SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
May 05, 1980
The Environmental Decade is past, but is environmentalism passé? A status report
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May 05, 1980

Whither The Earth?

The Environmental Decade is past, but is environmentalism passé? A status report

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A study by the National Resources Defense Council of one batch of environmental lawsuits reveals that industry brought virtually as many of them as environmentalists did. Indeed, Michael McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club, suggests that the true obstructionists are not environmentalists but companies that seek to delay or avoid compliance with the law—and are thus responsible themselves for much of the regulatory confusion they complain about. The case of Minnesota's Reserve Mining Company is instructive. Pressed for nearly a quarter of a century to stop polluting Lake Superior with ore wastes of a type believed to cause cancer, the company refused, arguing that ceasing the practice would force it to shut its doors. Reserve Mining finally ended the controversial dumping this March—and remains in business. A lot of costly litigation could have been avoided had it acted years earlier.

Even when environmental laws injure a particular company, or indeed, an entire industry, it doesn't necessarily follow that they harm the U.S. economy as a whole. Consider inflation. President Carter has said that pollution control causes less inflation than commonly supposed—his Council on Environmental Quality has estimated the figure to be, at the very most, 0.4% a year—and results in a net gain in employment: jobs created by construction of sewage plants and manufacture of antipollution equipment more than compensated for those lost to environmental crackdowns.

Next, take productivity. Although the higher costs and regulatory paper shuffling caused by environmental laws have in some cases hurt productivity, environmentalists contend that this is offset by productivity gains attributable to those same laws. The idea that protecting the environment can yield benefits was advanced 200 years ago when the Benthamites pointed out that the output of English factories would increase if the cholera and smallpox afflicting workers could be eradicated. Last week the President's Council on Environmental Quality reported that while the cost of complying with federal air-pollution standards in 1978 was an estimated $16 billion, the resulting benefits—in reduced crop damage, savings in industrial cleanup costs and the like—amounted to at least $21.4 billion. And this doesn't consider possible savings in medical expenses, wages lost to illness or the likelihood that if money isn't spent to protect the environment today, far more will have to be spent to save it tomorrow.

Environmentalists maintain that curbing pollution may involve a redistribution of wealth, but not necessarily a reduction in that wealth. It is frequently claimed that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world, and this, environmentalists say, is unquestionably true of growth based on waste and go-for-broke production. Growth geared to recycling and maintenance is another matter. As David Brower says, "I'd like to see the auto industry get behind making products last longer, not just keep on producing. And can you imagine the oil companies applying their managerial skills to cleaning up toxic wastes?"

Rechanneling growth into the areas Brower suggests would probably involve adoption of hefty tax incentives and other inducements, a requirement that seems less startling when one remembers that over the years government, in effect, has underwritten pollution by means of generous highway-construction budgets and oil-depletion allowances and by granting tax writeoffs for even the most profligate economic expansion. In some sectors of the economy, such a change would require more regulation, but Gus Speth, chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, says unflinchingly, "That's what regulation is. It slows down certain segments of the economy while speeding up others."

The dream of an environmentally benign economy depends in large measure on how the raging battle over national energy policy is resolved. Given the political and economic realities now confronting them, environmentalists may be deluding themselves when it comes to energy. Barring new technological breakthroughs in developing alternative energy sources or a dramatic reduction in America's traditional high-energy diet, the scramble to replace foreign oil will probably, for the foreseeable future, require tapping virtually all possible domestic sources, including existing nuclear plants and substantial quantities of coal and domestic oil. The nation simply dares not risk running out of the energy needed to provide electricity to cities and to maintain its industrial and military capacity. "It's like Tarzan," says former Oregon Governor Tom McCall. "He better make damn sure that if he lets loose from one branch, he has another to swing to." Yet this need not be an excuse for ignoring environmental considerations; on the contrary, the necessity of using nuclear power is all the more reason to do everything possible to make it safer. Similarly, coal can be produced and burned as cleanly as possible. The same goes for synthetic fuels and oil.

At the same time, the U.S. can turn, wherever possible, to energy alternatives that are already safer and cleaner. It is a cliché these days that all energy inevitably involves risk, a truism that obscures the fact that some choices are riskier than others. Just as some environmentalists may overestimate the hazards inherent in conventional energy, so the utilities, oil companies and nuclear interests frequently underestimate them. An obvious example: the nuclear industry's longstanding assurances that there was no possibility of the kind of frightening accident that subsequently occurred at Three Mile Island. Another: a study by an organization largely financed by the oil industry, the impressively named Gulf Universities Research Consortium, purporting to show that the seepage routinely caused by offshore drilling does no harm to marine life. But a number of prominent marine biologists dispute that conclusion. One of them, Dr. Howard Sanders of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institute, has painstakingly reviewed the study and found methodological inadequacies, including the fact that the "control site" was itself affected by years of oil drilling. Research by Sanders and other biologists suggests that drilling invariably causes chronic, low-level damage to marine life.

The inescapable fact is this: to the extent that the U.S. seeks to satisfy its energy needs with conventional fuels, the environment will suffer. In the case of domestic oil, reserves are dwindling and further exploration may have dire ecological results. Most remaining onshore oil is heavy crude, extractable only by steam-injection processes that severely pollute the air. And offshore deposits tend to be on the outer continental shelves, a forbidding environment in which drilling is arduous, increasing the chances not only of low-level damage, but also of blowouts. Coal is plentiful, especially in the West, but producing it on the scale foreseen by the President would involve strip-mining some of the country's most breathtaking landscapes. Burning it would likely increase acid rain and exacerbate the greenhouse effect; it could cast a pall that an alarmed Peter Grove, legislative director of the National Park Service, likens to "pulling a curtain across nature's stage." Synthetic fuel, derived largely from coal and oil shale, is troubling, too. Processing it threatens to turn canyons into rubble, deplete water supplies and leach carcinogens into groundwater. And synfuels would, in most cases, be even dirtier to burn than coal. Finally, there is nuclear power, whose potential for devastation, in case of accident, was dramatically underscored at Three Mile Island, and whose increasingly plentiful wastes are difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of safely.

As alternatives to conventional energy, environmentalists generally favor development of renewable sources—wood, wind power, the sun and the animal and vegetable wastes known as biomass. To be sure, renewables can exact a high environmental toll of their own. The harvesting and burning of wood causes pollution, while the use of grain and other crops to produce automobile fuel can exact enormous social cost by reducing quantities available for food. But because they replenish themselves relatively quickly, as a general rule renewables are environmentally less disruptive than fossils or nuclear power.

Those who beat the drums for conventional energy try to convey the impression that their fortunes are inextricably tied up with the well-being of the U.S. economy. In a recent study of California's energy options, the San Diego Gas and Electric Company warned that heavy reliance on renewables could lead to "social and economic dislocation and disintegration." Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray, former chairwoman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a staunch nuclear advocate known to political rivals as "Madame Nuke," says, witheringly, that the U.S. doesn't run on "sunshine, sweet breezes, moonbeams and butterfly wings."

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