of the enormous cost of Superfund is due to litigation from companies that don’t want to clean up their messes. The Vermonters who blocked the Environmental Board appointments absorbed a month of government time in hearings and negotiations. House opponents of the EPA bill want to add a laborious cost-benefit study to every regulatory action.
One gets the impression that reducing bureaucracy is not the real issue here.
2. Costs versus benefits. Some regulations cost more than they save. The law comes down on minor threats (asbestos, acid rain, hazardous waste dumps) that require expensive mitigation, while more important problems (indoor air quality, non-point-source water pollution) go untouched.
There is truth to this accusation, and the EPA is the first to admit it. George Bush’s EPA administrator, William Reilly, drew up a list of regulatory priorities based on risk analysis and worked hard to re-order his agency around that list. The Clinton administration is following his lead. BUT — there are scientific, political, and economic problems with cost-benefit calculations. Scientifically, risks and benefits are often unknown. Politically, the hot issues — the discharge pipe in the river, the hazardous waste dump in the neighborhood — may not register on the national scale, but they resound in the electoral district. No legislature, not Vermont’s, not the Congress, will ever ignore political passion and stick to scientific priorities.
The economic problem is the real killer. If proposed developments, private or public, were really exposed to full, honest cost-benefit analysis, most of them would show up as losses, or as projects that benefit a few at great cost to many. Environmental opponents better think hard before they open the door to that kind of analysis.
3. Property takings. Regulations may reduce the value of property by preventing its exploitation or by forcing the exploitation to be done in a more expensive way — by requiring strip mines to be reclaimed, for example, or by preventing the draining of wetlands.
This complaint would be worth listening to, if it weren’t argued so one-sidedly. Those who make the most noise about takings are usually those who are most adept at exploiting public property for private gain — by using public lands without just compensation, by collecting increased property value from public-funded highways and sewer and water lines, by finagling tax advantages. Some day a government with guts is going to turn the takings issue on its head and put an end to private takings of public property.
4. Unfunded mandates. The federal government has a nasty habit of requiring states and towns to enforce environmental regulations without providing enforcement funds. This practice is craven and cowardly, and Congress should put an end to it.
5. Threats to economic growth. The stiffer the environmental regulations, the worse the economy. Everyone knows that, but in fact the evidence runs in the other direction. In the last recession environmentally strict Vermont had fewer bank crashes and a smaller dip in employment than any of the surrounding states. Its regulations seem to be winnowing out marginal developments, projects that are shaky on economic as well as environmental grounds.
If any of the points listed above were the real reasons for environmental obstructionism, the obstructions wouldn’t be so silly or the obstructors so emotional. They would just roll up their sleeves and get to work fixing the regulations. Instead they’re releasing pent-up frustration about general economic conditions and thwarted pet projects. Put together everyone who has reason to be mad at a zoning board with everyone who thinks he deserves to be richer than he is, and you’ve got quite an environmental backlash.
Somewhere, down under their anger, those folks know that no society can let anyone do anything to the land. Every nation must protect its environmental assets. As the population and economy grow, land, water, air, forests become more scarce, and an individual’s freedom to exploit them must come under more, not less, societal control.
That means the tantrums are bound to get worse. We’re going to have to find constructive ways to let people blow off steam. We should sympathize with their honest gripes, and do our best to make the regulations as clear and efficient as possible. But the one thing we should not do to those regulations is weaken them.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994