The impact of the American consensus in favor of environmental protection
Americans disagree on the best way to ensure a healthy environment, but for more than half a century they have supported the aim of a clean environment. They even agree that the government has a role to play in ensuring that we achieve this goal. They disagree on the nature of the role of government. People want a clean environment because they associate environmental quality with personal and family well-being. Although there is far too much poverty and hunger in America, most Americans are confident that they will find food, clothing, and shelter. Most Americans are not poor. When basic needs are relatively secure, people are free to focus on well-being. They ask: Is the food I eat nutritious for me and my family? Are my children and I getting enough exercise? These are questions that people can address on their own since they control what they eat and what they do in their free time. But there are also elements of life beyond our control that impact our well-being:
- The possibility of violent crime, extreme weather conditions or random events such as a car accident.
- Polluted air, water and toxic releases to air, water or soil.
Reducing the risks posed by these threats requires collective action by government. These threats cannot be reduced by individual action.
Residents of East Palestine, Ohio were exposed to toxic substances following a train crash. Residents of Flint, Michigan have been exposed to lead poison in their water due to incompetent government officials. Around the world, people are exposed to an increasing number of extreme weather events made worse and more frequent by global warming. Climate change is a harder problem for the public to solve because its causes are global and it takes more than our senses to connect cause and effect. Dirty air, water and toxic substances in our environment are obvious, visible and local. Nobody wants it. In the middle of the 20th century, environmental protection was seen as an aesthetic issue. The pollution was unsightly and unpleasant but was not considered a threat to our well-being. It was the same era that considered tobacco smoke beneficial to health. In the 1970s and 1980s, we learned that pollution could make you sick and, in the case of toxic substances, could kill you and damage unborn babies. The lesson was learned in dramatic fashion by the long-term illnesses suffered by first responders working on the toxic “pile” left behind by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Awareness of the health impacts of pollution is widespread and not subject to ideological filtering. What is in constant disagreement is the role of government in pollution prevention, but sometimes the situation is so bad that political consensus becomes possible. After the toxic train crash in eastern Palestine, Democratic and Republican senators in Ohio led a bipartisan effort to regulate train safety. According the wall street journal journalists Natalie Andrews and Esther Fung:
“Ohio senators are leading a bipartisan effort to address train derailment last month their state, proposing legislation that would subject railroads to a series of new federal safety regulations and increase fines for wrongdoing. Sense. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance of Ohio, with Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Josh Hawley (R. Mo.), Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and John Fetterman (D., Pa.), introduced legislation on Wednesday to prevent future railway disasters such as February 3 derailment of South Norfolk Autorails Corp. near East Palestine, Ohio. The Incident raised concerns on the long-term health risks near and around the village of 4,700 inhabitants. Senators said the bill would strengthen safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establish requirements for wayside flaw detectors, create a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two crews and increase fines for wrongdoing by rail carriers.
Even in this fiercely partisan political era, our elected officials understood that these rules were necessary to ensure public safety. While regulating guns is nearly impossible in America, regulating transportation operations does not generate the same level of ideological intensity. Moreover, the threat of exposure to toxic substances is based on everyone’s fear of cancer, a little-known health threat that affects many people directly and indirectly.
What does this consensus around environmental protection mean and why is it important? Even though Americans disagree on specific environmental policies, organizations and individuals across America are paying attention to their impact on the quality of the environment. When designing a new product or service, engineers and project managers consider environmental impact as a design parameter: How much energy do we consume? What is the source of energy? How much waste do we produce? What do we do with waste? What toxic products are produced here and how do we prevent them from harming people and the planet? These questions are now integral, non-peripheral, to business decision-making. Waste reduction and energy efficiency are seen as ways to reduce costs and improve competitiveness. Ignorance of environmental risk is considered management incompetence since it can be the cause of financial losses. As the Norfolk Southern Railway now learns the hard way, releasing toxic substances into the environment can result in massive and unforeseen expenses.
These lessons are embedded in our culture and find their way into organizational life. Government must provide rules to define and limit pollution, but the real reduction in pollution will largely take place in our private sector. Regulations set the rules of the road, but the private sector does most of the driving. And what’s so important and so misunderstood about our politics is that the consensus behind a clean environment is leading to massive changes in corporate decision-making. The costs of environmental protection are still part of the decision-making process, but the inclusion of environmental protection in this process is at the root of the massive changes taking place.
Building on the environmental consensus, the transition to an economy based on renewable resources has begun. This is one of the main themes of my new book: Ecologically sustainable growth: a pragmatic approach. I conclude the book by summarizing the government’s actions to promote renewable energy and electric vehicles and highlighting three companies that have incorporated environmental sustainability into their business models: Etsy, Apple, and Walmart. In addition to these leading companies, nearly all of Standard and Poor’s Top 500 companies now produce annual ESG reports. While part of this is greenwashing and public relations, much of it reflects changes in our society and organizational culture promoting the core value of a clean environment.
My new book also urges environmental advocates to end corporate and consumer shaming. People who run private companies and people who drive SUVs or hunt for food or entertainment are not bad. Our policy today monetizes the difference. An appeal for funds on the Internet is more effective if it is based on the threat posed by alleged criminals. The goal of building broad consensus seems to have been lost in today’s political world. Nevertheless, the transition to an environmentally sustainable environment is underway and will largely take place in the private sector as it will make businesses more profitable. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels and will only go down over time. Reducing waste and extracting waste will ultimately save money and increase profitability. The profits made by sustainable management allow corporations to ignore accusations from conservatives that they are “woke” and from environmentalists that they are evil. Government can, as seen in the case of the Biden administration, accelerate the transition to environmental sustainability by providing financial and fiscal incentives to invest in the green economy.
The major environmental advances of the 1970s and early 1980s were built on a broad American consensus: The Clean Air Act of 1970, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, The Toxic Substances The Control Act of 1976, and the Superfund Toxic Waste Cleanup Act of 1980 were all landmark pieces of environmental legislation. The rules based on these laws are contested and fought, but ultimately the legal structure of American environmental protection persists. No US Congress would ever repeal these laws. They persist because the protection of the environment has been added to the fundamental and irreducible function of the State: to protect people from harm. And the public knows that environmental degradation causes harm. This broad consensus is grounded in fact, built on public support for wellness, and embedded in our culture as a core value.