Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Sky's the Limit

Must we choose between healthy air and a healthy economy? Several books suggest more hopeful alternatives.

John W. Buell


Click on book titles to order directly from

The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability
Paul Hawken
Harper Business, $14 (paper)

Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America and How We Can Take It Back
Jane Holtz Kay
Crown Publishers, $27.50

Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets
Robert Kuttner
Alfred A. Knopf, $30

Making Peace with the Planet
Barry Commoner
The New Press, $11.95

The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure
Juliet Schor
Basic Books, $14

Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice
Andrew Szasz
University of Minnesota Press, $16.95

The quality of the air we breathe has an immediacy missing from many other environmental concerns. Smog is apparent to urban residents throughout much of the year. On especially bad days, emergency rooms fill up with young and old for whom the simple act of breathing has become difficult. Harvard School of Public Health studies indicate that 60,000 Americans die prematurely each year from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses linked to air pollution. Because air pollution is so prominent, it provides the most visible symbol of our inability to square economic needs with ecological concerns.

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 technologies.

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 quality-of-life concerns.

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 within firms.

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.

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |