Is an adequate energy supply and a large job market better than clean air and water?
It seems clear that, while the effects of industrial activity may or may not be causing an environmental catastrophe yet, they will do so eventually. Deforestation, air and water pollution, and the looming exhaustion of our fossil fuel supply are real, observable problems that accumulate over time. It seems awfully silly-– and dangerous-– to postpone dealing with them until disastrous shortages appear.
Historically, nature has appeared too powerful to inspire human concern. In this new era that is no longer so; the delicacy and fragility of the natural world have been exposed after the determined stripped away its protective layers. Suddenly we have instead of an opponent a gentle child to deal with – yet a child who keeps hidden the keys to our vitality. Social mores provide us with no suggestions; fortunately, necessity calls upon us to conserve. It seems that the best we can do is develop the gentleness and care towards nature that would make that conservation truly happen-– beyond the quibbling over one endangered species or another, beyond the fluctuating price of gasoline, beyond tired debates over how the neighborhood effect of pollution or the free rider effect of conservation fits in with our rather poorly defined notion of economic justice.
We should be asking two questions about the environmental problem-– one about priorities, and another about the role of the government in taking care of these priorities. We are accustomed to treating political issues strictly in terms of the latter question. But asking the former and emphasizing the difference between the two is not at all trivial. Any conservative will tell you that the government bureaucracy aimed at relieving environmental problems is wasteful, ineffective, and infested with false science. And any environmentalist will point out that those who legislate said bureaucracy into being and influence the scope and nature of its activity are led astray by industrial lobbies and corrupted by campaign contributions. Both perspectives suggest that the government is at best an inferior tool for dealing with environmental issues and at worst an obstacle.
On the other hand, the experience of European nations may be suggesting that government intervention can make environmentally better industrial solutions possible. Also, while proponents of the free market claim that it would lead to a cleaner environment in the long run, so far the United States is doing rather poorly (compared to Denmark, for instance) on the front of domestic renewable energy use.
Why is the free market failing to take care of the environment? Some suggest that it is ignorance of economic benefits to be derived from more eco-friendly business. They conclude that the government ought to help citizens take advantage of these benefits by encouraging and subsidizing such business. However, Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, argues that what is perceived as the market’s failure to allow both consumers and producers to attain some of their interests (which include savings from more efficient energy usage, for example) is really just willful ignorance of the transaction costs-– the dubiously worthwhile investments that would be needed to make the market cater to those interests. The transaction costs suggest that where environmentally conscious changes have not been added, it is because they are simply not worth it, and will not become so with the help of government incentives. It is then a regrettable waste of taxpayer dollars to fund companies specializing in eco-friendly technologies that would not otherwise survive the market. However, while the government cannot “fix” the market’s “failure” to popularize a given technology, inherently profitable technologies become widespread without any government help. Consequently, many conservatives maintain that the size of the energy supply would be easily maintained at adequate levels if the government would only minimize its level of interference. In other words, the market isn’t actually failing: environmentalists just have excessive expectations.
Perhaps, then, the real market failure is best seen not as a lack of efficiency or information, but as a result of the fact that environmental concerns are not worked into consumer preferences at a level sufficient to encourage a real industrial response. Consumers living near a lake have a stake in that lake’s waters being clean, and Alaskans may have a stake in preserving ANWR. However, most of the time if a corporation is selling to people who live far enough from the areas it is polluting, it can effectively view its environmentally unsound actions as having no repercussions.
The only way to change that is to build in consumer preferences an overall concern for environmental welfare. This preference does not follow organically from short-term (i.e. several decades) material interests; it calls for an active process of preference-setting. That in turn requires a centralized guiding force. The government, the only such center, is thus in a unique position-– and under a unique obligation-– to take care of this national need.
The government is a huge consumer of environmentally hazardous products-– most notably, energy from fossil fuels. The sheer number of government buildings and vehicles combined with the energy needs of the military make the government likely the largest single energy consumer (in 2001, the petroleum consumption of the federal government constituted about 2% of total consumption across all sectors, including industry and transportation). Thus the product preferences of the government-– which functions as a single customer-– can influence the energy market even in the absence of specific legislation. Naturally, the government cannot switch entirely to renewable sources in a short period of time; but a strategy of preferentially purchasing such sources would push the developing renewable energy industry through its shaky first stages. Since the government would still be buying energy from non-renewable sources-– by virtue of their greater abundance-– and since no special subsidies would be involved, this would not distort the market. Today, the fact that the government spends taxpayer dollars to fund renewable energy research and then more taxpayer dollars to run its own machinery on mostly non-renewable energy is both hypocritical and regrettably inefficient. This may seem insufficient. American consumers are increasingly developing a preference for organically grown food; yet the times when pesticides and hormone-fed cows disappear from our horizon seem as distant as ever. However, it is important to point out that the goal is not to eliminate non-renewable energy use entirely and rapidly. Rather, it must be reduced gradually until safe levels of emission are achieved and/or fossil fuel technology becomes obsolete. Also, if the government takes a role as an environmentally conscious consumer, it would not only encourage renewable energy producers, but would also lead America’s consumers in a similar direction.
Why is this better than legislation and environmentalist bureaucracy? Anita Krajnc, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, observes that governments tend to respond to waves of public concern through small measures. For instance, in response to an upsurge pro-laissez-faire spirit the government is unlikely to eliminate entire departments; instead it will slacken the enforcement of some statute or cut budgets-– squeezing programs to the point of uselessness yet still keeping them around. Conversely, if a wave of environmentalism hits the nation, it will pass a new law or two, mostly to enhance its own image-– as Bush did in 2001, when he haphazardly announced his readiness to implement some of Clinton’s last-minute environmental programs just before Earth Day. This kind of back-and-forth juggling makes it practically impossible to form a constructive, enforceable, and, most importantly, well-informed policy concerning the environment. The incomplete measures involved are often not only unhelpful but also damaging to the environment. Reducing the sheer amount of options for budget trimmings and other half-baked measures-– reducing bureaucracy, in other words-– is the first step towards such a policy. This is a particularly relevant point in an issue like environmental conservation, where wise policy is tied so closely to quality information, and where there has been so much inclination to embrace partial and uncertain scientific results with dangerous conviction.
This brings us to a second important role for the government: that of funding and publicizing state-of-the-art environmental research. Sallie Baliunas, senior scientist at the George Marshall Institute, writes: “The economic consequences of not relying on science but instead on the anti-scientific Precautionary Principle, are considerable [...]” The “Precautionary Principle” pertains in large part to measures against global warming – which, she argues convincingly, may be a bogus interpretation of climate events that reoccur naturally every several decades. She also notes that “environmentally safe” technologies often have environmental side effects themselves. Thus the importance of carefully conducted research can hardly be underestimated. The government, which has the highest stake in objectivity for both its own decision-making as a responsible consumer and its informed leadership of the people, is in the best position to support such research.
What is the best way in which the government can fund research without subsidizing certain kinds of industry? How can it ensure long-lasting and well-informed environmentally conscious consumer preferences for itself? How can it best exercise information-driven leadership of the consumer population? This is a significant legislative challenge for those who care about a healthy economy and a healthy planet. One can only hope that America’s conservatives will live up to it, rescuing environmental policy from the hands of bureaucracy and launching it into a more effective phase.
Lia Oksman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.