The Hon. Leon G. Billings
Maryland House of Delegates
"Summer Seminar on Halki '97: The Environment and Justice"
In America, justice is symbolized by a person blindfolded holding a balance scale. It is meant to suggest that justice must be both blind and fair. To be blind and fair may be an appropriate way to define the results of adjudication of matters between people. It may not have any relevance to matters involving inalienable rights.
Thus, if environmental protection is simply a matter of balancing equities, there could be justice without protection. If, on the other hand, a safe, clean and healthy environment is an inalienable right, terms like "fairness," "equity," and, yes, even "justice" may not be appropriate.
Humankind has struggled with fundamental rights issues since the beginning of time. Civilization has struggled with environmental protection throughout recorded history. But it has only been in the last half of the 20th century in which there has been a debate over the right to a clean, healthy and safe environment. And that debate has only occurred because of a clash between public environmental rights and private economic rights.
Thus, I will argue that justice in the context of the environment requires gaining widespread global recognition that there is an inalienable right of all people to a clean, healthy and safe environment; that the air we breathe, the water on which we depend and the natural resources of the planet are public resources which may be used but must be protected and cannot be destroyed or irrevocably changed merely for private gain.
Acceptable human behavior is measured by a balance between greed and guilt. In American society, and I suspect much of the world, conservatives tend to be driven by greed, progressives by guilt.
Progress is made when the selfless outscore the selfish in the game of governance. Reaction sets in when selfishness so overwhelms selflessness as to threaten individual opportunity.
If this is true, how then does society deal with core values: things which cannot be compromised, but which must be protected from economic commandments like cost/benefit analysis, risk assessment, economic feasibility, etc.
In a world in which there are those who would measure all things in economic terms, how does society protect those human assets for which a dollar value cannot be assigned?
In the early debate on American environmental law, there was much discussion regarding the economic value of a human life. For some, it was important to determine how much pollution control could be required before it became uneconomic; that is, before lives saved were not worth the investment in environmental protection.
I worked for Senator and late Secretary of State Edmund Muskie for 15 years during which period I helped him with all of America's basic, landmark environmental laws. It was his inspiration and tutelage which guides these remarks and has directed my career as an environmental policy consultant and state legislator.
As he crafted American environmental law, Senator Muskie rejected this trade-off. In his view, the task was to define those levels of pollution at which adverse health effects occurred and then commit to taking the steps necessary to eliminate pollution above those levels. Senator Muskie did not believe that government should compromise either on setting the standards of environmental protection or on its responsibility to achieve those standards. He did believe that government could accommodate demonstrated economic impacts by flexibility in the timelines for achievement of those standards.
Senator Muskie defined for the nation, and I believe for the world, environment as a core value. He believed that the air we breathe had to be clean enough to protect the health of the most sensitive groups in the population. And he didn't believe that any person or entity had a "right" to pollute. In an introduction to a book published in 1970 (This Little Planet), he said,
"Continuous attention must be paid to environmental balance if we are to protect man as a species.
"The way man reacts to that danger has long-range implications for the successful functioning of democracy in a technological age. How he reacts will be determined in large measure by his scale of values. Man has invested enormous faith in the value of scientific advancement, thinking that scientific knowledge would by itself bring material betterment, and therefore increase the sum of happiness. The ecological crisis facing the world and the violence of this age suggest the need for another measurement of progress. The quality and value of civilization will be determined by the extent to which man exists in harmony with the natural environment, instead of how completely he can subdue it.
"The prospect of an unmastered technology carried to its logical conclusion gives rise to a Brave New World vision of future societies run for machines in which humanity is an inconvenience. Some see this kind of society not only as possible but as inevitable. To combat this despair, the nation needs a positive ethic directed toward producing a society where technology will work for a healthy environment, a society in which man can have faith in the future of man.
"Surgeon General William Stewart described what should be the national goal before the Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution:
"Being healthy is not just being unsick. Good health implies, to me, the full and enthusiastic use by the individual of his powers of self-fulfillment.
"Therefore, in controlling air pollution for the benefit of health, we are working toward an environment that is not only safe but conducive to good living."
And he believed religion could play an important role in the effort to achieve General Stewart's objectives. He said,
"Churches are powerful educational forums. The pulpit may not have the breadth of the mass media, but it has a depth which is more likely to effect substantial changes in our ethical-environmental attitudes. Religious leaders can also make good use of secular forums of the media and forums which call for public participation in determining the kind of environment in which people will live.
"In this decade many religious leaders have moved out of the cloister and into the street to support the civil rights movement, the organization of farm workers, the anti-poverty program and the cause of peace. It is important that these religious leaders and their institutions assume a greater role in the movement to improve our environment.
"It is a cause which gathers strength not only from fear of ecological disaster, but from discontent with outdated and distorted priorities. It is worthy of the idealism of the young as well as the establishment. If the churches, drawing upon their own rich heritage, involve themselves in this search for new priorities, there is hope that our nation will achieve a quality of life conducive both to man's physical and spiritual well-being."
While I say Senator Muskie believed these things, it is important to note that he also persuaded his colleagues in the American Congress that these were acceptable rules of environmental policy -- they were acceptable rules of law.
In order to have justice, you must have law. And the law must be just.
While many include under the umbrella of environment the conservation of land, vegetation and species, my definition is somewhat narrower. To me, environment is those fundamental resources on which all species survive -- the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we till. To the extent the acts of man make that air unbreathable, that water unusable, that land unproductive, this core value is threatened. No man, corporate or person, has a right to threaten that value.
At the turn of the century in America, President Theodore Roosevelt created America's first national wildlife refuge. It was one of many conservation measures adopted during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. He was known then and today as the Conservationist President. Today, America has 508 wildlife refuges covering some 92 million acres. We have 369 national parks covering 80 million acres and 189 national forests covering 192 million acres.
And yet, today in America, even with the enormous commitment to preservation of natural systems, we are having an intense and often acrimonious debate on whether we should protect the most natural system of all -- the people. We have an Endangered Species Act which protects rare plants, birds and animals, but we do not have a settled national policy which says that we will protect the health of people.
Put another way, in the context of this conference, we have environmental justice for some of our natural things, but we don't have environmental justice for people who are sensitive to pollution. We are engaged in a great debate. It is a debate between those who believe that the environment is a free good to be bought and sold in the marketplace and those who believe that a clean, healthy environment is guaranteed and free.
We had this debate 25 years ago when we wrote our first clean air and clean water laws. Twenty five years ago the Congress of the United States decided that there was no right to pollute; that pollution which endangered people or things must be eliminated; and even pollution which didn't endanger people or things should be eliminated if the technology existed to do so.
Now, in this era of new capitalism, that debate has been joined again. Economic interests argue that there should be no pollution control absent the clear and definitive evidence of adverse impact and only then if it is affordable to avoid adverse impact.
Economic forces argue that pollution is an entitlement that can be traded for economic value. They believe -- and argue -- that their right to pollute can only be exchanged for something of value and not limited simply because it threatens people or things.
This is not a debate between good and evil, though at times it is easy to characterize it in those terms. It is a debate about values. It is a debate about morality. Thus, in the context of this conference, it is a debate about justice.
Someone once observed that it was unfortunate to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Too often, that is the measure not only of public policy but of political performance. We simply cannot conduct a global environmental debate on that basis or in those terms.
The environment is not a free good. It is a community possession. It is a village common on which all of us depend for sustenance.
No one has a right to use it.
Certainly, no one has a right to abuse it.
And, obviously, no one has a right to sell it. Because, while we might sell our labor or our ingenuity in the economic marketplace; while we might take economic advantage of our personal gifts, there is no entitlement to the village common. There can be no justice if one person's right to drink pure water or breathe pure air is a function of that person's purchasing power.
In America today, there is much talk of core values. For many, core values are family, community and religion. Core values include how we relate to each other and what we contribute to the common good. Little is said about core values like shared resources on which we are mutually dependent. That is because economic forces want those values defined in the marketplace.
Overwhelmingly, the people not involved in every day public policy decision making which affect their lives believe the environment is a common good to which each is entitled and which no one is allowed to degrade. They are shocked when it is proposed that there is a right to pollute or the public does not have the right to know the nature of pollution in their communities.
They are incredulous when told that there are those who would pollute the air they breathe or the water they drink because there is insufficient evidence of the impact of that pollution on health or welfare. And they get angry when they are told that the environment is something which can be used until it's demonstrated that use is abuse.
In America, we have a saying that "all politics is local." In fact, most people express their political opinions in the context of their community. This is particularly true with respect to environmental issues.
Few people become involved as environmental activists because of eclectic scientific analyses of incremental changes in our biosphere brought about by man's activities. Rather, they become outraged because of personal proximity of an incinerator or a nuclear power plant or a highway.
Of course, they can become energized when a charismatic megafauna (that's what they call big birds and beasts) becomes endangered. Clearly, there is outrage when pictures are shown of baby seals being clubbed to death. But almost without exception localized environmental insult will more than likely bring people to the altar of environmental activism.
Unfortunately, today, at least in the United States and I suspect in much of the industrialized world, there are fewer and fewer of those raw invasions in neighborhoods and communities which trigger a massive public outcry. More sophisticated public relations and great attention to avoidance of quantifiable impacts have become the norm for extractive private and government entities.
Today, it takes years to site a new incinerator, locate a new road or build a new waste treatment plant. We don't build new nuclear power plants, nor do we build new large hydroelectric dams. The opposition is just too overwhelming. So, without these visible manifestations of the need to be environmentally vigilant, the public -- citizens -- our voters -- have become complacent.
The public assumes that, absent controversy or visible insult, all is well. And to engage the citizenry in debate about more catastrophic but significantly less evident threats is a virtual impossibility. Most people are just too busy raising a family, earning two incomes, attending to their leisure time to become involved on issues which matter sometime in someone else's future.
Historically, government has assumed the responsibility to understand and prepare for threats to social order or survival that are real but which cannot be characterized or quantified in a timeframe which the public can comprehend. Thus, for example, the other day 2,400 scientists petitioned the President of the United States to act firmly on global warming. And nation states are trying to respond collectively to this threat.
The overwhelming consensus of the international scientific community is that we are on a collision course with our ever-increasing dispersion of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And, yet, there is no reality to this issue which can focus the minds of the public such that they become sufficiently alarmed to demand action.
At the same time, those economic interests who understand that aggressive action to deal with global warming will have profound effects on the way business is done in the future have already mobilized to challenge the science of global warming. They have organized politically to challenge decision makers who might want to anticipate the threat in time to respond. And they are attaching effectively the "chicken little" characterization to those who say we must act now.
Nearly 30 years ago, when Senator Muskie wrote our first clean air and clean water laws, his philosophy was that we needed to act based on what we didn't know but what we suspected lest we wait too long and find out what we suspected was reality.
Senator Muskie didn't know in 1970 that the number of cars driven and the number of miles driven and the number of gallons of gasoline consumed in America would increase exponentially. He only knew that if then-present trends continued, the best guess was that auto emissions would have to be reduced by 90 percent to achieve healthy air.
It turns out, of course, he was wrong. It turns out that as much as a 100 percent reduction in auto pollution will be required if healthy air is to be achieved in some of America's cities.
But let's just pause and think for a moment what the cities of the industrialized world would be like today if Senator Muskie hadn't acted on the basis of what he suspected, not what he could prove -- if he had waited for irrefutable, conclusive scientific evidence.
Just think what the cities of the industrialized world would look like today if 20 years ago, when the auto industry demanded those pollution controls be relaxed, Senator Muskie had said okay.
Thirty years ago, epidemiology was a 20th century version of witchcraft. Today, it's a science. Thirty years ago, people didn't talk about environment and ecology. They talked about pollution.
Thirty years ago, people didn't talk about recycling and resource recovery and pollution prevention and conservation. They only talked about how expensive it was going to be to change current practices.
And yet, 30 years ago, because a few great men (and it was all men 30 years ago) decided we couldn't wait for the pollution problem to solve itself -- we couldn't wait until we knew all the answers -- we embarked on a great adventure which has led to incredible technological change, massive pollution control and significant public health protection.
Senator Muskie and his colleagues 30 years ago bought this planet time -- time to come to grips with the threat to the patina of atmosphere -- the air we breathe, to our limited supply of potable water, to our decreasing acres of arable land -- time to prove that these resources have value beyond generations that must be protected.
The challenge now is whether that time will be used by this generation to protect the rights of generations yet to come -- because it is protection of those rights that we will ensure justice to our children and to our children's children.
Or we may commit crimes against the environment for which our generation will not be held accountable, but for which generations yet to come will pay the penalty.
Copyright ©2002, The Edmund S. Muskie Foundation. All Rights Reserved.