The Evolution of Environmental Policy - Part 1

By Otis Graham
Volume 11, Number 2 (Winter 2000-2001)
Issue theme: "America and Great Britan: common past - shared future?"

Environmental policy is about fixing a problem - a large, complex, foundational problem. From the l960s to the end of the century the United States engaged this problem on a wider scale and with more energy than ever before, as a part of a global, multi-national effort in this direction. Seen from our experience and vantage, what are the prospects ahead of humanity and Nature in the ongoing negotiation of our relationship?

Serious thought on this question usually begins not with historical inquiry but with reports from technology and the natural and social sciences, disciplines that habitually project events and trends ahead. But projecting likely futures also turns out to involve history, since formulating educated guesses about what lies ahead requires us to estimate what momentum and direction we have already established strongly enough to shape that future. The two broad schools of opinion on tomorrow have been called the Cornucopian and the Malthusian, labels which exaggerate the bias of the extreme ends of debate. Let us use the terms eco-optimists, people who wind up cheerful after they concede that there are a few problems, and eco-pessimists, who see bad outcomes but still believe that something can be done, or they would not be speaking.

The conviction that the American environment offered an inexhaustible resource was of course the primal assumption shaping our national history. Pessimism about using things up came later, the chief voices including George Perkins Marsh (Man And Nature. l864), Frederick Jackson Turner's thoughts on the implications of the discovery in the Census of l890 that the era of the frontier was over, the warnings of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and others in the first and second Conservation movements (who were usually optimists at bottom). The alarm-sounding books by Vogt and Osborn in l948, and Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Frontier (l952), touched on the U.S. only as part of a global crisis of population pressing upon depleting resources, and were influential among a limited readership. The Sixties cranked up virtually every concern to a higher volume and larger audiences, and the reception of Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (l968) - selling over a million copies in paperback, Ehrlich being interviewed in Playboy magazine and receiving wide media attention - gave the message of ecocrisis a mass audience. 'The battle to feed all of humanity is over,' Ehrlich wrote, predicting the deaths of l00s of millions of people in famines across the l970s and mounting pressure upon resources and environment even in affluent societies like the U.S. The Club of Rome's best-selling The Limits To Growth (l972), written by a team of MIT scholars led by Dennis L. Meadows, offered a melancholy projection of population pressure, resource depletion and pollution that described a grim global slide over the next three decades into 'a dismal and depleted existence,' a miserable condition which they called 'overshoot and collapse.' Eight years later the U.S. government came out in broad agreement. Global 2000, an inter-agency report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter and published in l980, reported that 'if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.'1

A counterattack against this strong current of Eco-pessimism was predictable. Offer an idea that receives wide public attention in America and people will piggy-back into the limelight by providing an opposite view. Further, optimism runs deep in American history, and tends to assert itself when gloom is expressed. More important, one implication of the forecasts of ecocrisis was criticism of and demands for curbs on growth, a sentiment fundamentally and deeply alarming to the business community and other elements of American society. Another reason for stiff resistance to the very idea of Eco-pessimism is its implication that there must be a larger role for government in regulating resource uses, waste disposal, even procreation. 'Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon' in the area of human fertility was the recommendation, and 'freedom in a commons brings ruin to all' a memorable line, in University of California biologist Garrett Hardin's widely discussed and reprinted l968 article, 'The Tragedy of the Commons.' 'Free market' loyalists sensed dangerous implications - government intrusion into land and resource use, perhaps even the bedroom. A final factor attracting criticism was that the pessimists sometimes predicted with too much specificity and enthusiasm, and some of the bad things forecast did not happen, or did not happen on anything like the scale or as soon, as foreseen. 'The Prophet Paul,' as one writer dubbed Ehrlich, had indeed said in a magazine interview that 'our large polluting population is responsible for air pollution that could very easily lead to massive starvation in the U.S. within the next two decades,' and 'I believe we're facing the brink because of population pressures.'2 And Paul and William Paddock did predict mass starvation in China 'within five or ten years' in their Famine - 1975!.

Enter the �Eco-optimists'

To all of this the eco-optimists responded with a spirited critique and rebuttal. One of the earliest to emerge was to become a polarizing figure who went beyond skeptical questioning of the ecopessimists to assert an almost religious belief that more growth and more people were the formula not for disaster but for a rosy future. This was Julian Simon, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois until, 'in the midst of a depression of unusual duration,' he found healing in a conversion to the cause of 'having more children and taking in more immigrants.'3 He then moved to Washington, D.C. and began a productive and influential career as the leading eco-optimist. In a cascade of essays, public appearances, and books (principally The Ultimate Resource (l981)), Simon reversed every argument of the environmentalists. What was needed was more population which would bring us more Mozarts and Einsteins, building the knowledge and genius sufficient to solve environmental problems. 'There is no meaningful physical limit - even the commonly mentioned weight of the Earth - to our capacity to keep growing forever,' was one of Simon's most reprinted remarks, as well as his paraphrase of the Global 2000 conclusion 'If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded, less polluted, more stable ecologically and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now.'4

The Eco-optimist point of view had many more voices, often located in Think Tanks such as the Heritage Foundation or Cato whose support came from pro-capitalist foundations, corporations, and individuals. But the vulnerability of some of the language and predictions of the pessimists drew many and independent rebuttals. Journalist Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment On the Earth (l995) brought together an immense literature on environmental problems which he interpreted to mean that we were in fact winning the battle to preserve the environment. The air was cleaner, pollution is shrinking and will soon end, global warming is 'almost certain to be avoided,' and doomsday thinking is 'nonsensical.' Environmentalists should stop 'proclaiming emergencies that do not exist.'5

This was the core of the Eco-optimist critique, that those they liked to ridicule as 'the Doomsters' had vastly underestimated the power of our institutions to respond to problems. Market economies signal the pain of shortages or pollution, and mobilize the energies of capitalism, science and technology toward substitutes and remedies, innovating around problems. The predicted massive famines in the l970s did not materialize, in this view, because science and technology launched the 'Green Revolution' in agriculture, producing an unprecedented increase in yields. The oil shortages of the l970s yielded to oil glut by the l990s, and most minerals were not moving into shortage. Our institutions for generating innovation were coping quite well with global environmental-resource problems, and the Doomsters, like their Founder Parson Thomas Malthus, were wrong on their predictions because they misunderstood and underestimated both those institutions and humanity's ability to change behavior when it led to negative consequences. Rapid economic progress, not curbs on growth, promise to produce the resources, mental and physical, to remedy the problems in the humanity-Nature relation.6

The most sophisticated as well as history-based of such arguments came in the Summer, l996 issue of Daedalus, in a symposium entitled 'Liberation of the Environment.' Editor of the symposium Jesse Ausubel in a lead essay pulled together the volume's several themes. Science and technology 'can now ... liberate the environment from human impact.' This confidence came not from hopes for tomorrow's miracle inventions so much as from an extrapolation of trends that technology had already launched. 'The historical record reveals that for two hundred years the world has progressively lightened its energy diet' by moving from wood through coal and oil toward natural gas, with the effect that 'the energy system is freeing itself from carbon' and moving toward a 'hydrogen economy.' Agriculture is spacially contracting and thus sparing the land. Industrial products are becoming lighter, smaller, produced with less waste. Social learning has reduced population excesses before, and may be expected to do so again. The several authors pursued these themes of 'decarbonization' and 'dematerialization' across centuries, toward reassuring conclusions.7

Thus history, interpreted in a certain way, provided a base from which the Daedalus authors constructed a narrative with an optimistic tilt at the end of the 20th Century, amid so much bad news about world population growth, Global Warming, deforestation, and much else. Another element glimpsed here and there in the essays deserved more emphasis - the arrival on the scene of a new ally, capitalist enterprise itself, once imaged as the smoke-belching polluter, but in the l980s and l990s seen to be waving green banners and joining the environmentalist army.

Business Takes Up �Greening'

It was difficult to determine the depth or full effect of 'the Greening of business,' a phrase that can mean several different things. In the U.S., there is considerable evidence that a growing number of corporations have moved from grudging compliance with the encircling local, state and Federal environmental regulations, and have begun to aggressively seek competitive advantage through 'greening' the entire corporation. This may mean redesigning production processes so as to minimize and recycle wastes, economize on energy use, design products that can be advertised to the growing number of 'green' consumers as somehow 'environmentally friendly,' strike up alliances with well- known environmental organizations to jointly brainstorm less polluting and energy-saving ways of making products - or all of the above. DuPont developed a fabric made of cornstarch rather than polyester, Electrolux markets solar-powered lawn mowers and saws lubricated with vegetable oil, Interface (an Atlanta-based carpeting company) launched a 'drive to zero waste' campaign and reported cost savings of $25 million, MacDonald's linked up with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce fast- food waste and shift away from styrofoam packaging - these are a brief sample of stories from the media in the l990s. When the global warming issue moved toward the international conference at Kyoto in l997, energy industry lobbyists worked hard to dismiss the issue as unfounded, but a coalition of major companies including 3M, British Petroleum, Boeing, and several insurance companies accepted climate change as a serious threat, and lobbied for government-led action.8

Other evidence of a rising interest in a proactive corporate approach to environmental interactions was a stream of articles in the business press (such as 'What Does It Mean To Be Green?', Harvard Business Review, July-Aug., l99l) and the rapid expansion of environmental management courses in American business schools ('Tree-Hugging Takes Root in B-Schools,' announced Eco magazine in l994).

The scholarly literature on the greening (or non-greening) of business is growing but is still small, and it is too early to gain a reliable sense of how deep the corporate concern for environmental impacts goes or what difference it is making. The EPA's annual Toxics Release Inventory (required by a l986 law) showed in l996 that toxic emissions from over 25,000 reporting manufacturing firms had declined 44% since the inventory began, allowing one to conclude that fear of penalties under tough governmental regulations may be producing proactive, 'green' management practices inside the corporation. The giant auto industry moves toward an electric car, prodded hard by state and national air quality regulations and assisted by government R&D. Firms like 3M, Monsanto and Weyerhauser decorate their annual reports and occasional paid advertisements with hard facts about waste reductions and efforts to restore damaged habitat going far beyond what the law requires. But these are large Fortune 500 firms, and those who live downwind from medium-sized paper plants or downstream from manufacturing facilities and enormous hog producing and slaughtering installations (as this author does) retain a healthy skepticism that the Dirty Corporate Polluter is becoming extinct. The EPA's annual toxic inventory only covers some 600 chemicals, self-reported from less than 30 percent of American industrial operations, and its somewhat reassuring data may be misleading. And Monsanto Corporation, portraying itself as Green, is under critical scrutiny (along with rival DuPont) as the world's leading genetic food company utilizing biotechnology to engineer superseeds making supercrops. These giant corporations seem poised to become a vital part of the solution to the problem of feeding humanity without enlarging agricultural acreage, or sources of unprecedented chaos through genetic pollution in the plant world - or both. Scientific and political uncertainty in the area of genetic engineering of crops could hardly be higher.9

Nonetheless, there can be no denying that strong incentives are altering business attitudes toward their environmental impacts. The environment outside the American-based firm as the century ends not only includes the land, water and air beckoning as a dump for waste and source of the natural resources to be removed and turned into products. It also now includes a rising number of consumers drawn to 'green' products and potentially ready to boycott firms tagged with a Brown reputation or event; environment-oriented investors; a media eager to report noxious emissions or toxic accidents; a swarm of environmental groups skilled in public relations and lobbying; and, since the early l970s, a structure of law and regulation intended to protect the environment. The Greening of American Business is now a train moving on the tracks, and since manufacturing corporations account for 40 percent of GNP, their active and positive participation in the search for a lighter human impact on the earth is essential for progress. We should wish for as much evidence of a greening of management practices and attitudes among the other major polluters - the military, municipal sewage and solid waste bureaucracies, agriculture, tourism, and the great American suburban commuter coming home to carry out the garbage and spread a fertilizer-herbicide combination on his green lawn.

The �Great Wagers'

Was the counter-argument of the Eco-optimists against the Eco-pessimists convincing? The outcomes of a bizarre wager launched in the l980s by the man the media came to call 'the rosy economist,' Julian Simon, was taken by some as a qualified Yes.10 On second thought, it seems to point the other way.

Simon believed that the Eco-pessimists were not just often wrong here and there, predicting too much pain too early, but were in all cases and always 180 degrees wrong. For Simon, everything was getting better - resources more abundant and cheaper, population growth bringing us more geniuses to help solve problems, the environment actually moving toward health. So in l980 he offered to bet any environmental scientist that commodity prices for a basket of five metals would fall over the next ten years, reflecting the trend toward resource abundance and the truth of Simon's claim that humanity 'would never run out of anything.' Paul Ehrlich and two University of California, Berkeley physicists bet Simon a total of $l,000. The price of three of the five metals went down, two up, and Simon received a check for $576 (the average decline of the five prices) in l990 and claimed victory.11

About the author

Otis L. Graham, Jr., Ph.D., is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of A Limited Bounty - The U.S. Since World War II. This essay is reprinted by permission from the Journal of Political History published by Pennsylvania State University, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000.

For more information, see the Otis Graham website.