by Leon G. Billings
April 28, 1998
I AM A POLITICIAN by profession; an historian by avocation. In the latter context, I recently read two new books on the Lewis and Clark expedition and once again was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of their mission -- to cross the continent without vast communications technology -- without the capacity to communicate with the people they met -- without even knowing the nature of their ultimate objective.
I recalled my view of new frontiers when the John F. Kennedy campaign used the slogan "The New Frontier." When I left Montana to "make a difference" in Washington, DC, I really believed there were no new frontiers for my generation -- the new frontiers were all gone.
How wrong I was!
Today there are new frontiers in science and technology -- in learning to survive in a complex global system -- space and oceans and uncharted ecosystems -- and even in public policy.
Ed Muskie discovered and charted a new frontier in public policy. He explored it. He mapped it. He articulated it.
Like Lewis and Clark's Core of Discovery who brought back maps; and journals; and knowledge, Muskie left his new frontier for the Next Generation to settle.
Tonight I have been asked to join the generation of Environmental Discovery with the Next Generation -- to reach across from my new frontier to your new frontier.
I promise you not to be objective. I won't even be gentle, because I believe those who now want to set a new course have a clear burden to defend that course -- and with more than new cliches.
To set the stage for this evening's remarks, I would like to step back thirty five years.
Imagine, if you would, creating an entire new body of public policy.
When Ed Muskie laid out the nation's framework for protection of the human environment, it was the political equivalent of splitting the atom. Not only did Edmund Muskie change the course of our history, he established a framework and a set of objectives which has been adopted globally.
In a sense, Ed Muskie came to the politics of the environment by accident, but that philosophy evolved from his experience as Governor of Maine. Personal experience and interest made him a conservationist. Politics made him an environmentalist.
As a citizen, he was a hunter and a fisherman. He loved the woods. He loved the privacy of fishing. As Governor, he learned that pollution inhibited economic development.
When Senator Muskie started the environmental revolution, he had no real legislative precedents; and those that existed, he did not feel bound by.
Not only were there no federal environmental regulations on the books, there were no books on federal environmental regulations.
There was a paucity of information on pollution effects and very little scientific investigation.
There were very few state laws and, as would be expected, those few state laws targeted problems specific to that state.
The occasional fish kill, river fire or public health threat caused a disaster-like government reaction. But, for the most part, government's role was limited to crisis intervention, not regulation or enforcement.
In 1966, when I joined the Senator, the federal government's role was limited to research on the nature of environmental problems. There wasn't even a federal Clean Water grant program.
There was very little discussion of the science of pollution. We dealt with only the most common of pollutants -- BOD, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. For the most part, the public's concern and the regulators' focus was on gross emission and gross emitters. Pollution control technology was rudimentary at best. Pollution was viewed as a public health, not an environmental, problem.
We operated under the scientifically unproved assumption that rivers with no assimilative capacity or skies so dirty that the sun was blotted out-- were polluted.
And even then, though the Chamber of Commerce wanted to argue that point, most of Senator Muskie's colleagues were inclined to agree with that unscientific conclusion.
I wanted to start where Senator Muskie began because I believe setting a new environmental agenda must be preceded by understanding how the initial agenda was established.
Senator Muskie was a politician and an opportunist. He saw the opportunity to be bold on the environment. He saw the opportunity to be bold on the budget. He saw the opportunity to be bold with the War Powers Act. He saw the opportunity to be bold with government sunshine laws. He saw the opportunity to be bold with historic preservation. And he knew that politics was the means to achieve bold initiatives.
He may have been the most bold -- the most creative -- and productive -- legislator in the 20th Century.
The Muskie environmental agenda was political. Muskie's role in it was political. The timing was political. His success was political.
So, however you view my profession, it is important to understand that Ed Muskie came from a generation of Americans who believed -- and proved -- positive change would and could be achieved through political involvement. I am a product of that belief.
It was politics which caused Hubert Humphrey to pick Ed Muskie to be his Vice Presidential running mate in 1968. It was politics that made Ed Muskie the front runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972. And it was politics which caused:
It was politics which caused Ed Muskie to take advantage of a series of air pollution episodes from New York to California in the summer of 1970 to shape a policy which would be the center of public controversy for the rest of this century and would create a worldwide industry.
The decision to set in the law mandatory statutory deadlines and standards to achieve environmental objectives triggered a comprehensive, radical change in national and global environmental policy -- with bipartisan and unanimous support. This one decision was driven by politicians making political judgments.
There was no precedent for a Federal statute mandating either standards or deadlines in any area of public policy -- the practice was for Congress to outline policy objectives and let bureaucrats make the tough decisions -- but, in the instant case, Muskie wanted to be certain that air pollution associated with automobiles would be eliminated as much as he wanted to regain the political initiative from Richard Nixon.
The most important point is, however, that a major, new, radical, national policy was initiated by members of the United States Senate because they saw the merit -- the political value -- in establishing an aggressive and unprecedented public policy.
I underscore the political nature of what we did because today there are so many who believe it will be more polite and more effective to deal with environmental problems devoid of the element of politics.
Nothing could be more naive; less realistic. Whatever the Next Generation wants or expects, the process is and will be political. The timing is and will be political. And the result will be political.
Next Generation commentators want to utilize new means to achieve environmental goals -- alternatives to something called "command and control" -- as much as they seem to want to accomplish these goals outside the messy world of politics.
Before I talk about my specific problems with this consensus approach to environmental policy, let me elaborate on my prejudice with what appears to be this fundamental "new" approach to environmental protection and to what Ed Muskie crafted.
New Generationists use the term market-based strategies, including, under this rubric, the panoply of so-called Next Generation approaches to the achievement of environmental goals. The Muskie Generation cleared the environmental frontier with "command and control."
Now we are told market mechanisms are good. Command and control is bad.
Market mechanisms rely on private sector decisions on how best to achieve environmental goals. Command and control relies on government ordered pollution reductions.
Market mechanisms eliminate the need for large bureaucracies which interfere with corporate judgement on environmental investment priorities. Command and control depends on an adversarial relationship between government and business to force investment in and compliance with "one size fits all" rules. Market-based strategies are flexible! Command and control is rigid!
The most important difference is, however, we know command and control works. We have no similar evidence for market-based strategies.
When business representatives, academics and think tanks tell me that shared environmental objectives can be achieved through ill-defined market mechanisms, my immediate unerring reaction is: consider the source. And, after all, who is that source but the Chamber of Commerce; the NAM; and a ton of conservative think tanks.
This talk of cost benefit analysis, pollution credits and risk assessments are new terms to characterize a philosophy of environmental regulation Ed Muskie rejected in 1970 when he eliminated regulatory reliance on feasibility determinations because they were impediments to regulatory progress. He decided the government had to set the standards and polluters would either meet them with current technology, invent new technology or get out of the business.
The alternatives espoused by many New Generationists is to recognize a right to pollute.
I don't think so. The Muskie school taught that pollution was only allowed because of the inability to eliminate the discharge of pollution, not because polluters owned air or water -- which they now want to trade or sell!
To the First Generation, pollution was a by-product of technological inadequacy. To today's think tank and business advocates, pollution is something that is controlled only when economic to do so; or, even more rarely, when there is uncontested, incontrovertible evidence of a direct adverse affect on the health of the average man.
This entire debate on market mechanisms is intended to avoid cost by avoiding investment, whether the pollution is tropospheric ozone or global climate change, farm runoff or toxic discharges.
The goal of the mavens of market mechanisms who have coined negative terms like "command and control" and "one size fits all" is to discredit the legal framework on which real pollution reduction is premised.
Almost like magic, new market techniques will reduce pollution, eliminate wasted investment and change the adversarial relationship between government and business.
The Center for the Study of American Business, which preaches marketplace alternatives to government regulations, calls the advocates of command and control "neosocialists."
And here I thought I was just an advocate of "controlled capitalism."
Their goal is to eliminate regulation and, in so doing, eliminate the economic costs regulation imposes.
Most of you have seen the residual of uncontrolled enterprise. There are abandoned industrial waste lands in every major city; landscapes permanently scarred in every resource rich region of America; stripped land for forests and mines in every nation; fetid air in cities throughout the world; and poisoned rivers, streams and coastal bays wherever man has gathered -- all classic examples of market mechanisms at work.
Pollution control costs too much at home; let's find a foreign country with greater economic need and exploit a new environment. Or, let's find an economically disadvantaged community here at home: they'll take our waste and not complain about a little dirt in the air or the water.
According to a recent Washington Post report, "Nearly seven out of 10 of the biologists polled said they believed a 'mass extinction' [of plants and animals] was underway, and an equal number predicted that up to one-fifth of all living species could disappear within 30 years. Nearly all attributed the losses to human activity, especially the destruction of plant and animal habitats."
How will market mechanisms, risk assessment and environmental credits deal with this reality? They won't. Only an engaged and enraged public will -- through politics. Mark my words: It will take command and control to reverse this disaster.
I understand why a business person would like to find ways to avoid, delay or reduce environmental costs. That is the nature of capitalism. Conversely, I don't have much patience for academics and non company-kept think tanks which are suckered into believing that this anticipated business instinct has policy merit.
I have not read all of the chapters in Thinking Ecologically. I have read several. Much of what I have said thus far is a reaction to the implication in several essays -- and to a general tenor of public debate -- that somehow we are going to reinvent environmental protection through cooperation, trust, a faith in the market system -- to the theory that an environmentally educated entrepreneur will just do the right thing.
Beyond my visceral reaction to that idea, there are three more compelling problems raised by the collection of essays. First, there is a process question. Why were there no politicians -- elected officials -- involved among the contributors to the Next Generation initiative? The "pool of experts" include almost all imaginable affected interests except the public through their elected representatives.
Who else is there to speak for the public but those who must have their contract renewed every two, four or six years? But, apparently, their input was not solicited.
Oh, I know politicians are a problem because we make such a mess of things by injecting politics into decisions that otherwise should and could be made by wise people unfettered by that infuriatingly meddlesome bunch we call "the public."
But what is politics if not the means by which people in a civilized society affect things which are otherwise beyond their influence or control?
The second troubling aspect of Thinking Ecologically is its implicit anti-government bias. The underlying assumption of the call for a new approach to pollution control in the Next Generation is that government is an ineffective and inappropriate instrument for dealing with environmental problems -- which leads to the inescapable conclusion that too much politics -- too much government is the problem.
I don't think so. I believe government must be the instrument of the public interest. I believe politicians are the means to assure government performs its public advocacy function.
Why has virtually every federal and state law written since the Clean Air Act of 1967 reduced the flexibility of bureaucrats to compromise standards, deadlines, penalties and reports? It is not as Thinking Ecologically would suggest: that government is too invasive. It is that the public, as reflected by elected officials, does not approve of the environmental compromises government makes in response to special interests.
If the public knew what a regulatory negotiation is -- a reg neg -- they would be outraged.
In another life, I do extensive research on voter attitudes. The singular greatest complaint about government is that it is too responsive to special interests; that environmental laws are not enforced vigorously enough; that the public interest is too often compromised -- not that government is trying to do too much and that environmental rules are placing unacceptable burdens on themselves or their employers. In fact, the voters say their real concern is the inconsistency in application of the law as a result of lawyers and lobbyists which creates an uneven and thus unfair application of the law.
A third problem with Thinking Ecologically is falling into the trap of questioning the adequacy of the scientific basis for environmental regulatory policy. Today the NAM and their allies' principal argument against new environmental regulation is the absence of clear, convincing, irrefutable scientific evidence of cause and effect relationships. Absent that evidence, business-oriented Next Generation environmentalists want an economic test: they want regulatory policy to recognize the trade-off between economic uncertainty and environmental cost and give the benefit of the doubt to the economic impact.
Let me quote from the Earth Day remarks of the President of the United States Chamber of Commerce: "Where common sense, cooperation and pragmatism should prevail, they [environmental regulators] seem content to rely on the most provocative sound bite, the scariest headline and the squishiest science."
He would never stipulate, however, that, if compelling scientific evidence exists, the result should be elimination of the business practice, prohibition on the product, termination of the manufacturing operation.
Some of the commentators who would substitute the irrefutable evidence/economic tradeoff for command and control still argue that it was wrong to ban DDT.
Fortunately, this is not a debate for academics or think tanks funded by special interests. It is a debate for politicians to be conducted in the political arena. The rules of the debate are relatively simple if the consequences are not. At the heart of the issue is what to do in the face of whatever level of ignorance the policy makers confront.
The options are over-control on the assumption that future evidence will justify the investment or under-control on the assumption that the economic benefits will outweigh any later determined risks to public health and welfare.
To date, the American public has opted for over-control. They have said that they would rather have the security associated with investments based on limited scientific knowledge than take the risk of insufficient investment based on limited knowledge.
In the new millennium, politicians will be asked to address the kinds of questions on which Ed Muskie forced decisions 30 years ago.
Maybe there will be a New Generation of Issues -- a New Generation of Ideas.
Maybe there will be a New Generation of approaches to environmental protection. But these new issues, ideas and approaches will be dealt with in a political process.
So, before we embark on this new ecologicalism, let me suggest that those who are looking for a more genteel debate first become involved in governance. For, absent a revolt which puts think tanks, academics or corporate lawyers and lobbyists in charge, these matters will be addressed in the halls of the legislatures and the Congress and in the corridors of the city and county councils and in the offices of the bureaucrats.
In our system this means those with the most resources who purchase the best science and can afford the best advocate will surely more likely prevail unless the public is closely joined to the debate. And the only avenue for that participation is politics.
The premises of the Next Generation, simply stated, are vastly oversimplified. H.L. Mencken once said that for every complex problem there is an equally simple solution which is almost invariably wrong.
Government does serve a purpose. Government exists to temper the extremes of those who shape the village common. Government is an instrument by which the body politic becomes involved to provide for the common good. And good government is often complicated, tedious and sometimes just plain wrong.
Let me conclude with these thoughts:
I am intrigued by the notion that we can accomplish environmental objectives through education, with market style incentives and mechanisms, and other nonconfrontational or nonadversarial approaches.
I do not doubt the value of this religious approach to achieving environmental objectives. Clearly, the more sacred various publics hold the environment to be, the better served we will all be.
I do not doubt the value of education to achieve and maintain environmental quality. Clearly and obviously, the corporate executive of the next century will be much more sensitive to the implications of environmental misbehavior than were his predecessors in the last century. One would expect virtually every corporate executive to describe herself as an environmentalist.
But there is an assumption in this religious approach to the future of global environmental protection. That assumption is that the profit motive will take second place to identified or expected environmental insult.
I have now been involved in controversies surrounding environmental protection for 35 years.
I have met the new CEOs who call themselves environmentalists -- a few as clients. And I think I can assert with great certainty that not one of those executives is prepared to sacrifice the bottom line to protect a species, reduce an emission or save a wetland.
Short of a determination that the potential exposure to financial or public relations liability exceeds the economic value of the activity, efforts which impose other than minimal costs to control that activity will be resisted.
Thinking Ecologically has all kinds of new terms to describe ways to avoid regulation driven demand for essential environmental controls.
Today it is risk benefit analysis. Twenty five years ago it was cost effectiveness, economic feasibility and technological availability.
Today the corporate executive or the trade association lobbyist first challenges the science on which the issue is based. When that argument fails, they suggest that the technology to achieve the objective is not available. And when that no longer works, we hear how expensive compliance will be compared to the benefits to be achieved.
There is nothing new here. Only the manner is more urbane; more sophisticated. The opponents are less confrontational. They act through lawyers and lobbyists, rented economists and scientists.
But the name of the game is still profit; short-term return; and constant growth. The task of government is still public protection. And the task of politicians is to make sure government works without overburdening our economic engine.
CONTENTS: Introduction - About the Foundation - The Founder
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