By Donella Meadows
–February 25, 1993—-
“It’s only the first week of February and the Clinton administration is in its final days.”
“Our youthful president and his coterie of oafs have almost on a daily basis blundered.”
“There are troubling signs that [Clinton’s] administration might be at least half-empty, … self-absorbed in its pursuit of personal agendas.”
“How could this fellow have sounded so good in the campaign and have behaved so sloppily in the White House, and yes, I know it’s just been a few weeks, but it sure hasn’t been a GOOD few weeks, has it?”
These assessments, two from conservative columnists and two from liberal ones, are typical of the criticism the Clinton administration has weathered in its first month. The electorate asked for change and is getting it, and hardly anyone seems to like the result — except me, I guess.
I’m relieved that we finally have a leader who is working at reducing the deficit. I don’t mind paying higher taxes, if they go to purposes such as vaccinations for children. It’s fine with me if spending cuts come mainly from the military. Health care reform and campaign reform are long overdue. And in the area where I keep a sharp eye on government — environmental policy — there is already cause for real rejoicing.
On his third day in office Bill Clinton accomplished two of the top ten items on my wish list. He revoked Ronald Reagan’s “Mexico City policy,” which blocked funding of family planning. And he abolished Dan Quayle’s Competitiveness Council.
The Mexico City policy, named for the 1984 world conference on population held in that city, was an abrupt reversal of traditional U.S. generosity toward family planning programs around the world. In the name of opposing abortion, Reagan did more than forbid U.S. support of abortion. He cut off funding for any population program that included abortion, even if the U.S. contribution went only toward contraception, or only toward computers to allow the processing of a decent census.
Since contraception reduces the need for abortion, this policy never made sense even within its own right-wing ideology. Outside that ideology, it was incomprehensible. It shut down programs where a miniscule amount of money provided support for some of the poorest women of the world to control their own fertility. It meant that our government refused to deal with the most urgent piece of the environmental problem, the increase of the world population each year by 95 million people, 90 percent of whom are born into poverty.
It will take a long time to bring population growth rates down, but at least our nation is helping again.
The Competitiveness Council was the secret back door by which companies could make special appeals to the White House to be exempted from environmental regulations. Most environmentalists will admit that there are some overbearing and badly administered environmental laws, and some burdens on industry that need to be redressed — but the Competitiveness Council was not the way to do it. Political favors for one company over another are in fact uncompetitive. The Competitiveness Council was a way for the administration to undermine the law. It was unconstitutional. Hurray to Bill Clinton for getting rid of it.
The new president has also started moving on two other items on my top ten list, an energy tax and the Endangered Species Act.
Clinton’s proposed energy tax is too low, but at least it’s a start on pricing energy at its real cost, including its environmental cost. We already pay more for energy than we think we do, in bad health from air pollution, in damage to crops and waters and buildings from acid rain, in cleaning up oil spills, in defending the Persian Gulf. An energy tax puts those costs back where they should be, in the purchase price, so we will make wiser decisions about using energy. The tax will not apply to renewable sources such as solar, wind, and wood. Clinton justifies the energy tax on deficit-busting grounds, but it makes environmental and economic sense with or without a deficit.
The endangered species policy is still being worked out, but it is in the hands of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, one of Clinton’s best appointments. In an interview last week in the New York Times, Babbitt said not only what environmentalists want to hear, but also what taxpayers and even developers who hate the Endangered Species Act should want to hear.
The Act is working badly. Species are listed too late, when populations are so low that recovery programs are crisis actions, wildly expensive. (Raising baby condors by hand in incubators, for example, or litigating endlessly over snail darters.) Because no one has been looking far enough ahead, or looking at whole ecosystems, which allow species to maintain themselves for free, we have “national train wrecks” like the spotted owl controversy.
Says Babbitt, “We’re going to have to manage the Endangered Species Act pro-actively, by anticipating the problem while we still have the flexibility to manage the problem.”
Right on, Mr. Secretary! Right on, Mr. President! I don’t expect to like everything you do. I don’t like everything you have already done. But in these difficult first months, someone ought to give you credit when it is in fact richly deserved.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993