A Fresh Look at Environmental Policy

Environmental journalists are, on the whole, fairly good at producing stories. Unfortunately, these lend to be the stories put forward by the environmental establishment: Large corporations and greedy capitalists ignore environmental degradation in pursuit of higher profits, To be fair, this story is often true. Corporations and capitalists, like politicians, bureaucratic planners and government agencies, are indeed responsible for a share of environmental degradation. The problem is not that this story is told, but that it seems to be the dominant story in a world where, many more stories remain untold.

Consider that the conclusion of the typical environmental story is nearly always the same: More laws and more government action is necessary to solve the problem. The dominance of such stories is the natural result of accepting the conventional environmental paradigm — that environmental problems reflect an inability of private action to advance environmental value, and therefore government regulation is necessary. This “market failure” paradigm is the dominant force behind today’s environmental policies. And, indeed, if market failures create environmental problems, government action will be needed in all areas having environmental consequences (that is, everywhere).

Unfortunately, this paradigm presupposes the ability of government planners to adequately account for environmental concerns. The history of environmental regulation suggests otherwise, as do the countless horror stories produced by government stewardship of environmental resources. Environmental policies are no less subject to special interest manipulation, and the passage of environmental laws hardly guarantees environmental progress. As a result, many environmental analysts, myself included, have embraced free mark et environmentalism.This is the belief that environmental problems do not result so much from so-called market failures, but rather from a failure to have markets — a failure to allocate property rights for environmental resources and to empower individuals to act as environmental stewards. 

There is not room to elaborate the details of free market environmentalism here. However, it is important that journalists are aware of the many stories that arise from viewing environmental issues from a free market perspective. A perspective that puts more faith in the empowerment of individuals and communities than it does in the institutionalization of massive regulatory bureaucracies. A view, I should add, that also takes a favorable view of technological advancement, and considers economic and technological progress essential to reconciling concern over the environment with other important societal goals.

While hardly exhaustive, a short list of some of the “untold stories” about the environment follows:

More questioning of regulatory “solutions”: Environmental stories often include calls for new laws and more aggressive government action. Rarely is there any discussion of the track record of laws now extant, on the effectiveness of the regulatory laws already on the books. Regulations, after all, express intent – achievement is something quite different. One need only look at Superfund (which Al Gore helped author) to recognize that environmental laws do not always produce the desired results. Regulations have many impacts on society. Regulations redirect capita] flows toward politically preferred sectors, away from sectors that have become political pariahs, in the process affecting employment and investment. Regulatory impacts may or may not be justified based on the intent of the regulation, but it happens just the same. Before rushing out to endorse new regulations, writers might explore the experience with these rules to date.

Rethinking environmental risk: Environmental risks are a major theme in environmental reporting: asbestos, alar, 

lead, EMF, dioxin, Love Canal, and so on. As told, the stories basically picture the environmentalist and the regulator as caring only about making the world safer, cleaner and healthier. Their (and our) enemies are those interests concerned only with the costs of these regulations. In this framing, all virtue is on the part of the regulator, regulators have the moral high ground.

Many analysts see this situation rather differently. In many cases, regulations restrict economic and technological choices — and that can be deadly. Chlorination of water may involve some level of risk; yet, non-chlorinated water is extremely risky. “On the one hand and the other” approaches may be interesting, but rarely make for good copy. Nonetheless, the primary point — that there are risks on both sides of the environmental equation — can be found in many important stories. For example, automotive fuel efficiency standards encourage the downsizing of vehicles, making them less crashworthy, and therefore less safe. A Harvard-Brookings study determined that these standards impose between 2,200 and 3,900 additional highway fatalities each model year. The costs may be justified (I think not), hut they cannot be ignored.

One can also see these factors at work in parts of the asbestos ban. In many cases, the risks of removing asbestos exceeded the risks of leaving it in place. The point in all these stories is that the debate over environmental regulation is not always about costs versus benefits, but it is often a case of the risks of inaction versus the risks of action. In many cases, the regulatory actions make us worse off than we would otherwise have been.

Green pork-barrel politics: As environmentalism has become a major program, the incentives to seek special favors has increased. Patrick Tyler in the early 1980s wrote a five-part series on the sewage construction grant program tracing out, the ambitious technological claims and the disastrous achievements, the corruption and waste and the actual environmental damage resulting from over-sized, under-reliable centralized wastewater 

treatment facilities. Stories of this type can be found in virtually every environmental area.

It is important that journalists remember who wins and loses with environmental regulation. Certainly corporations often have a lot to lose from regulation, but they often have a lot to gain as well. Regulations that create barriers to entry and keep out smaller competitors can be the best friend of big business. Many environmental rules, from the gold-plated Superfund cleanup standards to the reliance on oxygenated fuels can be explained, at least in part, based upon who benefits. Also remember that corporations are not the only ones with something at stake. Politicians wish to enhance careers and bureaucrats have an interest in expanding their budgets and increasing their authority. The best way to ensure one’s government job in a time of fiscal austerity is to make everyone believe that your job is vital for their survival. Even environmental lobbyists can have something to gain. When a disaster story is hyped, they find it easier to raise money and amass political power. This maybe a cynical view, but it comes from observing the goings-on in Washington first hand.

Journalism is a demanding field and attempting to include additional perspectives, such as those suggested, is unlikely to make it any easier. However, as government officials seek greater involvement in environmental concerns the importance of these additional perspectives becomes increasingly important.