'Green Guilt' Only Makes Things Worse

By Lynn Scarlett

Borrowing a page from Pogo, a self-described industrialist professed at a recent environmental conference, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Blame for despoilment of the Earth, he said, lies at my feet and those of my fellow industrialists who ply the world of business, profits and markets.

Nearly three decades after Earth Day organizers first used the Pogo quip on a poster, it is now recirculating, this time among industrialists. Their expression of "green guilt" reinforces well-worn tales about business. But those tales mask a far more complex saga in which businesses have played a positive role in environmental progress. It's time that that story is told.

Pittsburgh in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was a city of blackened stone buildings and belching steel mills. Not far away, in Donora, Pa., 18 people died in 1948 during a four-day weather inversion in which high concentrations of air pollutants hovered over the town. Townsfolk across America would have to wait more than 20 years before federal air quality regulations appeared. But they did not wait that long for cleaner air.

The switch from wood and other biofuels to cleaner natural gas and electricity, spurred on by urbanization and market competition, resulted in an 80% reduction in residential sulfur dioxide emissions between 1940 and 1970. Particulate and carbon monoxide emissions also dropped precipitously as businesses climbed up the clean fuel ladder, largely in response to market forces. For example, Rockefeller University researchers have concluded that the typical American consumes 60% less wood in the 1990s than at the dawn of the 20th century. Improvements in lumber production also have reduced wood losses from 26% in 1970 to less than 2% by 1993.

Often unnoticed examples like this add up to a lighter environmental footprint. Kids who grew up in the 1960s probably remember heavily muscled athletes who would show their physical prowess by crushing, amid fanfare, heavily metaled soda cans. Today almost anyone can rip a soda can in half in a matter of seconds. The can manufacturers' pursuit of profit made the difference. Over the past three decades, seeking ways to use materials more efficiently, they have switched first from steel to aluminum and then to "lightweighting" the aluminum. To make a thousand cans used to require 164 pounds of metal; now it requires less than 33 pounds.

Today, a more deliberate pursuit of environmental goals by firms is amplifying these trends toward doing more with less. Some firms are developing their central business strategy around "industrial ecology." Chep, a supplier of transportation pallets, leases its pallets, which it then collects for reuse. DuPont Emerald Environmental Services recovers certain plastic scraps from an aircraft manufacturer, an office equipment company and a photographic firm, saving money for the customer and expanding its own market opportunities. A recent survey of large firms showed one in six respondents launching "zero emission" strategies.

But here's the rub: The continued naysaying--now even by businesses themselves--of the environmental record of the private sector can aid and abet more prescriptive regulations. Yet detailed rules and regulations keep the environmental staff of companies preoccupied with chasing permits and tracking compliance instead of improving environmental performance.

Moving toward greater regulatory flexibility requires a better appreciation of the role private-sector innovation in a competitive context has played--and can play--in enhancing environmental performance. A few states have taken the plunge toward flexibility with good results. Under Massachusetts' pilot Environmental Results Program--in which dry cleaners and photo processors were given benchmark emission standards to meet instead of being required to fill out endless permit applications--the state experienced a 43% reduction in one type of air emission from participating dry cleaners and a 99% reduction in silver discharges from photo processors. In New Jersey, under a new, flexible-permitting program, Huntsman Polypropylene replaced 80 permits with a single permit. The new process allowed Huntsman to incorporate newer, cleaner equipment more quickly than under the old process. As a result, the firm eliminated 8.5 million pounds of emissions per year by modernizing its plant.

It is easy to blame the business sector for environmental problems. And the unsung environmental triumphs of business cannot be mentioned without first admitting there have been plenty of woes. But there is a lot of progress that doesn't reach the public eye.

The default policy position should not be one of punishment and top-down prescriptions premised on the idea that "we have met the enemy, and it is business." We ought, instead, to build policies around an understanding of how competitive markets drive the search for better mousetraps that can also bring more efficient use of resources.

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Lynn Scarlett Is the Executive Director and a Senior Fellow in Environmental Policy at Reason Public Policy Institute, Which Is Based in Los Angeles

 

 

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