By Donella Meadows
–September 21, 1989–
Whenever a large profit-making enterprise in this great nation is told that its activities might not be good for the environment, it calls for proof.
Whenever the government doesn’t want to deal with a problem, environmental or otherwise, it can delay almost indefinitely by demanding proof.
The Reagan administration held up action on acid rain for eight years, looking for “proof” that rain 10 or 100 times more acid than normal might be harmful to lakes, streams, and forests. The proof sought, apparently, was some sort of ecological smoking gun — a direct connection between the death of a particular tree in Vermont and the emission of an identifiable power plant in Ohio.
Those who would ban the use of a pesticide must “prove” that it causes an unacceptable number of poisonings or birth defects or cancers. Those who see the greenhouse effect as a grave environmental threat are told to wait ten or twenty years until climate measurements “prove” that a global warming is here for sure (at which point it will no longer be avoidable).
Strangely enough, these calls for proof are directed to some of the most certain propositions ever to enter the political arena. You would be hard put to find a single chemist who will question whether burning high-sulfur coal causes acid rain. Or a biologist who doubts that acid baths are harmful to living creatures.
Nothing is more logical than the deduction that when you spray a countryside with chemicals specially formulated to poison living things, living things will be poisoned.
The basic process behind global warming from the greenhouse effect is as scientifically certain as the law of gravity. It has been understood for 100 years. Increases in greenhouse gases have been measured for 40 years.
As a scientist, I have no trouble concluding that the greenhouse effect and many other environmental problems are sufficiently certain to justify government action, corporate regulation, and the expenditure of public money. I am still looking for a chain of reasoning anywhere near so certain to justify other theories to which the government regularly commits its energy and billions of our dollars.
How far would Star Wars have gotten, for example, if there had been a demand for proof that it would work? Have you ever seen any real evidence that capital punishment deters future murderers? Or that the nation would truly be more secure with nuclear missiles running around its territory on railroad tracks, or that drug interdiction reduces our drug problem, or that tax cuts for the rich benefit anyone except the rich?
Take that last proposition, which happens to be before Congress right now. Our legislators are soon likely to pass, they say, a cut in the capital gains tax. Two-thirds of the benefit from this cut will go to one-half of one percent of taxpayers, all whom make over $200,000 per year. On average each of them will pay $30,000 less in taxes.
In a supposedly democratic country running an enormous deficit how can any politician justify a tax cut for anyone, much less for the rich? Listen carefully. You will hear one and only one justification. If wealthy people pay less in taxes, they will invest more in productive enterprises, thereby spurring economic growth that will benefit us all. That is the argument they always use to support favors for the rich.
As a taxpayer whose total income is less than the average capital gains cut now proposed, I’d like some proof. The wealthy have already benefited from tax cuts this decade. I’d like to know how much they have put into new technology, machines, and factories — and how much into conspicuous consumption, real estate speculation, mergers and acquisitions. I’d like evidence that tax breaks for those with high incomes lead to more productive investment than tax breaks for the rest of us. I’d like to hear a logical argument why anyone should get a tax break when the deficit is so high and so many unsolved national problems, including environmental ones, are unsolved.
The politicians are not asking for proof. Maybe they really believe the claim that the rich (a category that includes, of course, themselves and their supporters) would, if they could just have a bit more money, use it for the social good. Or maybe they don’t believe it for a minute, any more than I do. Maybe capital gains taxes, like defense expenditures, fall into a category that doesn’t required proof or even plausibility — only cynicism.
I wish environmental matters fell into that category! No, cancel that — I have a better wish. I wish we had a government that applied reasonable standards of logic and proof evenly to all propositions.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989