By Donella Meadows
–April 17, 1992–
“We will not, given the current level of science, technology and the economy, … do something that could have serious effects on growth.”
A high official of the Bush administration made that statement a few weeks ago to explain why the White House opposes measures to reduce air pollution, acid rain, and greenhouse gas emissions. The policy is: when faced with a choice between environment and economy, choose economy. But that’s a false choice, based on faulty assumptions.
FAULTY ASSUMPTION #1. ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS DESTROY JOBS. By industry’s own estimates, environmental regulations account for only a few percent of plant closings in the United States, mostly for companies that were already in trouble. The International Labor Organization says that environmental laws primarily “accelerate the timing of already inevitable closings.”
The pollution control industry in the United States itself accounts for over $120 billion in annual revenues and 3 million jobs, and it’s growing fast. Jobs are created not only by cleaning up pollution, but by producing less pollution in the first place. Worldwatch Institute calculates, for instance, that it takes 100 workers to put out 100 megawatts of nuclear power, 116 workers to produce the same amount of coal-fired electricity, 248 for an equivalent solar thermal generator, and 542 for a wind farm.
A Congressional study concludes that investing $115 billion per year in less polluting energy options would eliminate about one million jobs in the production of oil, gas, coal, and electricity. But it would create two million jobs in the solar and energy efficiency industries and another two million jobs through the consumption and investment that would be possible with all the money the nation would save by not wasting energy.
There is no guarantee, of course, that unemployed coal miners could find jobs insulating houses or maintaining windmills. We will always need practical and compassionate ways to retrain workers as technologies change. But we don’t have to endure massive unemployment for the sake of the environment, nor let the environment degrade for the sake of employment.
FAULTY ASSUMPTION #2. GROWTH WILL HELP US AFFORD POLLUTION CONTROL. In fact growth undercuts the pollution control measures we’ve already invested in, and it makes the next ones more expensive.
For example, through technical fixes in the past twenty years California has reduced pollution emissions per car by 85 percent. But over the same period the number of cars has risen by 50 percent and the number of miles driven per car by 65 percent. Air quality is better than it was, but not as good as it would have been without that growth, and not yet good enough. And the easiest, cheapest cleanup options have been exhausted.
The cost of removing the first 10 percent of just about any kind of pollutant is much lower than the cost of removing the last 10 percent. The European Community has calculated, for example, that it can get rid of 25 percent of the nitrogen oxides in its air at a cost of five thousand German marks per ton removed. To remove the next 25 percent will cost eight thousand marks per ton. The cost of removing a third 25 percent would be astronomical. Growth pushes the economy up that steeply rising cost curve.
Los Angeles has hit the limit on affordable pollution abatement in gas-burning cars. Now it must require motorists to buy alternate fuels or electric cars. It must regulate everything from paint spraying to industrial solvents to backyard barbecues. Its increasing intrusion on the freedom of its inhabitants and the increasing costs of compliance are a direct result of its past growth.
FAULTY ASSUMPTION #3. CLEANING UP POLLUTION IS A LUXURY. Pollution costs don’t announce themselves in monthly statements, addressed to us personally and labelled “pollution bill.” But the costs are real, and we pay them, directly or indirectly.
Eighty percent of the kids growing up in Los Angeles have “notable lung abnormalities.” They have a high probability of serious lung disease by the time they are 40. Air pollution in the Los Angeles basin is estimated to cost $13 billion a year in health alone. That doesn’t count damage to plants, structures, or the global climate.
It also doesn’t count the cost of the investors who decide to move out, or not to move in, because of the frustration of operating in an increasingly polluted and therefore increasingly regulated place.
FAULTY ASSUMPTION #4. ALL GROWTH IS GOOD, AND IT CAN GO ON FOREVER. Los Angeles has 13 million people, 7.5 million cars, and the largest industrial center in the United States, all crammed into a small mountain basin. How many more people and cars and factories can fit in there? How many should? Who is really profiting from L.A.’s growth, and who is paying for it, directly or indirectly? At what point (for surely that point is behind us) did the costs of growth there begin to exceed the benefits?
L.A.’s growth will have to stop sometime. It would be better to stop by the decision of the people, in accordance with their values, rather than by danger, disorder, ill health, high costs, and unbreatheable air.
If Los Angeles has its limits, so do New York and Denver and Houston and Miami and the United States and the whole human economy. To ignore that fact, to pursue mindless growth at the expense of the environment is to make the faultiest assumption of all: that environmental health depends on economic health — when it’s really the other way around.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992