Late last winter, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that
300 additional areas have unsafe air and proposed stronger standards for smog
and "fine particulate" pollution. Under the proposed regulations, cities would
be required to develop appropriate air-quality management plans or risk losing
federal highway funds. The proposed standards were modest, but lobbyists representing
the petroleum, auto, incinerator, and utilities industries launched a swift
counteroffensive: these regulations, they argued, would force massive layoffs
whose costs would far outweigh any conceivable benefit. The public seemed
confused, wanting both safe air and secure jobs. Though President Clinton
affirmed the EPA's regulations, and Congress failed to override these, the
fight is far from over. State governors are quarreling about whether eastern
traffic or midwestern coal contributes most to the problem. Not surprisingly,
the National Automobile Dealers Association recently became one of the first
industry groups to file a lawsuit challenging the new rules as unnecessary
and burdensome. Economic anxieties and legal wrangling seem sure to slow progress
on clean air.
Must we really choose between healthy air and secure jobs? Perhaps not. Much
of the best contemporary environmental literature, including the books under
discussion here, agrees with business leaders in attributing the environment/economy
gridlock to the failure of traditional environmental law, so-called "command-and-control"
regulation. But progressive environmentalists and business leaders differ
in how they portray this failure. Business leaders want more flexibility in
deciding what pollution control technology to apply and when to apply it.
Progressives believe that prevention is preferable to control, and that workers
and environmental groups must play an important role in designing and implementing
strategies of prevention.
Under the conventional regulatory strategy, the EPA is responsible for establishing
toxicity thresholds and assuring that each production unit or final good falls
below those thresholds. In many situations, the EPA has mandated specific
control technologies--requiring, for example, that coal-fired power plants
install scrubbers to remove SO2, a source of acid rain, from the air.
Business leaders have long pressed for the reform of command-and-control,
with the stated goal not of literal deregulation but a different form
of regulation. In 1990, Forbes commented that command-and-control "substitutes
the actions of a relatively small number of bureaucrats for the actions of
tens of millions of freely acting individuals, and so loses the market's stunning
ability to harness a great deal of information." Concerned that technological
mandates were freezing innovation and requiring costly and intrusive monitoring,
Forbes (like much of the business press) went on to argue for a new
approach to environmental problems. Rather than dictating technology, the
editors suggested, the EPA should start taxing pollution. Businesses would
then have an incentive to develop the least costly means of removing as much
pollution as possible. Moreover, as market-oriented environmentalists have
stressed, taxing pollution pushes up the price of goods made by polluting
Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, the EPA did begin a market-based environmental
program called "tradable pollution entitlements," whereby utilities buy and
sell the right to emit specific amounts of SO2. But pollution entitlement
trading still requires substantial monitoring. For example, firms that have
installed pollution reduction technologies and sold their permits based on
initial reductions could choose not to maintain the equipment adequately,
thus reverting to their previous levels. And if the fines and the probability
of being caught aren't high enough, cheating will flourish. In practice, free-market
environmentalism may reduce the command part of regulation, but it
continues to focus on control rather than prevention. Taxing SO2 emissions
doesn't necessarily stimulate the move toward alternative fuels that might
produce fewer pollutants in the first place. Even with the best of will, no
control technology works perfectly. Most also produce toxic byproducts, which
must go somewhere.
The limits of any control strategy, whether tailpipe taxation or technology
mandates, are a central theme in the work of Barry Commoner. In Making
Peace With the Planet, Commoner suggests that the emphasis on control
at best allows an expanding economy to keep even with its growing water, air,
and toxic disposal problems. Existing products and technologies are not compatible
with the requirements of the ecosystem and are often powered by nonrenewable
and increasingly inaccessible forms of energy; control technologies whose
only purpose is to remove toxic byproducts are themselves costly. As long
as we remain on this track, Commoner argues, we will face endlessly controversial
tradeoffs between the costs of regulation and its benefits.
Andrew Szasz's work further examines the social and environmental consequences
of seeking merely to control pollution. The ash from scrubbers and waste incinerators,
for example, presents increasingly difficult disposal problems. In his Ecopopulism:
Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice, Szasz points out
that the tragedy at Love Canal has galvanized resistance from grassroots community
organizers to the siting of new hazardous waste dumps. Mainstream media have
portrayed these organizations as backward and selfish, "NIMBY" (Not In My
Backyard) groups whose only concern is that waste not be dumped near them.
But many of these communities have already suffered immense economic damage,
and as Szasz notes, participation in these struggles broadens their understanding
of both political economy and ecology. By making disposal difficult, these
groups have forced such corporate giants as 3M and Monsanto to develop so-called
"closed-loop systems" that do not produce toxic waste. Szasz implies that
the reorientation of the production system toward more ecologically sound
and efficient technologies can be achieved in large measure through such grassroots
resistance to toxic dumps.
But though the work of these grass- roots groups is significant, Szasz may
be claiming too much for them. As Paul Hawken points out in The Ecology
of Commerce, it's one thing to prevent toxic byproducts, but what if the
product itself is toxic? Monsanto plants may no longer emit hazardous waste--at
least any that is being detected--but its petrochemical fertilizers remain
a major health problem for farmers. And NIMBY movements might be able to force
more recycling of car parts, but they probably won't alter the kind of exhaust
coming from the car, the number of cars we drive, or the length of our commutes.
Finally, NIMBY politics, by its very reactive nature, is unlikely to give
us the kind of secure and growing economy that would make it easier for poor
communities to refuse the job offer that often accompanies dangerous facilities.
So achieving the goal of what Szasz calls "not in anyone's back yard" requires
more than local resistance or free-market control strategies. It requires
the active promotion of alternative technologies. Toward this end, Hawken
advocates a gradually escalating carbon tax that would, over a period of 20
years, make the use of coal, oil, and natural gas to fuel our cars and power
plants prohibitively expensive. Commoner advocates an explicit ecological
industrial policy that includes government purchase of photovoltaics and high-mileage
vehicles to encourage economies of scale and wider public affordability.
Hawken and Commoner's concerns about the environmental impact of the auto
are reinforced by Jane Holtz Kay's recent assault on its social impact, Asphalt
Nation. In Kay's view, the hours we spend in errands, traffic, and commuting
add significantly to the stress of our lives. The auto's costs both in lives
and economic resources are hidden behind an array of subsidies. Revising existing
highway laws to mandate far more use of the highway trust fund for mass transit,
bike paths, and better urban and suburban planning would allow us to reduce
the most significant cause of air pollution. It would also create new jobs,
potentially ease time constraints for working families, and save lives. A
movement to take transit policy out of the hands of the highway lobby would
be a good opportunity for air-pollution activists to build new alliances around
Commoner, Hawken, and Kay argue that some combination of tax policy and public
purchases will foster whole new markets for more labor-intensive technologies.
Insulation and organic agriculture, for instance, are more labor-intensive
than petrochemical agriculture and nuclear power. The implication is that
much of the social cost of any ecological transition will be eased by policies
that promote full employment. Commoner, Hawken, and Holtz assume that ecological
choices are the principal source of the conflicts between jobs and environment.
Specifically, they attribute much of the stagflation of the seventies to the
run-up in oil prices, and to corporate unwillingness to countenance fuel efficiency,
conservation, and alternative energy.
Yet even before the 1970s oil embargo, the relatively full employment of
the late 1960s had turned workplaces into battle-grounds. Workers resented
patterns of workplace organization that reduced them to rote instruments of
corporate management. When relatively full levels of employment gave them
the freedom to challenge management without fear, they did so. The rate of
productivity growth slowed, wage demands surged, and inflation escalated.
The threat of a return to these economic conditions may be overstated now
by bankers and business leaders, but it remains a real possibility unless
social policy is also willing to address the organization of the workplace.
On this score, several of the books under review disappoint.
Paul Hawken, for example, understands the importance of workplaces that recognize
workers and customers as partners in the enterprise. Nonetheless, he has no
effective policy agenda or strategy to achieve this end. He too easily assumes
that small businesses are more environmentally benign and that they automatically
treat workers more humanely. He further assumes that "green taxes" by themselves
will force more small-scale development and restore the world of small enterprise.
The lack of an effective strategy for workplace reform is a major limitation
in much environmental literature. The transition to more environmentally-sound
technology can only take place in an economy that provides some measure of
economic security and workplace democracy. For the payoffs from ecological
technologies that could benefit both our economy and the environment are often
down the road, while many of the costs are immediate. If workers who are economically
disadvantaged and disempowered are forced to pay the cost of the transition,
either through lost income or jobs, they will resist (hence the possibility
of labor groups joining with business against an environmental agenda that
will cost them both substantially). Nor can we assume that even the most apparently
benign new technologies are without environmental costs. Empowered workers
can be one of the best early warning systems against possible pollution problems
that might arise.
Social policy should strive to provide flexibility in our technology choices,
whether the goal is pollution prevention or control. But handing these decisions
over to the market won't achieve adequate levels of environmental safety.
Timely response requires that communities and workers have more access to
information and more voice in technology choices. When farms and factories
pollute community air and water, workers are often the first victims. In Everything
for Sale, Robert Kuttner argues persuasively that workplace reform is
the best and most efficient alternative to command-and-control regulation
of occupational health and safety. He cites experiments in Sweden and the
United States in which regulation sets very general standards and then requires
in-house health and safety committees to implement regulations and monitor
compliance. These committees have independent labor representation, oversee
the work of company doctors, and dictate how the company's safety budget will
be spent. Kuttner comments that the system regulates "by changing the power
relations and subculture of the work site." Furthermore, such systems achieve
higher levels of safety with far fewer investigations by government agents.
In an analogous fashion, environmental regulations themselves could be more
effectively and efficiently enforced by giving grassroots groups both the
legal standing and the expertise to assess current practices and the adequacy
of current hazardous waste sites.
In any case, ecological integrity isn't simply a matter of less-polluting
products powered by renewable energy sources. Every production process--even
more ecological forms--fosters some pollution. Continual growth in consumption
promises an ongoing threat to air and water, which in turn argues for the
democratization of firms. As Juliet Schor suggests in The Overworked American,
there is considerable evidence that in a stable, full employment economy where
workers had some voice in their workplaces, many would opt to take future
productivity gains in the form of shorter hours rather than higher pay, thereby
breaking what Schor calls the "work-and-spend" cycle. Reducing work hours--through
labor negotiation and legislative standards--would itself create jobs, and
the combination of full employment, more free time, some workplace power,
and a share in ongoing profits would facilitate worker morale and cooperation
Many clean air advocates will balk at the idea of putting alternative energy
and transit, full employment, hours reduction, and workplace democracy at
the core of their agenda. But unless they connect the clean air issue more
centrally to the core anxieties of many citizens, they will not be able to
overcome the "jobs versus environment" hurdle to their own political success.