Who needs the EPA anyway?

If the film Inside Job taught us anything, it was that the global financial crisis was a long time coming; and that it was primarily caused by the removal of appropriate regulation of the financial services sector in the 1980s. Despite this, Republican runners for next year’s US Presidential campaign seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom – to see who can promise to jettison the most environmental legislation. In this context, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1996 book, The Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Scientific Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, seems very prescient. Reading Chapter 4 of the Ehrlich’s book it becomes very clear that in the 1970s and 80s the USA was leading the way on Environmental legislation: For example, the Resource Recovery and Recycling Act (RCRA) and Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA) in 1976. Furthermore, measures adopted in the US have been replicated around the world: For example, although derided as the “Superfund” legislation, the US Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and National Priority List (NPL) is the model for Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act and Contaminated Land Regulations in the UK. Similarly, the requirements of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) laws in the US, is analogous to the Pollution Inventory (PI) laws in the UK. The only difference being that in the UK carbon dioxide is acknowledged to be a pollutant (albeit only if emitted above a threshold of 10,000 tonnes per annum). However, the Ehrlichs’ conclusion in 1996 seems very apt today: “Even so, Superfund and other toxic regulations remain exceedingly sore points for some members of the business community, inspiring many of Congress’s recent efforts to extract the EPA’s regulatory teeth. At least one congressman has even targeted the TRI reporting requirement for elimination as an unnecessary burden on business – a rule that costs practically nothing (except perhaps some embarrassment to businesses) and has led to substantial reductions in toxic emissions without any enforcement at all!” (p.58). The Ehrlichs’ explanation for this reckless desire to do away with environmental regulation has also stood the test of time: “The difficulty with assessing the real value of environmental regulation in the United States is that Americans haven’t experienced the consequences that would have occurred without it.” Familiarity, in other words, has bred contempt. Although many other nations have since cleaned-up their act, there are still places in the world that you can go and experience what it would be like to live in a country where environmental laws are not well implemented and/or enforced. It is not pleasant. In fact, in many cases, it is deadly. The second point that the Ehrlichs make (in seeking to provide suitable perspective by which to evaluate good environmental regulation) is that we tend to ignore just how much of a challenge continual economic growth and development has been. As an example, they cite the history of motor cars manufactured in the USA: By 1996, the average number of miles driven per year per car had doubled since 1970; and the only reason air pollution had not doubled was because of the introduction of lead-free petrol and catalytic converters. Similarly, although there is yet much room for more improvement, the average engine size has reduced over time just as fuel efficiency has improved. If this had not been the case, fossil fuels would have run out much faster than they have: We have therefore been lulled into a false sense of complacency that human activity does not endanger the quality of our environment. In other words, both environmental regulation and the quality of the environment are being taken for granted. If any Americans have any remaining doubts about how much you personally may have taken these things for granted, consider taking a trip to Beijing, Jakarta, or Mexico City. Then come back home and vote for someone who takes the protection of our Environment seriously (preferably someone who also acknowledges that anthropogenic climate change is a real and present danger that must faced up to and dealt with). Next week, as promised, I shall move on to review the bulk of the Ehrlichs’ 1996 book, by looking at what they described as the brownlash’s “fables” about (a) population and food, (b) non-living resources, (c) biodiversity, (d) atmosphere and climate, and (e) toxic substances. It ought to be a trip down memory lane but, unfortunately, very little has changed in 15 years: Both the “brownlash” and the “fables” are still very much with us today…


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Betrayal of Science and Reason, Climate Science, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sustainable development and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Who needs the EPA anyway?

  1. Donald says:

    I’ve read a bit about the Ehrlichs work on population and food sustainability, I find it amazing that others continue to state that there is plenty of food for everybody and that there is room for even more people in our planet. Where do these dreamers come from? Can they not see that with 7 billion people on this planet then even without Global Warming we are all in a clear and present danger?


    • Rick_Altman says:

      OK, so I am preaching to the converted so far as you are concerned. Very little that I say next week may be surprising to you. However, what is most shocking is that, in 15 years, we have got precisely nowhere: The same people are trotting out the same lies, despite the fact that the evidence of their error and/or deceitfulness is mounting. With my thanks to Pendantry for bringing Men With Day Jobs to my attention, this song of theirs is just brilliant – Denial Tango


    • jpgreenword says:

      I wonder if this hatred of the EPA and this belief that all is well in the world is a consequence of many North Americans not being aware of what is happening outside of their own cities? Like Rick mentioned, spending time in some of the most polluted cities or countries would really open your eyes to the importance of environmental regulations. I came across an article a while back talking about the cancer epidemic in China: Twice as many cancer deaths as the world average, lung cancer has increased by 500% since the 70’s, and on and on. That’s what we have to look forward to if we get rid of “job-killing environmental regulations“.


      • Rick_Altman says:

        Remember, most of the time here, I am merely reporting what the Ehrlichs said 15 years ago. To our great shame (or at least that of the brownlash), it still seems very apt in today’s little-changed world.


  2. Pingback: The pollution of death | Anthropocene Reality

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